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I’m not much for making resolutions for the new year because change takes will power, and amending the habits of a lifetime requires more than a strong will! Instead of resolving to change any of my bad habits, I try to refine them for the better good. I seem to have better luck polishing the things I already do rather than creating new goals I know I won’t achieve.
One of the most satisfying changes I make in the first days of the new year is paying more attention to my bird feeders. Back when fall was nothing but a cool evening breeze and a hint of color in the distant hardwoods, I put my various feeders up and stocked them with sunflower seeds, cracked corn and thistle so the birds and squirrels would get used to coming in. Well, by September the hunting seasons had kicked in, and many a day found me coming home well after dark seeing empty feeders swinging in the wind. I couldn’t even resolve to fill them the next morning and make it work, so except for a few must-work days and rainy weekends my chickadees, cardinals, goldfinches and grosbeaks went wanting. They’d come in when food was available but for most of the fall they had to make their own way, a difficult task once the snow fell and cold temperatures become the norm.
I had chances to hunt through Christmas week, so the feeders hung empty and the birds had to fend for themselves, but now it’s January, a new year and time to catch back up with my back yard responsibilities. I am all but overcome with guilt when I go out to see the bare, dangling feeders hanging sideways from their hooks. I know I’ve neglected my duties and it shows. Every trace of seed is gone, every corner of every feeder is scratched clean and not a speck of corn remains. If I worked for humans I’d have been fired back in September, but my birds are more magnanimous and, like the family dog, seem to live only for the moment. When I finally get around to refilling the feeders, the birds come in almost at once, and their constant comings and goings throughout the day indicate that all is forgiven.
“Busy” is as good an excuse as any, I suppose, but I feel a great sense of relief and satisfaction when all the feeders are filled, the suet and corn are out and the yard is ready for winter. My office window overlooks the yard so I can see every bird that comes in, and when the light is right, I can even take pictures without disturbing them. I normally place a hardwood limb in the snow a few feet away from each feeder so I can photograph the birds as they come in, grab a seed and perch to peck away at it. Most of the incoming birds use the limb as a staging area, checking out their surroundings for cats, snowball-throwing kids or more aggressive birds (blue jays, evening grosbeaks and crows are the worst!). If the coast is clear, they’ll head for the feeder, select a seed, and then come back to the limb to eat it. Flickers, nuthatches and titmice tend to grab seeds and then head into the woods to hide their prize under a curled piece of bark. Sometimes in spring I’ll see clusters of sunflower seedlings growing out from under the bark. Obviously, these species are better at hiding food than at finding it!
One thing to keep in mind once the serious winter feeding starts is that your birds come to depend on your offerings and will hang close to the house all season as long as there’s food available. Because of this clustering effect, the birds are more at risk of predation (hawks, owls, foxes and cats) and disease (due to infected birds visiting feeding stations). There’s little you can (legally) do about wild predators, but you can keep house cats indoors or place your feeders well away from places where cats can hide or creep up on unsuspecting birds.
Tainted seed can be a problem if the food is allowed to sit, get wet and develop mold. I go out once a month and scrape each feeder down to the bare wood and let it dry before I refill it. You can do the same with plastic feeders, but when the mold starts to discolor the plastic I tend to throw them out and put up new ones. “Clumping” is a real problem with fine seeds such as thistle or millet, so I keep those feeders only half full so that less seed is wasted when it’s time to clean or replace feeders.
Squirrels are a constant quandary among those who feed the birds. Strong, aggressive, relentless and clever, these bushy-tailed rodents can clean out a feeder in a day, with much of the seed being scattered on the ground as they jump and run all over the feeder. Given time, squirrels can chew through a feeder, gnaw through rope or wire hangers and generally make a mess of things. I could save time and energy by simply filling my boots with seed and putting them in the shed – the squirrels seem to enjoy taking the sunflower seeds and hiding them in my old shoes! I have a couple of chipmunks that do the same thing. I wonder how many mouthfuls of millet it takes to fill a size 10 knee boot?
For all its challenges, I enjoy feeding the birds all winter. It’s fun to have them around, to see the new arrivals and unusual species that show up, and I like seeing which ones will come and land in my hand. Chickadees always lead the way when it comes to trust. I can often have two in each hand, one on each shoulder and a couple on my hat while I feed them. I learned the trick from Beatrice Lyford of Milo back in the 1970s. She would stand outside her door and call the “chickies” to her hand. She just stood there talking to them, and before long she would be covered up with hungry chickadees! They came from far and wide on the north side of Hoxie Hill, flitting from tree to tree in droves, and they’d stay as long as she held her hand out to them. Quite a show – and reason enough to feed the birds this winter!
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