In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
December, 2010
Regional Report

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Finches find thistle seed irresistible! Photo courtesy of Henry Tenenbaum

Feed the Birds

Do you remember the song from Disney movie Mary Poppins called "Feed the Birds"? It went something like this:

"Come feed the little birds, show them you care.
Their young ones are hungry,
Their nests are so bare;
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag,
Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag."

Feeding wild birds does more than provide entertainment, although it certainly does have that factor going for it. If you have ever been witness to a thistle sock full of action, you understand how mesmerizing watching birds can be. Dozens of tiny finches will cover the surface of the sock, all trying to fill their beaks with the diminutive black seeds. It's an amazing sight. Finches not only enjoy thistle seed, but also aphids, white flies and other minuscule insect pests. Once these little feathered diners have been invited into your garden, they go to work for you.

As the seasons change, so will the birds. Winter brings in migrating species such as cedar wax wings and robins. Do a little homework and provide food that will attract the birds currently in the neighborhood.

Some birds will stick around all year long, such as towhees and mourning doves. California Towhees are nosy little birds, not much to look at, but very curious. They are ground feeding birds that are attracted to their own reflections. Expect them to tidy up under the table after an outdoor meal. Mourning doves are also ground feeders that will clean up under the bird feeder after messier species. Once airborne, they are incredible fliers but terrible nest builders. Their nests are very loosely constructed, so much so that it is amazing that this species is so prolific.

Woodpeckers, nuthatches, flickers and sapsuckers appreciate a suet feeder, and once they have taken up residence, will glean the bark of your trees for boring insects. Bark beetles don't have a chance in a garden where there are woodpeckers. I love to watch them walk down the trunk of a tree, upside down, on their way to the feeder. Their rapid flight is a study of wings in motion.

Sparrows, although common, are very endearing and are grateful for a hand out. Their chatter is pleasing to the ear.

Place the feeder where you can see it from inside the house. Until the birds become accustomed to your presence they will be shy. Viewing from indoors will not startle them while they are eating.
Place the feeder in a sunny location away from shrubs where predators (cats!) can hide.

To prevent birds from flying into windows, hang mylar strips in front of the glass so that it will flutter in the wind. Birds are attracted to their own reflections and, if startled, may fly into the glass hard enough to break their necks.

Keep the feeders clean and full, and provide a source of clean water where birds can drink and bathe. A sloped stone will provide smaller birds a place to perch while drinking.

Start with a feeder that has different sized holes and a basic wild bird seed mix which includes black oil sunflower seed, thistle, nyger, millet, safflower and peanuts. This mix will appeal to birds of all sizes, but don't be surprised if the blue jays are first at the feeder. They are greedy guts and noisy too.

Bird feeders make inexpensive gifts and are available in garden centers, hardware supply and pet stores. The greatest gift will be to the birds. They will thank you with hours of enjoyable viewing and a garden free from insect pests.


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