Very few family-friendly outdoor winter activities are as educational, entertaining, and comfortable as backyard birdfeeding. It is not just a simple act of providing food when natural sources are in short supply; it is a window of opportunity. We develop keen observation skills, refuel tired bodies (ours and the birds’), and have exhilarating encounters with wild animals, all from the cozy warmth of the kitchen.
The basic bird feeding set-up includes one tube feeder with black oil sunflower seed, one thistle feeder, and one suet feeder, all hung from a shepherd’s hook or post protected with a squirrel baffle. The baffle, which resembles a very large upside down funnel or tube, prevents your birdfeeders from becoming a much more expensive and aggravating squirrel/skunk/raccoon/opossum feeding station. A nearby bird bath, and trees or shrubs for cover, complete the essential requirements. Elaborations on the basic set-up can include platform feeders, peanut feeders, hopper feeders, fruit feeders, mealworm feeders, nectar feeders (in the summer), nest boxes, fountains, ponds, and landscaping for wildlife - depending on how enamored you become with your feathered friends. The greater the variety of foods, feeders, and habitat in your backyard, the greater the diversity of bird visitors.
With feeders in place, hopefully within view from the kitchen window, your family can now get to know your backyard guests in comfort. Sit back and relax with a cup of hot chocolate, open up a bird field guide, and learn to greet your feathered friends by name. The black oil sunflower seeds in the tube feeder will surely attract native birds like titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, jays, and cardinals. The suet feeder, filled with the protein-packed mixture of animal fat and seeds, brings woodpeckers tapping – downy ones, hairy ones, red-bellied ones, even an occasional flicker. Goldfinches, disguised in their drab winter plumage, will flock to tube thistle feeders. Make sure to purchase or make a thistle feeder with the perches above the holes so that the pesky house finch can’t feed from it (house finches can’t hang upside down like goldfinches). A platform feeder placed on the ground and filled with a mixture of millet, safflower, and sunflower seeds (or simply hand casting some seed) will guarantee ground-feeding birds. Watch for white-throated sparrows, juncos, grackles, and mourning doves. Expect to venture out from the warmth of your home about once a week to refill the feeders. If the seed is emptied every night, suspect the squirrels or raccoons have conquered your baffle. Smearing vegetable shortening or cooking oil on the baffle should nip the problem in the bud.
The Wild Birds Unlimited website (www.wbu.com) provides a wealth of information and images to help get your family backyard bird feeding station up and running. Southern States and Ace Hardware sell a wide variety of bird seeds, including black oil sunflower seed, thistle seed, and wild bird mix (good for platform feeders). Inexpensive suet cakes can be made at home using common grocery items (see recipe below). Reasonably priced feeders, bird baths, and posts can be purchased from big box stores like Walmart and Lowe’s. Squirrel baffles may be harder to find, but can be made with sheet metal or purchased online. For an even more economical and eco-friendly option, reuse plastic liter bottles, scrap wood, plastic mesh bags, and milk jugs for bird feeders. Creativity is the key, and with bird feeding, the sky is the limit!
The more involved your children are in the design, set-up, and maintenance of your bird feeding station, the more enjoyable it will be for them, and less work it will be for you. Flock to this opportunity to connect with nature, hone scientific observation skills, and teach environmental stewardship right in your backyard - feed the birds!
• Provide water for your birds. Like all animals, birds need to drink too. They don’t mind an occasional bath either.
• Clean feeders regularly by thoroughly scrubbing with a one-part bleach to nine-parts water solution. Keeping feeders clean prevents the risk of harming birds.
• Buy birdseed in bulk; it’s cheaper. Store the seed in a metal garbage can with the lid bungee-corded on to keep it from molding or being eaten by squirrels and raccoons.
• Planting trees and shrubs in your backyard provides much-needed shelter for the birds. You’ll have more visitors if they have a place to hide in times of danger.
• If birds are flying into your windows, try sticking a silhouette of a hawk or falcon on the window.
• Bird Suet Cake Recipe: 1-cup lard (do not use hydrogenated oils such as Crisco, etc.), 1-cup peanut butter, 2-cups quick oats (The quick oats break up and are disguised and the birds do not pick out the whole oats first), 2-cups yellow corn meal, 1-cup flour. Heat lard on low heat until viscous, then add in other ingredients, and stir until well mixed. Pour into a large aluminum roasting pan to cool in refrigerator. When solid, cut into 4-inch squares. Store in freezer. Place in an old onion bag or suet cage to hang.
• Project FeederWatch (www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/) is a great way to use your backyard feeders to contribute to a greater scientific cause. And they send you a handy bird identification poster and bird feeding guide when you sign up!
Magritte Beale teaches preschool programs at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford. For more information on nature programs offered by Abbott’s Mill Nature Center go to www.delawarenaturesociety.org.