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Birdseed Days

If you’re going to put a bird feeder outside now that winter is officially here, you have to keep it filled with seed.

That would seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many people put out a feeder and then don’t bother to refill it when it is empty.

Many put feeders way up in a tree, requiring a ladder to reach it, and then don’t want to bother when it is cold or after it has snowed. Many lose interest or get too busy or don’t think it’s important.

Believe me, it is very important to the birds. 

Luckily, most people who keep a feeder keep it filled. But are they careful about what they fill it with?

I admit to buying cheap birdseed when I first started keeping a feeder. I bought millet - oh, the shame - and wondered why I was drawing a lot of sparrows when I wanted chickadees and cardinals.

Somewhere along the line I read that if you want the greatest variety of birds - the most bang for your buck, if you will - buy black-oil sunflower seed because it provides the fat content a bird needs when it gets cold and regular food sources are gone.

Even then, when I would get sunflower seed I would go somewhere I could get a large bag cheap.

One Saturday I drove over to Scherman Hoffman to do some birding and found a lot of cars parked in the upper lot (the ONLY lot, which shows how long ago that was) getting bags of seed brought to their cars. When I finally got a parking space I discovered one of those cars belonged to one of my friends who, being a NJ Audubon member, always got her seed there during the “Field to Fundraiser” birdseed sale days.

It’s easy to see why this particular seed would be so popular. You can buy 10-, 20- or 50-lb bags of it. It is grown in New Jersey, by New Jersey farmers. Unlike the stuff I’d been getting, it was fresher and bagged in recyclable paper rather than plastic. chickadee1

Buying bags of sunflower seed - nyjer, cracked corn and varieties of suet are also for sale - through NJ Audubon’s Supports Agricultural Viability and the Environment (SAVE) program raises money for NJ Audubon and helps keep local farmers in business while growing some crops that also support birdlife. You can read more about the program here.

Since I am one of those who tries to get my family local, healthier food when I can, it seemed like a good idea to feed the birds the same way and do some greater good. 

The seed is sold at all the NJ Audubon centers and some retailers. You don’t have to wait for the next sale to get the seed - I frequently tax the patience and strength of the Scherman Hoffman staff (even director Mike Anderson!) going in for 50-lb. bags at odd times when I suddenly realize I have less seed than I thought.

You even get a discount if you belong to NJ Audubon. Even better, the birds love the seed and come back for more, like this chickadee above..

Seems like a win-win all around. 

Margo D. Beller

S.A.V.E. brand Jersey-Grown Black Oil Sunflower Seed and Jersey-Grown Wood bluebird boxes and hopper feeders are available at NJ Audubon Nature Stores and selected independent retailers. Click the link above for more information.

Helping Nature

When I lost my job at the end of February, one of the first things I did was go to New Jersey Audubon’s Scherman Hoffman sanctuary to volunteer.

After years stuck inside behind a desk, I wanted to do physical labor outside rather than help out in the store.

Volunteers are always needed at this most venerable of institutions, including those willing to offer time, energy and muscles.

But around the time spring was starting to win its fight against winter I got another job, which cut down on my volunteering time. It wasn’t until after the Halloween storm that downed a lot of the property’s trees and left the center without power for over a week that I could finally come in with my pitchfork, shovel and gloves.

The task, said Stephanie Punnett, the head teaching naturalist, was to plant four native shrubs to show visitors how durable they are (as opposed to the hothouse hybrids you can buy at your local garden store).

Stephanie and I took two pots each of swamp azalea and dwarf spicebush down the Field Loop and I waited while she placed them in position.

This is not as easy as it may appear.

New York’s Central Park may look like a natural setting but everything in it - every rock, tree, shrub, even the streams - are manmade and had to be placed just so to give the plants the ability to take root and thrive and look like they’ve always been there.

Stephanie, in her way the Frederick Law Olmstead of Scherman Hoffman, had to make sure these plants would have enough sun while also enough shade. Like any garden designer she had to plan ahead for how much summer sun these shade plants would get six months from then, and make sure they were far enough in the woods to look natural yet be easy for visitors to see from the trails.

She had one great advantage over the average New Jersey home gardener - the extremely sturdy deer fencing around the hilltop part of the property, including where the education building is located. Without this fencing, the shrubs would be just another snack for hungry deer.

Beyond the fencing, along the sanctuary’s Dogwood or the River trails, you don’t see a lot in the way of shrubbery except for the invasive types you’d rather not have, the knotweed and the barberry. The native plants that were growing in the woods back when they were part of the Scherman or the Hoffman estates disappeared as the deer increased. That’s no coincidence.

Once Stephanie was done, I went to work.

It’s usually not easy putting in a shrub. You have to hope the ground is soft enough to yield to the shovel and that there are no roots or stones making it hard to dig a deep enough hole.

I have a lot of experience putting in shrubs and grasses in my garden and I’ve found using a fork helps a great deal in loosening the dirt before I put my full weight behind the shovel.

Three of the four shrubs went in relatively easily. The fourth - well off the trail, behind a fallen beech tree that was tough to get around but which made a good hanger for my coat and binoculars - required me to move the shrub a couple of times to avoid thick roots. Sometimes a couple of inches can make a big difference.

Each time I finished putting in a shrub I would toss the empty pot to the trail as a marker. This made it very easy to find the shrubs again when I finished and went off to take a break.

I must say, I impressed myself. When I came back for the pots I found all four shrubs looked as though they had been growing in those spots for years, not put in the ground less than an hour before.

It gave me a warm feeling to know that if they survive a New Jersey winter, these plants will be around for a long time to come, adding beauty as well as being a natural teaching tool. They will flower and then provide berries for the birds, too.

They’ll also be a bit of me left behind, even if you don‘t see my name on them. But I‘ll know. And isn’t that what volunteering is all about?

Margo D. Beller

If you're interested in volunteering for Scherman Hoffman, please contact Denis Cleary at 908-766-5787 or denis.cleary@njaudubon.org.