January 3, 2017

Winter is for the Birds

Until this year, we never felt compelled to place bird feeders near our house.  At our previous homes we always had mature specimen trees and shrubs to provide shelter and food.  We left up seed-rich plants and other ‘natural’ food sources.  And, we didn’t want to encourage normally migratory birds to stick around on our account.  Our lone concession to the need for supplemental nutrition was to hang a slab of beef suet in a squirrel-proof wire frame suspended between two trees.
Our 'feeding station' has four stops, and
has accommodated as many as eight
birds at a time
We started with a blank canvas at our new home; or at least one-third of a blank canvas.  The front half-acre of our land was an ecological desert of climax pines, burning bush, and swallowwort.  No self-respecting bird would have had anything to do with it.  We created, from scratch, a new landscape of native trees and shrubs.  The birds followed almost immediately and gorged themselves on seeds, fruits, and worms.  We set out a hummingbird feeder and promptly attracted three families that waged incessant aerial warfare and conducted strafing runs to win the right to our station.
But as October turned cold and our perennials collapsed, all that was left were eight or nine immature ilex and snowberry shrubs; hardly a welcome mat for our avian friends.  Maybe we needed to re-think our ‘no feeder’ mindset.
As it turns out, we had all of the elements of a feeding station.  Betty gets invited to a lot of garden club events – she attended more than a hundred of them this past year.  As president of the state garden club Federation, no one ever asks her to pay, even though meals or big-time speakers may be involved.  Conscious that she’s a guest, Betty always makes a point of buying tickets for Opportunity Drawings (the IRS-approved terms for what used to be called ‘raffles’). 
The problem is, if you attend 150 events and buy ten Opportunity Drawing tickets at each event, the math says you will walk home with a certain number of items.  And so a corner of Betty’s office and some basement space is dedicated to storage for items she won but for which she has no immediate use.
When we went looking to create a bird feeding station, we needed look no further than these storage areas.  She had won several Audubon-approved bird feeders, a worm feeder (complete with ten packages of freeze-fried meal worms), and a suet cage.  Thanks to our hummingbirds, we already had one tall pole on which to hang a feeder. To set up shop we purchased a second pole, a 50-pound sack of striped sunflower seeds, and some suet.
We had company by mid-day of our formal opening and we apparently got good reviews on the avian equivalent of Yelp! because the crowds kept coming back.  Curiously, we would have times when the feeders were deserted.  Apparently there are other feeders in the neighborhood, and the birds felt a need to frequent both their older haunts as well as their new favorite.
Our biggest initial problem was squirrels.  They are voracious consumers of anything that even looks like food, and they’ll empty a feeder in minutes; dumping the contents on the ground for easy pickings at their leisure.  After watching them climb our poles with an easy, athletic grace – and awakening to empty feeders that had been topped off at dusk – we settled on a squirrel-proofing idea that will likely horrify the Nature Conservancy:  we greased the poles.  There was a certain satisfaction watching squirrels take a flying leap three feet up a pole, only to slowly slide down to the bottom with no hope of traction.  We also noticed that after two or three days, they stopped trying.

So, we’re now officially in the bird feeding business and that first 50-pound bag is nearly finished.  Now, our task is to figure out what to do with the sunflower seek husks: they contain a chemical that inhibits the growth of anything except sunflowers.  Do we rake them up and take them to the transfer station?  We’re not sure, and ideas are gratefully accepted.