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Gardening Basics: Feeding the Birds

Gardening Basics: Simply Put
Feeding the Birds

The recent heavy snowfalls have made it difficult for birds to find natural food, so it’s a good time to give them a hand. I admit that I used to feed the birds year round, but over the years I guess I got lazy and stopped. Looking at the forecast a couple of weeks ago, I felt a pang of guilt and bought a Droll Yankee brand bird feeder and some seed and set up a bird feeding area in a sheltered spot. Especially during the height of the storm, we were bird central. My home is on a heavily wooded suburban lot, a couple of miles from Rock Creek Park, so we tend to have a lot of birds close by. The sorts of birds you get at your feeder will depend on your environment.

In spring, during the nesting season, birds feed heavily on insects. But during winter, whatever insects are around are dormant and only certain birds hunt for them. Woodpeckers and nuthatches clamber around on the trunks of trees, looking for insects (or their eggs) hiding under the bark, while wrens hunt through the logs in the woodpile. I find that suet cakes (blocks of fat with berries and seed, hung in a suet feeder) attract a lot of woodpeckers, and occasionally wrens, nuthatches and chickadees.

“My” woodpeckers probably have so much cholesterol that I should supplement their diets with Lipitor. If you have starlings, which are sort of an urban “weed” bird, they love suet cakes and may drive the other birds away. Suet cakes are cheap, so try one out, see what you get.

As far as birdseed, I find that sunflower seed attracts the most birds, but I also bought a bag of mixed seed to offer some variety. House finches, Carolina wrens and chickadees take it from my feeder (which is a hollow cylinder with perches), while juncos, white-throated sparrows, cardinals, mourning doves and song sparrows seem to be more likely to pick it off the ground, or from a feeder with a platform. If you have a lot of cats in the neighborhood, ground-feeding birds get picked off pretty easily, so you need to bear that in mind.

Squirrels of course, love sunflower seed, but they gotta eat, too. Better that than eating all the flower buds off of your shrubs. If you bribe them with seed on the ground, they may let the birds have some time at the feeder.

If you just can’t abide the squirrels (or afford to feed them), but you still want to do something to attract birds, wait until spring and put up a birdbath. I find that my birdbath (water changed every few days, and the basin cleaned weekly with SOS pads to remove algae and bird poop) is heavily used by many different kinds of birds and the squirrels leave it alone.

If you have deer in your garden, don’t be surprised to see them at the feeder as well. If so, then I would remove the feeder. No sense attracting them with food and then trying to repel them from your shrubs later on. You may also find that a hawk may make an occasional dive at the birds at the feeder. Very exciting, especially for the birds.

Every couple of weeks, feeders should be cleaned to remove old seed, bird poop, and so on. This reduces the spread of bird diseases. I take my feeder inside and soak it for 10 minutes in bleach water, then rinse it thoroughly and allow it to dry.

With the snow likely to remain for a week or two, this is the perfect time to try a feeder. We have a good selection of feeders, seed, and suet cakes at both of our garden centers.

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I loved the article about feeding the birds since I do the same. With the pile of snow in the backyard I am unable to get to the bird feeder but I have been throwing 4 cups of seeds everyday through the window. Lo and behold the feathered and furry friends have a feast! The squirrels are quite funny when the elusive peanut or sunflower seed goes into the snow and they dig it out and come out from their little “trenches” looking like the “abominable snow squirrel”! We have seen woodpeckers, juncos, cardinals, starlings, mourning doves, nuthatches, song sparrows, chickadees etc. It is a beautiful way to start your morning and enjoy nature! Thanks for sharing the blog.

  2. Thanks Nithya,

    If you happen to snap any pictures of those feathery friends, email them to us and we can put them online.

    Thanks for the note:

    Larry B

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