It took a few weeks, but the birds are finally finding the new heated birdbath in my side yard. For a while I was feeling rejected by my feathered friends, a presence that I always have an ear and an eye out for beyond the windows.
The look of the heated bath — a green plastic bowl in a wrought-iron stand — is different from the stone bath that sits out in non-freezing weather. But the stone would crack in the cold, so it's drained and protected — at least one thing I've done to prepare for winter. (It's still OK if it doesn't come.)
If you're feeling the neglect of birds at your feeders and baths right now, it's probably because nature's banquet table is pretty full.
Reader Robin Rives McAdoo wrote me this week that she doesn't formally feed the birds on a regular basis. "But by virtue of my autumnal laziness, I provide great cover and flower seeds for them throughout the winter," Robin said. "The noisy wrens particularly like it and don't seem to be bothered too much by the squirrels." (The squirrels, by the way, were the original reason for her writing to me. One of them had carried off one of her tomatoes from the vine and left it, half eaten, on the roof of the garage.)
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Robin's experience shows us that growing plants that feed and shelter birds is the No. 1 way to attract them. Beyond that, if you put out a new feeder or bath, you won't have to wait long for the birds to find you. Once the weather turns cold and food sources dry up — and especially when the snow falls — birds seem to put out the call to one another that this is the place for sustenance, and they flock in to feeders and heated baths. Your challenge then will be to keep up with them.
"Once it gets cold and their energy requirements go up, they'll start taking the easier route to food," Nick Clausen, owner of The Wild Bird Center, said.
Here are some strategies for attracting birds this winter that will be good for them — and also work well for you.
Where to put a bird feeder
I have feeders on a tree in my front yard and on a pole in the back, and I prefer the prettier, natural look of a feeder amid branches of a tree. But that spot always gets quite a bit of squirrel action there as well.
Squirrels can jump 8 feet horizontally and 4 feet vertically, Nick told me. That's what makes poles preferable if you want to beat the squirrels. That and there's not always a tree where you want to have a feeder.
Wherever you decide to put a feeder or birdbath, make sure you can easily see it from inside the house.
There are others ways to keep squirrels from marauding at your bird feeders.
* Diversion. In Botanica's new bird garden, a hollowed-out log cut in half is filled with corn and sunflower seeds to keep the squirrels happy. "I think at night we have six to eight raccoons that sit around it like a little table too," landscape supervisor Pat McKernan said. "We go through a lot of food in the trough to keep the wildlife happy."
* Feeders can be equipped with a baffle that fits above or below them in such a way that a squirrel can't jump onto the feeder.
* Feeding ports or perches on new box and cylinder feeders are designed to close or collapse when the weight of a squirrel lands on the feeder.
* Feeders inside cages limit the reach of squirrels.
* Yankee Flipper feeders send the squirrels for a twirl.
* Squirrel Scatter feeders give squirrels a little shock. Nick Clausen likens it to the static electricity shocks we can experience when walking on carpet.
* Put safflower seed in feeders. Squirrels tend not to like safflower (many birds also do not, though cardinals notably do). But Nick has heard reports of some squirrels eating safflower seed. Things must be tough all over.
Hulled sunflower seed is the most universally accepted food you can put out, Nick said. Without the shell, sunflower meats attract non-seed-eaters. Goldfinches prefer it to nyjer (thistle). And woodpeckers are much more likely to eat hulled sunflowers than those in the shell, he says.
Hulled sunflower seed also is cleaner for the yard. The downsides: It's more expensive than seed in the shell, and it gets wet in the rain. But in the winter when it's mainly cold and dry the feed is not as susceptible, Nick said.
If you put out sunflower seed in the shell, choose black oil.
If you decide to buy a mix, look for one that has a lot of white proso millet and a lot of black oil sunflower seed, Chuck Otte, agriculture and natural resources agent for K-State Research and Extension's Geary County office, said. "If you're finding lots of corn, lots of wheat, lots of grain sorghum or milo (in a seed mix), these are things to avoid. Yes, birds will eat them, if nothing else is available. But given their druthers, they'd rather have some black oil sunflower or white proso millet."
Types of feeders
Here are some things to consider when choosing the form of your feeders, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (allaboutbirds.org):
* Tray or platform (can be hanging or on the ground). These usually are not covered (though you can get them with a "roof") and have a screen base. They attract ground feeders such as juncos and doves. Seed can get wet and droppings collect on them, so be aware of the need to add fresh seed and clean the screen often.
* Hopper or "house" feeders. These are convenient for people, as you can generally fill it and let it be for a while, but if the feed gets wet, it goes bad and is bad for birds. It's also harder to clean.
* Window feeders. These afford close-ups of birds, but the birds stand on the seed, so it becomes soiled and the feeder needs to be cleaned daily.
* Tube feeders. Tubes keep seed fairly clean and dry, but feed can get hung up in the bottom and breed mold and bacteria. It's best to block off the bottom so that doesn't happen, and to use the size of feeder that gets emptied fairly often. When adding new seed, empty the old first.
* Nyjer feeders (also called thistle). These come as tube feeders with very small holes or as "socks" and hold nyjer seed to attract goldfinches. When the weather is rainy, the socks, and the seed inside, can become drenched. The nyjer tube feeders have the same issues as the tube feeders that have larger holes.
* Suet feeders. These are made of wire mesh or plastic-coated wire mesh for offering suet. Some people drill holes in small logs for spooning rendered suet (or peanut butter) into. And some people put peanut butter or suet in crevices of tree bark, too.
Drawing birds to a new feeder
When you put out a new feeder in a new spot, follow these suggestions, from birding.about.com:
* Spread some seed on the top of the feeder, on a nearby platform or on the ground near the feeder to draw more attention to the location as a new feeding spot.
* Temporarily remove other birdfeeders offering similar seed to limit the choices birds have of where to feed. As they become accustomed to the new feeder, other feeders can be returned to duty.
* With all feeders, be sure seed is fresh.
Every bird needs water. They not only drink it but bathe in it, especially in the winter.
"Clean feathers are fluffed-up feathers, and that's how birds stay warm," a recent Chicago Tribune story said.
A heater placed in your regular birdbath or a heated bath is required when the water starts freezing into ice. I keep plastic pitchers inside and outside to fill up either at the kitchen sink or the outside tap for cleaning and refilling the baths, which can be required often.
Try to leave a brush pile in the corner of the yard for birds. "Just pile up a stack of sticks and lawn debris — anywhere from 3 to 6 feet high," birdscaper Tim Joyce of Glenview, Ill., is quoted as saying in the Tribune.
"A lot of people will recoil in horror at the thought of such a thing, but consider it seasonal. ... Clear it out in April." He also suggests leaving piles of leaves beneath trees (here's your excuse) for insect-loving birds. (This points up the fact that using insecticides is anti-bird.)
Garden blogger Margaret Roach of upstate New York has this advice on creating "edge habitat," from awaytogarden.com:
"Edge habitat, the place where field meets woods, for instance, is where the action is for many birds: a place to hide, and for some species even to nest, an often food-rich jumble of shrubbery and vines. Think hedgerow; I use a lot of winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) as a backbone of all such islands here. ... Add this transitional zone somewhere in your garden, perhaps along the road or another boundary, or create an island shrub border of bird-friendly plants. Mix it up (thorns, evergreen, vines, fruit, seedheads, nectar-rich flowers) to make a multi-season destination. Especially if you don't have an out-of-the-way spot for a brush pile."
The Bradford pear tree outside my second-floor bedroom window is spangled red, gold and green now, and I can hardly take my eyes off it. As the leaves are becoming sparser and sparser, I'm also noticing doves, cardinals and finches amid the branches. They're coming into view more clearly day by day.