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Winter Bird Feeding

There are many reasons why backyard bird feeding is one of the most popular outdoor hobbies in the country. Of the more than 50 million people that feed birds, probably a good percentage of them love the color and music birds bring to a backyard. Some may enjoy developing the best strategy for bringing them into view. And there are many people who like identifying their feathered visitors.

My reason, however, doesn't exactly fit these categories. In fact, I'm a little embarrassed to say that the reason I feed the birds every winter is because I'm nosy. Sure, I could say that I was conducting research on bird behavior, but the truth is, I'm a snoop. Seeing them flit from shrubs to feeder is almost like eavesdropping on another table's conversation at a restaurant.

Each morning, I take my post in the living room, armed with my undercover surveillance tool — a good pair of binoculars. The birds go about their business, blissfully unaware of my covert observations. There are times I swear I can see the male cardinal cringe as he flees to make room for one of the neighborhood's bossy blue jays. Pretty soon, though, a flock of chickadees will move in and crowd out this handsome bully. Every day these avian dramas unfold right in front of my window. I note that the tufted titmouse doesn't hold a grudge if a nuthatch or two drops by. And I've also seen the mourning doves become peevish when a crowd of sparrows grows too large and greedy for the millet scattered on the ground.

You can also get in on the act this winter. It's easy to get started bird feeding. And it's a project you can build and improve every year. Following are some tips that'll have `em practically eating out of your hand.

Shopping is for the birds
The first thing you need to do is head to your favorite home improvement, department or hardware store to pick out a bird feeder and food. If you have limited yard space or just want to keep things simple, you can attract a lot of different birds by offering black-oil sunflower seeds. Almost all seed-eating birds, including cardinals, finches, chickadees and nuthatches will flock to feeders stocked with black-oil sunflower seeds.

Some species of birds prefer other kinds of seeds. White proso millet and cracked corn, which can be scattered on the ground, are a big hit with juncos, doves and sparrows. Thistle seed will attract purple finches, pine siskins and goldfinches.

Once you've selected seed, you need to pick out a feeder. Black-oil sunflower seeds can be offered in platform feeders, which will draw a variety of birds. Or you can selectively feed smaller birds, such as finches, using hanging tube feeders. Thistle seed is so tiny that it's best to offer it in specially designed feeders.

Suet, or animal fat, may not sound very yummy to you, but it's a real crowd pleaser for woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. This nutritious treat can be hung from trees in a mesh bag or attached to a tree trunk in a special suet feeder.

You can lead a bird to water . . .
It may not seem like birds would need water in the winter, but actually it's very important. In addition to quenching their thirst, birds also need water to keep their feathers clean and free of parasites. Parasites can damage their feathers, which diminishes their ability to stay warm.

You can easily satisfy their need for water with a commercial birdbath. There are a couple of features to look for when buying a birdbath. First, it should be shallow, with a basin depth of about 1 to 1 1/2 inches. It also should have a coarsely textured bottom so the birds can get a firm foothold while they're splashing around.

If you live where it gets below freezing, you'll also want to buy a specialized heater to keep your birdbath from turning into a bird-sized ice rink. Providing running water, in the form of drippers, misters or flowing creeks is the best bet. The sound of moving water is the ticket for attracting birds to your backyard.

Location, Location, Location
When you're in the market for real estate, whether for yourself or the birds, location is key. As a rule of thumb, place feeders about 8 to 10 feet away from protective cover, such as bushes or trees, where birds can hide from predators. Most small birds won't venture far from cover, so if your backyard doesn't provide that, you can create it by planting shrubs or building a brush pile.

Another important consideration is to find a bright, sunny location easily seen from your window so you can observe and identify birds that visit your feeder.

To attract the largest variety of birds, the best feeding strategy is to place foods at different locations and levels in your yard.

Keep up the good work
Although the fun begins once you've got your feeding station set up, there will still be a little upkeep beyond restocking seeds and suet. It's a good idea to clean your bird feeders every couple of weeks to keep them disease free. Scrub your feeders with soap and water and then dip them into a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water. Rinse and dry the feeders thoroughly before filling them with seed.

Also, rake up seed hulls from underneath your feeder, because they can harbor bacteria that can make birds sick. Make sure to keep your birdbath clean and regularly replace the water.

Sow your wild seedlings
You can turn your yard into an avian paradise by combining bird feeding with another great hobby — gardening. You can attract a wide variety of birds by improving your backyard habitat. A big problem with many yards is they're almost barren except for some grass. Selecting plants that provide food and shelter will give the birds a good home throughout the year. Fruiting shrubs and trees such as hollies, hawthorn and dogwoods will entice fruit-eating birds such as robins, mockingbirds and thrashers. Planting a diversity of shrubs, seedlings and vines that grow in the nearby countryside will up your property's "bird value." Be sure to mix open areas among the foliage, too.

By following the above steps, you'll create a beautiful "birds eye view" that will entertain you throughout the winter. Whether you enjoy their songs and color, love to identify the different species or, like me, love to watch their antics, there's probably no better way to enjoy your morning coffee than with the birds.



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