Lowenfels: Bust out sunflower seeds; winter's for the birds now

Jeff Lowenfels
Stephen Nowers

It is beyond Halloween, there is sufficient snow cover and the temperatures are low enough that all area bears are tucked away in their dens, nice and snug for the winter. You know the routine; it is time to start enjoying winter birds from the warm side of your home's windows. Put up bird feeders.

It is difficult not to repeat myself year in and year out on this subject. Keeping the birds that stick around in the winter happy is as much a gardening topic as planting seeds or caring for house plants or planting summer tomatoes. We want these birds doing their thing in the summer -- eating bugs, taxiing worms and protozoa around and giving us enjoyment. In addition, birds are fascinating, and winter is a great time to see them without many distractions.

In sum, you really do need at least one bird feeder hanging in the yard, affixed to a pole if you lack trees and shrubs. With a bit of jerry-rigging, almost anything from a simple board to a plastic pop bottle will work as a feeder. Yes, you could even toss seed onto the ground, though you really do need to use off-the-ground feeders, as seed on the ground encourages mice, voles and shrews.

You can buy feeders in town if you don't want to make your own. There is no need for mail order. It is fun, however, to look at feeders on the web to get an idea of what's out there. There are almost too many kinds to describe, as you will see by searching for "bird feeders" in Google Images. My preference is to get feeders that hold the maximum amount of seed so that I don't need to trudge out into the cold to refill every day or so.

There is no doubt that placement of feeders can result in different kinds of birds visiting. You have to be able to get to your feeders, however, so make sure to set up pulley systems and hanging devices that make it easy to fill. I love a feeder up at the second or third story as well as outside the first floor.

The novice to all this has to know that birds in Southcentral Alaska insist on some form of sunflower seed. They are, for the most part, no longer content with the common bird seed, millet and other seed that is sold. The preferred bird feeds tend to be a bit more expensive. Trust me, however, when I tell you it is worth every penny.

Sunflower seeds come in different sizes and with differing oil content. They come crushed, cut, hulled or whole. You can get bags of half a pound up to 50 pounds, which saves money over the course of a winter. Again, what you use can influence the types of birds you will attract and support. Consider using different styles. And make sure you keep your seeds in a rodent-proof container.

A peanut butter feeder is great for attracting woodpeckers and creepers. Drill a few holes in a bit of wood, fill them with peanut butter and hang from a tree. Or, you can smear peanut butter directly on a limb. Similarly, a wire basket that will hold suet is easy to make. You can buy a suet feeder, however, and those take standardized cakes available at most bird feed sources. I've seen peeled bananas rolled in peanut butter, apples and even strings of raisins hung out for birds. You never know what will work until you try it.

If you really want to go simple, try a "Song Bird Tweet" from Gardeners Supply (see more at gardeners.com). You simply hang these pear shaped treats on a limb and let the birds have at it. Check out local nurseries and pet supply stores for other "hang and walk away" feeders.

And, as long as I am pitching, don't forget to take a look at my favorite winter tool, Wingscapes' motion activated bird cam (wingscapes.com), which will photograph the birds that frequent your feeder while you are at work or not looking. And, in case you wonder exactly what you might be missing, wander over to the Anchorage Audubon site (anchorageaudubon.org) after you finish this morning's paper to see the results of past Christmas bird counts. Take a guess at how many species were seen before you do.

Finally, bears may not be a problem this time of year, but squirrels, in my opinion at least, will be if you encourage them to eat at your feeders. There are squirrel barriers and anti squirrel potions. From my perspective, the last thing you want to do is succumb to the idea that these rodents are cute and deserve to be fed themselves. Don't say I didn't warn you when they eat through the insulation in your attic and gnaw wires and you end up with frozen pipes and the alarm system mysteriously going off.

Jeff Lowenfels' bestselling books are available at tinyurl.com/teamingwithmicrobes and tinyurl.com/teamingwithnutrients

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Jeff Lowenfels