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Feeding our feathered friends

As winter gathers force descending on our birds with a threat of starvation, some of us set out feeders to soften the blow and enliven our dreary vistas. A whole industry of purveyors from Wild Birds Unlimited to Ridge Feed and Supply waits to offer feed and feeders for every purpose and almost all budgets.

These feeders provide us with the entertainment of birds as they interact over food. The basic platform feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds will attract a wide variety of species. The dark-eyed junco is virtually universal in our area while red-breasted and white-breasted Nuthatches are also frequent feeders. Oak titmice will emerge from oaks to grab a seed along with an occasional hermit Thrush.

The finches, lesser and American goldfinch, house and purple finches all like thistle seed. Any thistle seed dispenser from a porous sock to a special tube filled with Niger thistle will attract them to your home. Those who have planted coneflowers will find the seed heads are attracting finches as well as juncos. The abundance of wild blackberries is ideal for golden-crowned, white-crowned and other sparrows and they are only occasionally seen at feeders.



Even Anna’s hummingbirds over winter in the foothills and appear at feeders filled with a mixture of sugar water, four parts water to one part sugar. It’s best to boil the mixture to dissolve the sugar before refilling the hummingbird feeder at least weekly in the winter. These feeders need to be cleansed of mold when they are refilled by washing with a bleach or vinegar solution. Their migration decision does not appear to be based on the availability of food.

Suet feeders are an effective way to feed woodpeckers, nuthatches and other species. In our area hairy, downy, nuttall’s and acorn woodpeckers all will feed at these blocks of fat, nuts and seeds. Hindi Greenberg invited me to see an almost albino acorn woodpecker with just a few black spots and a red cap that regularly visits the suet feeder by her deck.




Pasting a mixture of peanut butter and corn meal into a pinecone and hanging them on tree can create an inexpensive and quite effective alternative to the suet feeder. Pat Cobler would add some mixed birdseed to these and reports that the birds around her house love them.

One of the best ways to feed birds is to provide water for them, even in the winter. A birdbath or pond that is approachable provides an essential ingredient for birds and necessitates its own management activities.

The dangers of bird feeding are that they attract predators and spread disease. Cleaning up the feeder and the ground underneath occasionally can help control diseases. A 10 percent bleach solution to wash down the feeder helps to reduce the pathogens that are found in feces. Band-tailed pigeons are susceptible to a disease spread by feces.

Sharp-shinned and Coopers hawks have shown up at our feeders attracted by the presence of feeding birds. Cats are a major killer of birds. Audubon estimates that 30 percent of bird deaths are due to cats. Cats indoors! The Campaign for Safer Birds and Cats was initiated by the American Bird Conservancy to end the death of birds and other wildlife caused by domestic cats.

Windows are one source of bird deaths and injury. Feeders that are located at least 3 feet from a window are more likely to be safe. Covering windows with plastic netting or attaching reflectors prevents birds from colliding with windows. Oddly, hummingbirds do not in my experience suffer such collisions and our hummingbird feeder is right next to our window.

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Walt Carnahan is president of the Sierra Foothills Audubon Society.


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