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Wildlife: Backyard bird feeder tips to digest

Sunday, September 21, 2003

By Scott Shalaway

When night temperatures fall into the 40s, bird activity picks up noticeably at feeders the next morning. Birds don't put on layers of fat to get through the fall and winter as mammals do. Migrants fatten up temporarily to fuel their journeys, but most backyard birds eat just enough to get them through the night. That's one reason feeder activity peaks in the morning.


For a detailed list of foods backyard birds prefer and instructions for building the ultimate feeding station, send Scott Shalaway $3 and a self-addressed, stamped business-size envelope, and ask for Bird Notes No. 101.

Dr. Scott Shalaway can be reached at R.D. 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail to Catch Scott on the radio Saturday afternoons from 2 to 4 p.m. on 1360 WPTT.


Chilly mornings should be a reminder that it's time to pull out the seed feeders and stock up on bird food. Whether you are just getting started or want to get more serious, here are some tips.

Take care of all the late summer tasks. After you've seen no hummingbirds for at least a week, take down the nectar feeders, clean them thoroughly and box them until spring. Following this advice will ensure that migrating hummers have passed through and you won't be shortchanging any late migrants. Don't be surprised if you see your last hummingbird in early October.

Visit your nest boxes one last time and remove any remaining nesting material. Do this for all boxes, large and small, including purple martin apartment houses. After this final cleaning, cavity-nesting birds may use some nest boxes as winter roosting quarters and deer mice and flying squirrels can use others for winter dens. After cleaning a martin house, take it down or plug the holes so house sparrows and starling can't use it during the winter months.

Beginners often ask, 'What kind of feeders work best?' Many people start with an open platform feeder or a traditional hopper-style feeder. These simple, non-exclusive feeders permit access for all birds. Because they are non-exclusive, however, larger birds such as blue jays, grackles and mourning doves often monopolize these feeders.

To accommodate a larger variety of birds, use a variety of feeders.

A plastic tube containing sunflower seeds attracts everything from cardinals and chickadees to nuthatches and woodpeckers. Nyjer tubes attract finches.

Remove the tray at the base of tube feeders to prevent larger birds from using them. Be sure your tubes have metal-reinforced feeding ports to prevent squirrels from enlarging the openings.

A bowl-style feeder covered with a plastic dome to deter squirrels permits only clinging birds such as finches, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers to feed. Larger birds such as grackles, pigeons and doves require perches and are physically unable to use bowl feeders.

Suet offered in plastic-coated wire baskets appeals to those birds -- woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches -- that like a diet high in animal fat.

The single best food for wild birds is black oil sunflower seeds. Virtually all seed-eating birds like them and it's relatively inexpensive. Judge any mix by the percentage of black oil sunflower seed it contains. Other good seeds include striped sunflower seed, nyjer, safflower, white and red millet, nuts, whole corn and cracked corn. Avoid mixes with milo, wheat, oats and other cereal grains; these are filler seeds that birds typically ignore.

Backyard birders must also deal with the problem of handling and storing large quantities of seed. Seed is cheaper when bought in 50- or 100-pound bags, but large quantities are difficult to store and even harder to carry. Some wild bird stores, nature centers and garden centers offer customers a seed storage program. You pre-pay a whole winter's worth of seed at a discounted price, but pick it up at the store only as you need it.

Finally, remember the importance of water. Install a birdbath heater to keep water from freezing during cold weather and you'll be amazed by the number of birds that use winter water.

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