Monthly Garden Guide

One of winter’s favorite pleasures is to be inside a warm house and look out at the wild birds flocking to the feeder. I love to refill the feeders in the morning after a storm, pouring out my gifts to the birds. They know what to expect and start flirting into the bare trees around the feeders as soon as I open the door.

Feeding birds at home is like running any successful restaurant: You need a good location, a comfortable, clean space and an appealing menu. Different birds have different tastes. So what you put in your feeder should depend on what you would like to attract. Serve a seed special. The superior sunflower seed is the small black-oil type. Most birds who frequent feeders love them.Mimimize the mess. Hulled sunflower seed are more expensive, but there’s less waste left behind. Shrubbery and trees offer quick escape routes if danger flies overhead or pounces from the shadows. A sunny spot out of the prevailing winds–near a small tree or shrubs, with a good view of the house–is a perfect spot for a feeder.

If you are new to feeding birds, you might wonder what to offer. In short, offer seeds and water. Many of the birds we see in winter are seed eaters. They have to be: insects are hard to come by this time of year. By setting up a bird feeding station, you are taking your cue from nature, offering the kind of nourishment that the birds are adapted to. You provide a generous, reliable source of food, and the birds gladly come and help themselves, up close, where it’s convenient for you to watch them.

The hands down favorite bird seed is sunflower. It attracts many types of birds including woodpeckers, jays and finches. Buy the black sunflower seeds, sometimes called oil seeds. Birds prefer them to the grey and white striped sunflower seeds sold for people because they are higher in oil content. They are softer shelled, hence easier to crack open.

Another essential bird seed is niger. Finches adore niger. You may have dozens of finches visiting your niger feeder at once, which is quite a cheering sight on a winter day. Niger is a black seed, so tiny and light you can blow away a handful with a gentle breath. Buy a yellow seed sock or a hanging feeder specifically designed for niger, and hang it where you can see it from your best viewing window. Up close to the house, even under the eaves, is fine. Finches will become very tame and won’t mind your standing two feet from them, on the other side of the window, while they eat.

The only other seed mix I have found my birds like is the dove and quail food. I scatter it on the ground for quail, doves, sparrows and finches. Buy the seeds you know your birds want. Try a few different kinds, depending on the birds in your area.

When starting up a feeding program, be patient. It may take as long as several weeks before the birds discover your feeders. While you wait, be sure to keep the feeders filled. Eventually, the birds will come…and then they will come back! Sometimes conscientious people are concerned about whether feeding the birds will harm the birds. Will the birds become dependent on the handouts? And it’s sometimes advised that one should only start feeding birds if certain that the feeding can continue uninterrupted all winter. However, the evidence indicates that feeding is not likely to be bad for birds. They don’t settle in and dine at just one place. Finches, for example, follow a circuit each day, visiting a number of feeders and wild food patches, as we know from studies of banded birds that can be identified individually.

With many households feeding birds, it’s unlikely that a bird will starve because one feeder goes empty. All the same, birds that come into your yard at dusk on a cold evening are hungry, and one does not like to disappoint one’s guests. It’s my pleasure to make sure that they always find something to eat in my yard.