If You Enjoy Bird-Watching, It’s Time to Give Something Back

The first juncos are back in my Hudson Valley garden, and the white-throated sparrows, too — birds that summer in forests farther north....


The first juncos are back in my Hudson Valley garden, and the white-throated sparrows, too — birds that summer in forests farther north. At Julie Zickefoose’s place in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio, “purple finches are infiltrating,” she said. “And pine siskins are around — it’s happening.”

We both know what the return of these old friends means: Peak bird-feeding season approaches. Winter feeder birds enliven our gardens in the off-season like nothing else.

The prospect of watching birds up close — their enthusiasm undaunted when food is on offer, no matter the weather (or the headlines) — can help normalize a time that feels anything but. Ms. Zickefoose and I can’t wait, and we are not alone: Along with bread-baking, board games, gardening and, yes, Zoom, bird feeding is enjoying a pandemic uptick.


“I’m always kind of over the top with bird feeding,” said Ms. Zickefoose, a nature writer, illustrator and wildlife rehabilitator. “I don’t observe nature, I participate.”

She has raised about 25 bird species from infancy. She cooks for the birds (details below), and her wild visitors may get named. Like Garrett, the red-headed woodpecker who visited her feeders for weeks one winter, although he belonged to a species not known for that behavior and was a pretty rare bird in her location. Or Jemima, the blue jay she rescued in 2017, who inspired her recent book “Saving Jemima: Life and Love With a Hard-Luck Jay,” a welcome off-season companion for anyone craving nature.

We compared feeding plans, distilling best practices on what to feed where and when, to keep birds safe — and to maximize the precious connection.

First: It’s important to understand that a seed- or suet-filled feeder provides supplementary food, and is not a substitute for the best all-season feeding plan — creating a landscape that supports birds.

Many people offer that supplement year-round, but there are crucial exceptions. In areas where black bear are resident, feeders are best stored during the bears’ active season. I feed when the coast is likely to be clear, from around Thanksgiving to sometime in March, with a risk on either cusp of bent poles and destroyed feeders.

“I think bears are sort of forcing the pendulum, at least in the Northeast and other places where present, to swing back toward what makes sense,” Ms. Zickefoose said. “Which is to feed the birds when they actually might need it — in the harshest months.”

She is shifting away from summer feeding, too. Not because of bears, which aren’t present in her area, but because the risk of transmitting infections like salmonella increases when large groups of birds congregate around feeders. On her mind lately is a bacterium that causes what is referred to as house finch eye disease, which in 1994 jumped from poultry to house finches, and lately has jumped to other wild birds.

“It’s really time for us to take a look at whether we’re actually helping the birds or not,” Ms. Zickefoose said.

If you see birds with disease, take down your feeders and wash them with a dilute bleach solution (one part bleach to nine parts water). Keep them down a week or more to encourage birds to disperse. Many experts recommend such cleaning monthly, whether disease is observed or not.

Impact with window glass is a danger for birds zooming in to visit feeders or a water source, and a leading cause of death. To help them navigate safely, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other experts recommend positioning feeders either within three feet of windows, or farther than 30 feet away.

At intermediate distances, preventive measures are necessary. The American Bird Conservancy offers several possible solutions.

Placing feeders near enough to natural cover like shrubbery — so birds can tuck in if a predator appears — is especially appreciated in winter. But no perch should be so close that squirrels can leap from a branch onto the feeder. Ten feet is a good compromise between birds’ needs and squirrels’ desires.

“I have my feeders smack in the center of a clearing,” Ms. Zickefoose said. “And I’ve pruned any major limbs squirrels could jump from. They are so incredibly inventive and intelligent, you have to stay ahead of them.”

Both Ms. Zickefoose and I feed on the ground, too, by scattering seed, a practice that can begin before bears hibernate and feeders are safe to hang.

“I broadcast my mixed seeds and a little cracked corn around margins of my yard,” she said, “where I see sparrows and juncos scratching around. I keep it away from the feeders, so no droppings fall on it.”

Like the notion of truly deer-proof plants, a completely squirrel-proof feeder is probably more goal than guarantee. Still, combined with proper feeder placement, the use of poles, baffles and domes can help.

Ms. Zickefoose was given a pole she describes as “like a four-armed tree that’s not pretty, but effective.” On that device, called the Duncraft Squirrel Stopper, a sliding sleeve-like baffle moves up and down in successful defiance of squirrels, and even raccoons.

This year, Ms. Zickefoose has also added domes over her feeders — which protect the seed from weather and bird droppings, as well.

If you haven’t fed birds before, or want to fine-tune your offerings, Project FeederWatch at the Cornell Lab has a chart of the food preferences of 100 bird species that can be filtered by food type for your region.

If Ms. Zickefoose and I could feed only two things, it would be sunflower and suet (the raw stuff from the butcher, but only in winter, not in warm weather).

Sunflower hearts or chips — shelled seed — are particularly choice, accessible even to birds who can’t crack hulls. A bonus: Sunflower seeds in the shells are allelopathic, creating areas beneath feeders where some plants won’t grow, so using shelled seeds means less mess and fewer bare spots. If you are using seeds with shells, black-oil sunflower hulls are smaller and thinner (and therefore more widely consumed) than striped sunflower seeds.

Ms. Zickefoose feeds peanuts, too, “candy-industry rejects that I get in 50-pound bags, and roast before feeding,” she said, delighting everyone from woodpeckers to chipping sparrows.

And thistle seed is a finch magnet.

Another idea: Save your eggshells. Bake them in the oven on low to sterilize them, then crush and toss them on sidewalks or, as Ms. Zickefoose does, on the garage roof. They provide calcium female birds need to make eggs of their own.

She goes further, creating a concoction called Zick Dough from lard, peanut butter, nonmedicated chick starter (a poultry feed), oats, cornmeal and flour. It’s served as a crumbly winter treat in a domed plexiglass feeder tray to keep it dry.

But some birds will eat anything — even if it’s not listed on the feeder-bird food preference charts — like one bald eagle Ms. Zickefoose told me about, who flew away with a whole pan of lasagna cooling on the deck of a home in Alaska.

And then there are the mice we’ve trapped in our cellars and garages. We recycle them under our feeders, too. The blue jays and crows will thank you.

In the coldest weather, water may be scarcer than food. A floating de-icer can keep in-ground water gardens open, and there are de-icers small enough for birdbaths.

Or winter water might take the form of a heated pet bowl, Ms. Zickefoose said: “I put a couple of bricks in it, under a nice flat rock covering most of the surface, so the birds can’t bathe, but only drink from it.”

“I’m always thinking of hygiene first,” said Ms. Zickefoose, who rakes regularly beneath her feeders to clean up droppings and any hulls.

Wet seed can cake and mold inside feeders; thistle is especially vulnerable. So shake your feeders before refilling them to check for congealed seed. Scrub them out, and wash and dry them before rehanging if this occurred.

And that big, flat rock on the bricks in the pet bowl? “It’s a platform that also keeps them from pooping into the water quite so much,” she said. “So it stays cleaner between changes every few days.”

Ms. Zickefoose records of all her bird sightings, every adventure — and because she is inclined to draw her observations, she does it old-style, on paper. I use eBird, the virtual database from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Project FeederWatch would also love to know what you’re seeing.

We both excitedly email and text other bird-mad friends and especially neighbors, who might want to look out for that unusual visitor we just sighted.

So go ahead and set an inviting table.

What Ms. Zickefoose wrote on her blog during the recent fall migration applies to all things bird: “Go out and take it in. It will save you.”


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Newsrust: If You Enjoy Bird-Watching, It’s Time to Give Something Back
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