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Bird feeding basics: It’s an easy hobby, but a few pointers helps

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JD05121502
A nuthatch inspects a suet feeder at Spring Creek Prairie. According to one trade organization, some 75 million people in the United States are bird feeders. (Joe Duggan)

Toss a handful of seed on the ground.

There, you’re a bird feeder.

Join the crowd.

Some 75 million people feed birds in the United States, according to a national backyard bird feeding trade association. And nearly 600,000 people watch wildlife in Nebraska — a figure that includes bird feeders, according to a 2001 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. For comparison, the same survey found 296,000 anglers and 173,000 hunters in Nebraska.

Feeding birds can be as simple as broadcasting a handful of seed or it can involve multiple feeder setups and heated bird baths costing hundreds of dollars.

To get into bird feeding, you don’t have to spend a small fortune. But to really enjoy bird feeding, you need to do a little more than a Johnny Appleseed routine.

One guy who knows bird feeding is Dave Titterington, owner of Wild Bird Habitat Store in Lincoln, a teacher/naturalist at Pioneers Park Nature Center and project leader of the Nebraska Birding Trails. Another is Kevin Poague, Important Bird Areas coordinator for Audubon Nebraska, who maintains the feeders at Audubon’s Spring Creek Prairie south of Denton.

The best thing about feeding birds is getting to see them up close, Poague said. He likes to note the coloration changes species undergo through the seasons and also enjoys watching their behaviors — how blue jays dominate a feeder or how a nuthatch will take one seed and fly off before returning, that sort of thing.

Most people find it fascinating to watch birds from a window in their houses, Titterington agreed.

“I have women come in who say their husbands don’t even watch TV anymore,” he said.

What do birds get out of the deal? It depends on whether you’re talking an individual bird or entire populations.

Because birds have high metabolisms and can store little fat for energy, an easy meal at a feeding station can really help out an individual bird in a pinch. Studies have shown that birds that visit feeders spend less time (and energy) foraging.

But humans tend to give themselves too much credit. Some even believe if they were to stop feeding, the feathered guests would perish. In fact, other studies have shown that birds with and without access to feeders have similar survival rates, Titterington said.

“These birds have been here for a long time,” he said. “They’re not going to rely on us.”

Regardless of whether you’re feeding for yourself or feeding for the birds, just feed. Here’s how:

Feeders

You can buy “el cheapo” for $10. Or you can drop a Ben Franklin for one. Or you can build your own with plans readily available online.

Get something made with quality materials, but don’t break the bank because to do it right, you’ll need several feeders. For example, a hopper style feeder suits species like cardinals and tubular thistle feeders cater to tiny finches exclusively. You can also get feeders for fruit-eating species, cages for suet (animal fat) and nectar bulbs for hummingbirds.

Try to locate your feeders within a few yards of shrubs or trees to give birds a place to stage before they swoop in. Also, place them at varying heights to appeal to different species. Several feeders also helps reduce crowding.

Finally, come spring, give your feeders a good cleaning to reduce the possibility of giving birds disease. Poague recommended a solution of non-chlorine bleach and water — one part bleach to 10 parts water.

Seed

The more types of seed you offer, the more species of birds you’ll attract.

Black oil sunflower seed appeals to the greatest number. For those who don’t want to clean up shells, get the hulled version. Frankly, the birds don’t care either way.

Thistle seed is for finches only.

Millet appeals to ground-feeding species like sparrows, juncos and mourning doves.

Safflower will appeal to species like cardinals and chickadees, but not so much to squirrels and grackles — two visitors that torment the established feeding community.

Cracked corn brings in the birds, but you may as well ring the dinner bell for squirrels. Peanuts attract woodpeckers … and squirrels.

Both Poague and Titterington recommended avoiding mixes, or at least reading their labels carefully. Most cheap mixes contain filler like milo and wheat, which most birds don’t eat. Instead, buy the seed separately and make your own mixes if you like.

Another thing to consider: You like your food fresh and so do birds. Seed can go rancid, especially thistle seed, so be careful where you buy and until you get a feel for the hobby, don’t buy too much at the start.

Finally, buy a new metal trash can or two with a well-fitting lid to store your seed. Mice love the stuff.

Water

“At this time of year, you can almost attract more birds with open water than bird seed,” Titterington said.

So how do you keep the water open? Option one: Use a plastic bird bath, one that won’t break when the water freezes, throw out the ice each morning and refill. Option two: Shell out more cash for a heated bird bath or a electrical de-icer.

Make sure to change the water regularly. C’mon. Dirty bathwater? Yuck.

Provide a safe place to eat

Felines prey on birds and they’re really good at it, so keep the cat inside.

Windows present another hazard, because flying birds often can’t see them. The best way to prevent window collisions is to hang something in front of the window that moves with the breeze. Birds see the movement and flair. You could try a couple of windsocks or streamers or like they’ve got at Spring Creek Prairie, garlands of honey-locust pods attached with strings.

OK, so what do you do if a sharp-shinned hawk shows up at your feeder and picks off a sparrow or two? Not to worry. A hawk’s gotta eat too, and it’s not some human’s pet with other options. All you can do is hope the hawk picks off house sparrows … or grackles … or starlings.

Reach Joe Duggan at 473-7239 or jduggan@journalstar.com.

Bird feeding resources

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cooperative Extension publishes a NebGuide on feeding birds. Get it online at ianrpubs.unl.edu/wildlife/index.htm

If you want to read even more about feeding, “Wild About Birds”by C.L. Henderson comes highly recommended. Order a copy by calling Minnesota’s Bookstore at 1-800-657-3757.

Bird feeding resources

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cooperative Extension publishes a NebGuide on feeding birds. Get it online at ianrpubs.unl.edu/wildlife/index.htm

If you want to read even more about feeding, “Wild About Birds”by C.L. Henderson comes highly recommended. Order a copy by calling Minnesota’s Bookstore at 1-800-657-3757.

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