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How, when and where to feed our feathered friends

It’s a bright, sunny morning. You’re enjoying a leisurely weekend breakfast, watching a lively, feathered crowd at the feeder outside your window, when a dark blur flashes into the scene. Jays scream in panic, diving away. A cloud of mourning doves whirs into the sky, as chickadees dash for cover. Feathers explode, then drift slowly to the ground.

Predators come to bird feeders to feed on birds. Without feeders, most individual birds or flocks of birds would be spread throughout a variety of habitats, seeking food, water, grit and shelter. The naturally wide dispersal of many species throughout woods and fields makes birds more difficult for predators to target.

Without careful planning, concentrating your feathered friends at feeders can turn your oasis into a market. Following are ways to mitigate this situation.

Open spaces

Feeders positioned near a corner of the house allow fast fliers like sharp-shinned hawks to approach unseen from the blind side, flash around the corner and ambush the feeder occupants. Move the feeders three metres (10 feet) or more away from your house wall, positioning them in the middle of a long side, away from corners.

Leaving this ground space around a feeder should bring any incoming hawk or stalking domestic cat into the birds’ view. However, note that sharp-shinned hawks and others learn to home in on feeders by aligning their trajectory with incoming bright sunlight, so their prey fail to see them coming.

Shrubbery makes good cover

While an open space around some feeding stations can offer feeder birds a warning about predators, it can also prove lethal for the birds under attack—they have to retreat through that space.

If you leave an open space as visual insurance for feeder occupants, be sure to supply lots of thick shrubbery or dense evergreen tree cover around its perimeter. Use evergreens like open-grown white spruce, white pine and cedar. I also use lilacs and quince in combination with dogwoods. Together they form thickets of branches into which avian friends can quickly dive.

Mock orange bushes offer a similar tangle. Hawks try to penetrate the maze, but they are not as adept as the smaller birds at manoeuvring through it.

Sitting pretty at a feeder—one of the reasons people feed birds is so they can watch them.

Adjust your schedule

Consider feeding first thing in the morning, just enough so that little seed remains by nightfall. This minimizes the attraction for the night-time crowd. On the other hand, the presence of nocturnal flying squirrels may prompt one to add food at dusk. Mice at the feeder after dark may attract saw-whet owls.

The point here is to adjust the amount and timing of your feeding to benefit the wild birds and/or mammals you want to assist. Leave little for scavengers who might decide to move into your attic or shed.

Try to accommodate

Some birds, like song sparrows and juncos, literally camp in the feeder for considerable periods of time. Others, like chickadees, arrive, grab a sunflower, and retreat to thick cover where they proceed to eat.

I locate a separate feeder for the hide-to-eat crowd on the opposite side of the house, close to, or just inside another thicket of trees and bushes. The hanging tube feeders are designed for small birds, and are difficult for jays and grackles to pillage.

Noisy flocks

Grackles are entertaining in small numbers, but offer a good example of how feeding birds into the late spring and summer can get out of hand. As the days grow longer, grackle flocks congregate around food sources, their numbers swelling into the hundreds.

The feeder becomes a “spring break” pick up bar for meeting, impressing and courting the opposite sex. Usually the sheer numbers and noise inhibit any other migrating birds from accessing the feeder. You can go broke sponsoring this event.

Warm weather warnings

Warm weather feeders can easily become incubators for moulds and diseases that spread by contact. Two Salmonellosis outbreaks have occurred in eastern North America in recent decades; one in spring 1988, and another over the warm winter of 1997-1998. This form of salmonella bacterial disease is spread by bird feces (poop). It thrives in warm, wet conditions wherever flocking species gather. American goldfinches, common redpolls and pine siskins often succumb.

The disease can be passed on to domestic cats that prey upon sick birds, and to cat owners. Infected birds are listless at first, progressing from wobbly, shivering, and staggering to convulsions and death.

Keeping the feeder clean and scrubbing it regularly with a 10 per cent bleach solution in water will help prevent the spread of this infectious disease. Avoid handling any sick birds.

Hummingbird feeders aside, there are other good reasons to stop feeding during warm months. Most birds have only themselves to feed during cold weather. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, and the northern goshawk pair nesting in our woods, occasionally take a mourning dove at the feeders over the winter for their own consumption.

Breeding seasons usually begin in spring and, depending on the species, continue into the summer. Predators need to feed incubating mates, and later, their youngsters. Imagine the summer chaos at the feeder if these pairs were also hunting to feed their young!

Foraging skills

Mom loved watching birds, and fed them year-round. As a teenager in Fredericton, I watched some adult sparrows, nuthatches and other birds bring their youngsters to her feeder and simply abandon them there—in other words when Mom’s food was available, the deadbeat parents didn’t bother to teach their fledglings how to find food in the wild.

I stop feeding in May, after the rose-breasted grosbeaks arrive. By that time, most returning migrants have had ample opportunity to restore themselves. I pack leftover seeds in sealed plastic bags, and store them in the freezer.

When snow once again blankets the ground and wild seeds, I clean the feeders, load them with seed and start all over again. (Note: Birds can become very dependent on your feeder in cold weather—when I’m away for more than a few days a friend maintains their feeding.)

I particularly enjoy the two dozen or more blue jays who winter here. They’re my planting crew! With luck, the feeder food helps them forget the acorns they planted in the woods last summer and fall.

Many “blue jay” acorns become red oak trees that can live for 200 to 300 years.

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