Feed the Birds

This morning, after watching the cardinals, chickadees, titmice, house sparrows, white-throated sparrows, juncos, house finches, downy woodpecker and mourning doves jostling over my various feeders, I went upstairs to my office, turned on my computer and found news from New Jersey Audubon.

February is National Bird-Feeding Month.

You don’t say. According to the NJ Audubon press release, “In 1994, Congress passed a thoughtful resolution recognizing this month as one of the most difficult months in the U.S. for wild birds.”

male cardinal That’s because February is generally the coldest month of the North American winter, a time when those birds that don’t migrate south need the most help in finding food, water and shelter, preferably out of the icy wind. Although it is only a month before spring, when things start growing again, for a bird that wait can be a long time and a matter of life and death.

I somehow missed that resolution of 1994so last century – but I can say I’ve been feeding birds with my assorted feeders for years before then…and I didn’t need a congressional resolution!

Putting out feeders makes sense. If you like to go out in the field and look at birds or drive long distances to find a rarity to add to your Life List, you already have fond feelings for our feathered friends. So we should be trying to help as many birds as possible with feeders. Charity begins at home.

There is a minor character in Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” who travels the country in support of feeding starving children in foreign nations while she neglects her own children. Don’t be that character!

My bird-watching hobby began innocently enough when my husband and I moved into our New Jersey home and my sister-in-law gave us a feeder (pictured above) as a house-warming present. I put in seed – since I didn’t know any better it was likely millet, which was cheap at the grocery store – and hung it in a tree. Within a day it was visited by a downy woodpecker and a titmouse. It was also hit by the squirrels.

Thus began my fascination with birds and my long-running battle with sciurus carolinenis.

But you learn, quickly, that location is everything. Put your feeder on a freestanding pole, far enough away from trees and other places from which a squirrel can jump, and use a baffle – an old wok cover will do when altered properly – to keep it from climbing to the feeders. If you want to draw birds other than house sparrows, ditch the millet and shell out a little more for black sunflower seeds, which provide a lot of fat to a bird in winter. seed

You learn that different feeders draw different birds. If you want woodpeckers, put out suet – but use a feeder that hangs in such a way that a bird coming to eat must hang under a cover. Woodpeckers don’t mind hanging underneath but without that cover you’ll draw grackles and starlings, birds I’d rather not have since in winter they’ll arrive in bulk and keep eating until there’s nothing left for the other birds.

That house feeder is the only one I have that can accommodate cardinals since it provides a nice, big seating area instead of a small perch. It is enjoyable to watch a cardinal at the feeder at dusk or dawn. I have drawn as many as three pairs of cardinals during the winter. I’m happy to do my bit.

Sometimes this open feeder draws the pleasantly unexpected, such as a Carolina wren. But more often it draws other birds that don’t want to work at getting food by sitting on a perch or clinging to the side of a caged, squirrel-proof feeder. Others may like them but to me these lazy birds include house finches, house sparrows and a bird whose population has exploded in New Jersey, the mourning dove.

A few years ago I noticed one female dove sitting on the roof of the house feeder, trying to figure out a way down to the perch to eat. Eventually, through a lot of trial and error and fluttering wings, she did find a way down.Then she somehow imparted what she learned to her friends and offspring and now there is a large flock of mourning doves that fly between the feeder and the ground and between my feeders and those of my neighbors.

Scherman Hoffman’s feeders draw a lot of feedersbirds because the center has quite a lot of different kinds of feeders, as you can see at left. As I’ve said, different feeders with different food draw different birds. If you are part of New Jersey Audubon, that’s what you want to do.

The center’s feeders, like mine, are located near some shrubs, which provide the birds with cover. There is a good supply of water and the feeders are sheltered from strong winds. The feeders, in front of the education center, are also in a location where anyone standing either in the store or at a distance outside can watch the birds without spooking them away. What good is having bird feeders unless you can see what comes to feed?

The center conveniently sells different types of feeders and different types of bird food. I buy a 50-pound bag of black sunflower seed and some winters even that is not enough. The suet cakes have drawn red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers. Thistle seems to be preferred by juncos and goldfinches.

Of course, all this birding activity may also bring things that feed on the birds that come to your feeder: sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and the occasional red-tailed hawk.

You never know what else you might draw. I looked out one morning a few years ago to see what I thought was a very large Cooper’s sitting in one of my trees. With my binoculars I realized by its prominent “eyebrow” it was a juvenile northern goshawk!

When I see these raptors I tend to take pictures from my porch and then walk outside. Eventually, they leave. My husband reminds me they’ve got to eat, too, and I respect that.

Just not in my yard.