2011-10-20 / Editorial

The Island Garden

Taking care of birds that don’t fly south
BY ROGER MARSHALL

Have you ever noticed birds flying around and across your garden? If so, do you know if they are blue jays, chickadees, crows, cardinals or starlings? This is the time of year when many birds are migrating south, but what happens to the ones that are left behind? How do they get food and water during the coldest months? How do they survive?

Many birds have a really hard time surviving when winter temperatures plunge below freezing, but you can help. You can put out a bird feeder and a water bath. In the coldest time of the year any water will freeze, but by putting out fresh water every day you will be doing the birds a huge favor. By providing birds with a place to stay at night where they are out of the cold northern wind, the sleet and the snow, you can help ensure their survival.

Birds need to eat, and a bird feeder with a lot of tasty seeds will encourage them to come to your yard and it will help the species survive. In a survey done in England, it was found that birds that have access to a feeder over the winter months lay on average 2.4 more eggs than do birds that have to forage all winter long. So by putting out a feeder, you are not only prolonging the life of existing birds, but you are helping to ensure the long term survival of the species.

When buying a feeder look for one that will keep squirrels off the seeds. If you don’t, you will end up with a lot of fat squirrels and very few birds coming to your feeder. I know squirrels have to eat as well, but not at my feeder if I can help it.

There are two main types of squirrel preventative feeders. The first type has large round disks at the top and bottom of the feeder to prevent squirrels from climbing up or leaping from trees onto the feeder. The other type has a large diameter tube over the feeder pole. The tube is 3 to 4 inches in diameter, and squirrels cannot climb up the outside.

For smaller feeders – such as those that feed Njyer seeds – a fully enclosed cage helps to keep the squirrels away from the seeds. I think that you are likely to find pesky squirrels attacking feeders more often this winter as Hurricane Irene seems to have put a severe crimp in the number of acorns on the trees.

If you can, put a birdbath out this winter as well. On cold days you will need to remove the ice and fill it with fresh water for birds to drink, but it is well worth the effort. When everything is frozen, it is hard for birds to find a drink.

A wide selection of bird feeders is available at duncraft.com, or you can go to our local outlets and choose the one you want. I know Jamestown Hardware has feeders and bird food, but I’m not sure of other local stores.

As for food, the best seed for birds seems to be husked sunflower seed. You can buy sunflower seeds in their husks for about $25 for up to 50 pounds, but when the birds have to husk the seeds they will leave a mess around the feeder. Spending a few dollars extra for husked seed ensures far less cleanup.

Frankly, I would not recommend the birdseed with millet and other assorted grains. Birds – at least the birds coming to my feeders – don’t much like the millet and toss it to one side to get to the sunflower seeds. For smaller birds, Nyjer (thistle) seed is very much appreciated and the birds don’t seem to be able to get enough of it.

Where do birds go at night when the sleet- and snow-laden northern wind is hammering on the windowpane? Well, around here they seem to like to spend time in the bird boxes that I have nailed to trees all over the property. The major criteria for a bird box is that it has a 1- to a 1.5-inch hole, depending on the bird species that you want to inhabit the box. The feeder itself is no more than about 6 inches inside. If the nest box is too large, it will encourage larger animals – such as pesky squirrels – to get into the box. The bird box should be aligned so that the hole faces south or southeast, so that the cold wind cannot blow into the box. It also should have some form of perch or place for the bird to sit before it climbs through the hole. Often in winter, there may be several birds in one hole huddled together to keep warm.

In spring, one of the birds will usually make the shelter into a nesting box, so you will get the additional joy of seeing young birds trying their wings for the first time. So this year, why not encourage birds to your yard. All you need is a nest box, a feeder, a few seeds, and a copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s “Birds of North America.”

Return to top