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Here are some tips if you want to go big on bird feeders this winter

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: October 22, 2020
  • Published October 22, 2020

Bird feeder placement as well as the kind of seeds you use can influence which birds you'll attract. (Getty Images)

Wow. I did not expect to get so many comments on a column about feeding birds, something I view as an integral part of yardening. Maintaining trees and shrubs really is for the birds.

Anyhow, let me address these questions, first with a nod to one reader’s suggestion that artificially attracting any wildlife to the yard is wrong. This is a fair point, and it caused me to pause, do a bit of reading and weigh pros and cons.

There is a concern about attracting birds into a concentrated area that we can all readily understand: They can’t mask up (but all gardeners can and must), so diseases can spread. But it seems the consensus is that it is OK to feed birds, provided you do so properly.

I already mentioned cleaning feeders. Treat yours like you would a shelf infected with coronavirus. Clean with bleach, and not just at the start of the season. How about once or twice a month?

As I suggested last week, placement can influence which birds you attract. It can also help separate species somewhat to further minimize spreading diseases. A table feeder will result in grosbeaks and jays (and magpies). Sparrows and juncos will eat at ground level. Woodpeckers and nuthatches love suet feeders hung close to trunks. This lets chickadees, titmice and finches have more room on the hanging feeder at head height.

Favorite foods can also be used for separate species. All birds seem to love black sunflower seeds. These are full of fat and come in chips, whole and with shells. Whole peanuts will keep jays busy. Nyjer seed is great for finches if you have a fine mesh bag feeder. Corn is OK, especially cracked for the bigger birds. (Avoid fine corn, as it rots and gets moldy.)

Golden millet, red millet and flax are seeds that companies use as filler in mixes. Birds are not generally fond of them, and either avoid them or kick the stuff out of feeders onto the ground, where it is fair game for voles and mice. It is confusing, because milo or sorghum, which birds like, is red, too, and often confused with the fillers. Read labels.

Some foods can also cause problems. Who knew chocolate is not good for birds? Nor is bread, stale or otherwise, salty foods or moldy stuff. And you have to be careful with fats. Birds cannot remove them from feathers, which causes real problems. Thus, suet should always be presented in a cage/container, not a bare ball hung from a limb. And use real suet, not lard or oil mixtures. Even peanut butter should not get on bird feathers. Use it carefully and only in really cold weather.

Obviously, windows can be a problem. To prevent crashes, the rule is 30-3 — 30 feet away so it isn’t a problem or within 3 feet because this is close enough to prevent a bird from attaining killing velocity if it does hit the window. There are also stickers and even netting that can be used to prevent birds from flying into windows.

Bird feeding is a hobby. Read up on it. There is an awful lot of stuff out there. Do spend some time at the Audubon Society’s site, and the local ones. These are the folks who organize the Alaska bird count every Christmas. And if there is a problem, they will alert you.

One reader noted that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology runs a citizen science program called FeederWatch. This lists 100 or so birds, what they eat and other useful information. You can also learn how to participate in gathering information for the program. Great for kids who need something to do.

Agggh, finally, what is turning out to be this year’s “Lowenfels dandelion issue”: cats. I get lots of comments when I mention free-roaming cats killing hundreds of thousands of birds locally (no matter where “locally” is). There is a law. Pellet guns are not the answer. A humane trap, however, will help you control what others should with a leash.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar

Spring Bulbs: What are you waiting for?

Driveways: Mark 'em.

Houseplants: Lights? Inspecting for bugs?

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