Gardening

Should feeding birds be part of your winter home and yard routine?

Common Redpoll, Northern Lights Elk Ranch, bird, bird feeder, birds, elk

The bears are hibernating, so it is the right time to start feeding for the winter. Hmm, bird feeding? Is it safe for the birds? Is it even part of gardening? Should we do it?

I raise these questions because lately I have been seeing articles and columns about the subject of feeding backyard birds, starting with a whole bunch that suggest the practice is not a good one.

First of all, is feeding birds even part of gardening such that I should address it in a garden column? The mythical Garden Writer Handbook says it is. Surely, it fits into the broader definition of yardening, planting and maintaining trees and shrubs which provide cover and living space for birds. And birds help keep insect populations down, though they do often spread unwanted seeds.

Anyhow the argument against feeding seems to be “free food disrupts bird migratory habits.” None of this makes sense. Did you read the article about the bar-tailed godwit that flew 8,435 mile from Nome to Tasmania? It took 11 days nonstop. You would think she would have remained at a Nome feeder to avoid the trip to Hobart or Burnie — look it up!

Migration is triggered by the change in day length, though it may signal a change in availability of food resources. Since birds only get about 25% of their needs from feeders, that isn’t going to replace the missing insects and natural seeds material missing in the winter.

The only downsides I can see to feeding birds is the spread of disease. This can be prevented by maintaining clean feeders and not feeding them moldy foods. And, once you start feeding them, you really need to continue throughout the season. When all the birds you have attracted have to get an extra 25% of their food from the wild, some are not going to make it. You may take a nice two-week vacation, but the birds can’t.

And, since feeders concentrate populations, they attract predators, cats which should be inside — folks, there is a leash law and cat owners that let theirs roam are breaking the law — and magpies, whose growing populations we probably need to talk about. Proper cover near feeders will help.

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No matter what I think, the experts, Audubon societies all over the world and our own Department of Fish and Game, support winter feeding if it is done properly. That puts the kibosh on those articles dissing the hobby.

The type of feeders you use depend on the kind of seed they hold. Tube feeders are the most versatile and easiest to keep clean, which you must. “House-shaped” feeders are often squirrel-proof. There are mesh bags for thistle seed and special wire suet feeders and even just simple platforms for food scraps.

Alaska birds go for black sunflower seed, cracked, whole, naked or with hull; raw peanuts, cracked or whole; and, in shells if the feeder is large enough, thistle and food scraps. Millet doesn’t seem to be of interest here. Suet is also popular with some birds. Peanut butter can cause problems and needs to be mixed with seeds or avoided.

Consider adding a handful of coarse sand — like you use on ice — ground egg shells or even pet store-bought grit. This is needed to allow birds to “chew” up the seed and stuff you feed them.

Placement is important. In addition to cover, you need to be able to get to yours to fill and to clean them. I like to put them at different heights and have used pulleys to get them two stories high.

Finally, I am talking feeding birds here. There is a big difference between a bird and a rodent, no matter what antics the rodent is capable of. You should never feed squirrels. It only attracts them to your home. Your feeders should all be squirrel-proof.

So, ignore the naysaying articles, get out the feeders you already have and fill them. If you don’t have some, or need more, by all means check out the internet for feeder information. However, buy locally from nurseries, hardware or box stores which not only carry what work here, but appropriate seed as well.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar:

Forest bathing: Spa Day at The Alaska Botanical Garden. Saturday, Nov. 19 from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. includes forest bathing, yoga and a facial spa treatment! Participants will also make a homemade botanically inspired facial scrub to take home. Register at www.alaskabg.org.

Poinsettias: Want to try to “force” your bracts to form? Give plants total darkness for at least 13 hours a day.

Lights: It is getting dark out there and your houseplants deserve all the help they can get.

Jeff Lowenfels | Alaska gardening and growing

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He’s authored several books on organic gardening, and his latest book, "Teaming With Bacteria," is available on Amazon. Reach him at jefflowenfels@gmail.com.

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