Sunday, April 29, 2007

Bird Feeding 101--Sprint in the Backyard

Spring is Pennsylvania’s annual renaissance. It marks the start of increased animal activity, the emergence of plants and leaves, the return of exciting nighttime noises and the coming of warmer air. It is a time to take notice; to stop, look and listen; to take it all in.
"Our countryside is teeming with life, and Pennsylvanians can expect to see and hear more in their yards and afield as spring continues to progress," said Cal DuBrock, Game Commission Wildlife Management Bureau director. "It’s a great time to be outdoors, but it’s also a time to consider making adjustments to your property to reduce its appeal to unwanted wildlife and to heighten its attractiveness to desirable species.
"Few people, for instance, want their properties to be bear magnets, because bears can be destructive and somewhat intimidating. But many residents are interested in putting out hummingbird feeders and keeping their seed feeders and suet out to pull in migrating rose-breasted grosbeaks and possibly, a red-headed woodpecker. Compromises can be made to limit the unwanted and attract spring’s more popular species. But it does take some planning, and often requires additional expense and effort."
People who have been using seed feeders and ground-feeding over winter always tend to attract grackles — often accompanied by red-winged blackbirds, starlings and cowbirds — at this time of year. They will quickly dominate your feeding area and yard if you don’t intervene. Chasing them works for a little while, but if you keep feeding, they will adapt quickly to your chases by flying into nearby trees and waiting for you to go back inside. They are intelligent birds.
What works is shutting down feeding operations until they move on — usually a two-week or so wait — or switching seeds. Grackles love black-oil sunflower seeds, millet and shelled or cracked corn. Switching to thistle and safflower, and suspending your suet cake holder so starlings and grackles cannot land on it to eat also will help.
Another problem that emerges each spring for bird-feeders is black bears, that is, if you’re in black bear range, which includes the majority of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Bears come out of hibernation seeking big caloric meals. The more protein, the better. Of course, black-oil sunflower seeds and suet can satisfy that hankering. And bears hone in on those feeder commodities in the spring like a parched camel heading for a desert oasis.
"If you live in bear country, and you’ve had a visit in the recent past, you’re surely susceptible to another bear feeder raid," said DuBrock. "If you haven’t seen a bear on your property in some time and want to feed bears, consider putting out inexpensive feeders. Then, if a bear returns, your loss won’t be as expensive."
When bears keep coming back to your property in the spring, the only recourse may be to pull your feeders for a month or so. Even then, though, there’s no guarantee bears won’t return to your place, or your neighbor’s. That’s why spring bird-feeding is always a tough decision for some people, especially those who have lost expensive feeders to bears. And, yes, bears have already been hitting feeders this spring in Pennsylvania.
Early spring is a great time to experiment with placing fruit offerings out for songbirds. The cooler air keeps fruit from spoiling quickly. Halved oranges stuck on a corn-spike feeder are capable of pulling in northern orioles, catbirds and woodpeckers. Raisins placed in a tray feeder will draw everything from bluebirds and robins to mockingbirds and cardinals. Scarlet tanagers are partial to watermelon.
Another group of neotropicals that currently is leaving its southern wintering grounds to nest in Pennsylvania or further north is warblers. Primarily consummate insect-eaters, during migration warblers will eat orange halves, peeled bananas, baked goods, suet, peanut-butter and mealworms. These offerings may be used singly or combined anytime from mid April to mid May. After that, the migration is pretty much over, and those warblers remaining in Pennsylvania have a substantial supply of insects at their disposal.
In spring, songbirds such as rose-breasted grosbeaks, rufous-sided towhees, mockingbirds and brown thrashers will come to feeders, particularly those offering black-oil sunflower seeds and suet. Grosbeaks and towhees prefer the sunflower seeds; grosbeaks perch to eat and towhees typically scratch around on the ground below the feeder. Thrashers eat both sunflower seeds and suet, and scratch for their meals. They have a penchant for popped popcorn. Thrashers prefer backyards with forsythia bushes, other shrubs or forested coverage. Mockingbirds will eat suet, so long as they can find it.
"One of the biggest challenges in drawing spring birds is placing your feeders where birds just passing through can find them," DuBrock said. "It’s best to place your feeders or offerings near cover in spring, because birds are more apt to be in shrubs and trees.
"Yards with established feeders have an edge over others because they already have birds, and birds attract birds. Appropriate habitat and habitat diversity also will make your property more attractive, as will a backyard pond or small stream, or birdbath. Water is a time-proven bird magnet."
The general location of the pond/birdbath should be in a low-traffic area of the yard and devoid of hiding places for housecats. Limit or eliminate the bath’s exposure to sun, which will keep the water cooler — and less prone to evaporate — and fresher. It’s also best to avoid placing water sources — or feeders — near large picture windows, to reduce bird take-off and in-flight collisions. Birds cannot see glass and often are drawn to window reflections of the horizon and other birds.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds also will be returning to Pennsylvania in late April or early May. May 1 is the "get your feeder(s) out" date, but it probably won’t hurt to start a little earlier in counties along the Mason- Dixon Line, or if warmer air chases the arctic chill that has left the Commonwealth unseasonably cold this April.
Hummingbird feeders should be filled with a solution containing one part granulated sugar and four parts water. The mixture should be boiled and cooled before filling a feeder reservoir. Store any unused feed mixture in the refrigerator until it’s needed. Commercial feed mixtures also are available. Honey should not be used in feeders; it ferments.
Hummingbird feeders should be placed in a somewhat shaded area near a flower bed by suspending it with string from a tree branch or homemade stand. Smear petroleum jelly on the string to keep ants from reaching the feeder. If the feeder fails to attract birds, move it, or place a few more in the yard.
Backyard bird-feeding in spring can provide plenty of surprises and help residents become better acquainted with the species that visit or reside on their properties. It can be exciting and entertaining, an educational and engrossing experience. But just remember, bird feeders are appealing to everything from hummingbirds to black bears. That translates to rewards and risks. You have to decide if it’s worth it.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

To Feed or Not to Feed

To Feed or Not to Feed? That is the Question
There are two types of people in this world: those who feed their birds and those who do not. You, believe it or not, are one of these people. Now, if you are Type A, you already know that it doesn’t cost that much money to share a little cracked corn cuisine with your wild birds. If you’re Type B, my guess is you’re so tight that when you wink your kneecaps wiggle.
I’m here to tell you that buying birdseed will not break you. When you get to the cash register, have the cashier go through your stash very slowly and keep your eyes glued to the subtotal. If you begin to go over-budget, start slashing nonessentials—like toilet paper or cat food. While we’re on the subject, get rid of the cat; he’s just using you. If you’re at the garden center, there are any number of things you can do without. Scratch the flower bulbs; you’ll get your knees dirty burying them, and they don’t come up half the time anyway.
I think I have heard all the arguments against feeding birds. Feeding extends their range, it creates an unnatural dependency, the agricultural process of growing birdseed displaces natural habitat, and it entices birds to congregate in large numbers creating possible health-related problems. There is some truth to all these arguments but they are of little importance when compared to all the other harvesting and management practices we levy on the environment that directly impact our wild birds.
So if you’re still on the fence over this issue, remember: a farmer never plowed a field by turning it over in his mind. Abraham Lincoln did not become president because he was born in a log cabin, but because he got out of it and filled his feeders. Benjamin Franklin hung his birdfeeder out right after signing the Declaration of Independence and said to the other founding fathers, "We must all hang together, else we shall all hang separately."
Your birds can be very agreeable friends; they ask no questions and make no criticism.