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Hamptons Life

Oct 31, 2014 1:16 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Feeding The Birds, And Other Guests

Nov 2, 2014 11:28 AM

I’ve learned a great deal about bird feeding since the days I set up my first feeders when I lived in Shinnecock Hills. In the years since I have come to understand that feeding these birds through the winter months pays great dividends in the landscape and gardens during the other three seasons of the year.At one point I naively believed that there were seed eaters and insect eaters. Not so at all. Take for example the common robin. They don’t frequent the feeders but we usually associate them with eating just worms. Come this time of the year, though, I always find them early in the morning feeding on the tiny fruits of the crabapple trees and Bradford pears. The bluebirds that swoop to and fro all summer catching zillions of insects in mid-flight actually make up 40 percent of their diet in plant material from fall through spring. And cute little chickadees who seem to be the most frequent and voracious visitors at our feeders in the winter make insects 90 percent of their diet for eight months of the year.

Years ago in Shinnecock Hills we established a small herbaceous border and rockery in a sheltered area below our kitchen. The area was shaded by a shadbush, several cedars and a few pines. To add a bit of weediness (and seediness … as in the embryonic type), two sloppy but manageable pussy willows were permitted to remain. A few bulbs began to pop in late February and then the area flowered and grew through November. Two small birdbaths resided in the beds, as did a small brass marker warning “Quail Crossing.”

Bird seed of several types and sorts was distributed daily to a feeder and a ground spot that was protected from erosion caused by the incessant pecking at the ground. In the middle of winter we probably went through 25 to 50 pounds of food a week. And I thought it all went to the birds.

In September and October we were treated to a mother pheasant toting her three chicks about. The chicks quickly gained weight, but seemed to stay a boring (but highly protective) brown until in a period of a week two of them developed the unmistakably brilliant colors of the male ringed-neck.

We became a bit suspicious, though, when each evening at dusk we spied a large cottontail busily munching in the area. Great, I thought, all this work and planting so a rabbit can forage on the foliage. But the foliage was untouched, as the rabbit in question seemed to have grown to its unusual size by feasting on our black striped, high-oil sunflower seeds.

OK, I could accept the rabbit eating the bird food and even the mouse that occasionally got into the bird feeder, then stuffed himself to the point where he couldn’t get back out. The chipmunks also hoarded the sunflower seeds, but they were cute and fun to watch … and at the time of year when they steal the seeds the birds have plenty of other food sources.

The squirrels moved in slowly and on the sly. At one point we had one that occasionally visited, but then he invited a couple of friends and even at the peak of a snowstorm they burrowed down to the buried stash and stuffed their little gray cheeks.

I could handle all of this even though all I intended to do was plant a garden and attract a few birds. Well, the snow was raging and there, a few feet from the window, was a large raccoon dangling from the shadbush, one foot hanging on for dear life, one hanging in air, and the other two busily stirring the bird food in the feeder searching for tender morsels.

The next evening another surprise. At dusk I happened to look down at the garden and standing at the ground feeding station was a good-size doe complete with a yearling and 2-year-old sibling. They looked up at me and pointed their big ears, took a last mouthful from the feeder and trotted off with the feeder depleted. As Mom made her retreat she reached back, grabbed a shoot from a pine branch, chewed and pranced off.

But it was the birds that were and are the pure and constant joy. We fed them, gave them water when possible, and in turn they ate the garden insects, kept the planting bed soil constantly turned, and amused and amazed us endlessly.

To attract the widest variety of birds (and keep them), you have to provide several types of feeding stations and several types of feed, although you can get away with a general mix. Ground feeding stations will attract, of all things, ground-loving birds including doves, quail, pheasants, thrushes and many, many more.

Other birds prefer hanging feeders, including suet feeders. In fact if we hadn’t put up a hanging feeder we probably would have never met Barney. Barney was one of several red-breasted nuthatches (we’ve seen as many as three as a time) who flit about snatching seed from the feeder then whisk over to the pine tree to stash the seed under a piece of bark or munch it on the spot. These tiny birds are very comical, extremely tame and to watch them can only remind you of Barney Rubble from “The Flintstones.” Their antics and games are outdone only by the more common chickadees, who can quickly be taught to feed from your hand.

There must be 15 to 20 different types of birds that come and go depending on the time of year and harshness of the weather. We kept a running list near the window and started a new one every year. In the warmer months we put out little to no food, but then we could watch the insect eaters hover, dart and peck for the six-legged demons. The pussy willow attracted aphids and thence a multitude of feathered feeders. The rich garden soil was home to worms, grubs and beetles, hence robins, mockingbirds and towhees.

There was a slightly negative side to this little resort that we’d created, but we accepted it as part of the grand scheme. From time to time we’d be watching the show and like a bolt of lightning a feathered missile descended from an unsuspected perch as a hawk or falcon struck its mark. It was over in seconds and all that was left behind were a few feathers. To have dwelt on the act could have been depressing, but to watch it for the few brief seconds that the whole strike took was amazing.

If you live in a coop or condo complex please check your rules and bylaws, as many of these developments don’t permit and actively discourage bird feeding. It’s not that they are anti-bird … it’s more a problem of bird seed that accumulates, bird droppings and the chance that dropped seed that’s not cleaned up will attract mice or rats.

There are dozens of types of bird feeders in a wide range of prices. Even the inexpensive ones make wonderful holiday presents along with a 5-pound bag of bird seed. Squirrels will make every attempt to get to your feeder, so a squirrel baffle may be an accessory to consider. If squirrels do discover your feeder, they won’t be content with the small holes designed for bird beaks. In no time they will gnaw the holes to at least an inch in diameter to satisfy their appetites. The better feeders will have metal plates around the feeding holes to prevent this type of damage.

Bird seed is generally sold in three or more grades as well as designer mixes that will attract specific groups of birds. The least expensive grade contains a great deal of millet and seed that most birds will simply let drop to the ground. The more expensive blends are actually a better value, as the birds will eat more of the seed instead of dropping it. Seed that falls to the ground can also be a problem, as come spring much of what’s left behind will germinate with many unwanted surprises. Our main feeder now hangs over the driveway instead of over the garden. It’s easier to clean up the dropped seed there than weed all spring and summer.

And if you think squirrels are your biggest problem, just be happy you don’t live upstate where the black bears just adore getting to the bird feeders. It’s a big problem, as it brings them down the mountains for snacks about now, just before they hibernate, and many lawns sport signs saying, “Feed the birds, not the bears.” As for the rest of my feathered friends … please don’t forget to feed them, especially in the coming winter. Keep growing.

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Do you have bluebirds or are they tree swallows? I've never seen a bluebird out here but sure would be happy to know they are out here somewhere. Unfortunately, English house sparrows are bluebird nest parasites and where there are houses, there are often house sparrows.
By btdt (449), water mill on Nov 20, 14 12:01 PM