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Treat Yourself by Treating the Birds

By Suzanne Holland, Naturalist at Hidden Oaks Nature Center

Bird at FeederThe cooler weather of fall marks a great time to learn about and watch the high-flying inhabitants of the bird world. Local residents are increasingly seeking to lure the "A" list of birds to their backyards to enjoy the color, song and antics of a wide range of year-‘round and migrating species. Watching the ever-changing world of birds is one of the major benefits of back-yard bird feeding.

Over 58 million Americans feed their local feathered friends. While most provide seed only during the winter with the hope of sustaining local species, many families opt to feed all through the year. Recent reports in The Washington Post indicate that providing seed may sustain specific birds during the harsh weather but, in general, birds use backyard-feeding stations as a minor supplement to their natural diet. For example, according to one study, feeders supply only 20 percent of the nutrition needs of black-capped chickadees during the winter.

Feeding throughout the spring and summer enables the homeowner to witness the joys and tribulations of avian child rearing. Human parents join their feathered counterparts fretting over when junior will take that first successful flight. In fact, the human-interest quotient is truly the major benefit of backyard bird feeding.

By enticing certain species to their yards, local residents develop an understanding and an appreciation of local birds. A simple scattering of mixed birdseed will bring in several species that enjoy feeding on the ground. Bird at FeederFamilies can easily distinguish between the redbirds and the doves and little brown sparrows that descend. Typically interest grows and someone makes an effort to learn the names of birds such as Northern cardinals, mourning doves and English sparrows or even maybe a Carolina wren.

From this point it is a quick step to checking out feeders. Platform feeders encourage mourning doves and blue jays. Keeping the seed off the ground discourages rodents but squirrels have a grand time enjoying their fill. Tube feeders are designed with openings that can attract any perching bird, from cardinals to sparrows. The finch feeders with tiny openings accommodate only smaller-billed birds, including house finches and the beautiful gold finches. Specialty stores even sell squirrel-proof feeders that boast a trap door that shuts out heavier animals, such as crows and squirrels.

But you are not done yet. The secret of attracting the birds you want to your yard while discouraging others such as crows, starlings and cowbirds is to provide the preferred seed. Insect-eaters gravitate toward protein substitutes from black-oil sunflower seeds and suet (beef fat). Bird SeedSuet, available at the meat counter at grocery stores, will be less attractive to crows and squirrels when it is without the addition of seed.

A metal case with a locked lid will provide you with many more hours of viewing pleasure than will a mesh onion bag. Squirrels and raccoons will make a quick getaway with anything not firmly attached to a tree or post. A secured cage on a stable surface will draw the attention of red-bellied, downy, hairy and possibly even pileated woodpeckers, plus the skittish Carolina chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. Cardinals dote on safflower seed and finches flock to niger seed in tube feeders.

Homeowners’ number-one complaint with bird feeding is the abundance of squirrels and other rodents attracted by the seeds. One method is to set up a separate feeding station of corn and peanuts. Squirrels typically find safflower distasteful and may opt to dine elsewhere if they find this seed mixed in with the tempting sunflower seeds.

Exclusion feeders or baffles, metal cones over the top of tube feeders, can be helpful. A quick trip to your local nature center or library can provide you with guidelines as to the height of feeders and distance recommended from trees. To minimize visits from rats and mice, put out only the amount of seed to be eaten in a day. Spilled seed collecting on the ground not only attracts rodents but can be a health hazard to birds if the seed should mold.

Assuring the health of your feathered guests requires regular maintenance. A commonly overlooked component of backyard feeding is providing a clean, pure water source. Birds drink and bathe daily. The critters living on the birds, as well as the dust, contaminate the water so the bowl needs to be cleaned frequently. To avoid picking up salmonella and other nasty bacteria on your hands, be sure to wash the container—and your hands--away from any food preparation or bathroom areas to avoid carrying the bacteria elsewhere.

Seed that has been stored in trashcans from the previous season should be thrown away--tainted seed can cause illness in your backyard diners. Fresh birdseed is less likely to mold.

Bird at feederThrough backyard bird feeding, Fairfax County residents can bring nature up close to observe the fascinating nuances of our indigenous bird life. You may discover how to differentiate a male from a female woodpecker by noting the amount of red on the head. You might delight in seeing the gradual change of the drab olive of the goldfinch in winter to the spectacular bright yellow of spring. You may even be privileged to catch a glimpse of the male cardinal’s courtship of feeding his ladylove a seed, right at your back window. While you are enjoying the natural history lesson, the birds are benefiting from a boost in their diet. With proper care, backyard bird feeding can be a win-win situation, and that is something to crow about.

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