In the Garden:
No, this isn't an overweight goldfinch but one with his feathers fluffed to ward off autumn's chill.
Ever So Much On Wild Birds
Even without statistics to back up my supposition, I would lay odds that a very high percentage of gardeners also feed wild birds. Which means that most of you reading this already have bird feeders out. One of the fascinating aspects for me about bird feeding is that it can be approached either with simplicity or complexity. Bottom line, a single feeder filled with a seed mix will attract birds. At the opposite extreme, just peruse any bird-feeding catalog or visit a store devoted to the hobby. The range of feeders, feed, and accoutrements is mind-boggling, verging on intimidating, to say nothing of wallet-draining. Equally copious is the amount of information about bird feeding on the internet. So how to sift and sort through all this?
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology is among the foremost of authorities on the subject and has an extensive Web site, (http://www.birds.cornell.edu) that provides a wealth of information. Go to the All About Birds section for articles on birding and gear, attracting birds, bird conservation, and home study courses. Perhaps best of all, the site also has an online guide for specific bird identification of hundreds of North American birds, including ID tips, photos, maps, sounds, habitat, and more.
A Six-Step Program
Among the most comprehensive of Web sites for information on attracting and feeding wild birds is one put together by over a dozen wildlife and birding organizations and universities. Backyard Bird Care (http://www.backyardbirdcare.org) offers six steps for learning more about attracting and protecting the birds in your backyard. Following are summations of these steps:
Step 1: Put out the welcome mat! To compensate for habitat loss, make your yard more attractive to birds by landscaping with native plants that provide natural food sources, shelter from the elements and predators, and nesting sites. Providing feeders, nest boxes, and water also benefits birds.
Step 2: Prepare a proper menu. Providing the appropriate foods year-round will attract more birds to your yard and help ensure that they have a safe and nutritious diet. To attract the greatest variety of birds to your yard, use several different feeder types and a variety of foods. Feeders could include tray or platform, hopper or house, window, tube, nyger, and suet, as well as a hummingbird feeder in summer.
Fulfilling the needs for the widest variety of birds is black oil sunflower seed. Nyger -- a necessity for finches -- is offered in specialty tube feeders. Corn and white proso millet attract ground-feeding birds like juncos, sparrows, and doves. High-energy foods like suet and peanut butter are eaten by many birds, but especially the insect-eating ones like chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches.
Softened dried raisins, currants, and other fruits (both dried and fresh) attract robins, thrushes, bluebirds, waxwings, mockingbirds, catbirds, tanagers, and orioles. Putting out grit (not grits, but a stone-like material sold at feed and pet stores) helps birds to "chew" their food in their gizzard.
Step 3: Keep feed and feeding areas clean. To help reduce the possibility of disease transmission in birds, clean feeders and feeding areas at least once a month but preferably every two weeks. Wash feeders with hot soapy water, rinse with plain water, then with a 10 percent solution of bleach and warm water. Dry thoroughly before refilling. Scrub birdbaths and replace water at least every three to five days. Rake up and dispose of seed hulls under feeders once a week. If possible, move feeders periodically. Keep seed and foods dry and discard any that turn musty or moldy.
Step 4. Birds and chemicals don't mix. Many pesticides, even organic ones, are toxic to birds. Avoid using them if at all possible; otherwise avoid using them near areas where birds feed, bathe, or rest.
Step 5. Keep cats away from birds. Millions of birds are killed each year by cats. The best solution is to keep cats indoors. Otherwise, install feeders in areas not readily accessible to cats, or install fences or other barriers to help keep cats from feeder areas.
Step 6. Reduce window collisions. Depending on their size and location, some windows reflect the sky or vegetation, and birds are fooled into thinking they can fly through them. To eliminate this problem, attach decorative decals to the outside surface, place feeders either closer or further away from windows, attach branches or lightweight, shiny objects in front of windows, or cover the window with garden netting.
So Who's Counting?
The National Audubon Society and the Cornell Ornithology Lab have combined to form BirdSource (http://www.birdsource.org) and eBird (http://www.ebird.org). These interactive Web sites use technology to promote conservation and environmental learning by providing the opportunity for people to record and share their counts of birds online through the Great Backyard Birdcount (http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/), as well as the Christmas Bird Count (http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc/getinvolved.html) and Project Feeder Watch (http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/).
While You're At It
Most gardeners have probably noticed that they don't live in a vacuum but rather an ecosystem containing people, plants, birds, insects, and fungi, plus assorted reptiles, mammals, and other critters. If you're interested in the total picture, and well you should be, explore the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program (http://www.nwf.org/backyard/). Even if you don't participate, you'll still learn a lot online. The Wildlife Federation is also involved in a backyard habitat television program available daily on the Animal Planet channel (http://animal.discovery.com/fansites/backyard/backyard.html).
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