Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie...not!

To me, the garden is a doorway to other worlds; one of them, of course, is the world of birds. The garden is their dinner table, bursting with bugs and worms and succulent berries.
-Anne Raver

Brrr! It’s December and it’s cold here in the Pacific Northwest. This week the sun is shining but the temperature is ranging between the 30s in the day and the teens (F) at night. I know there are colder places but this is plenty cold enough for me.

Our little feathered friends seem to winter over well enough, some smart enough to head south to warmer climes. Well I would too! To keep them coming back I offer a smorgasbord of their favorites. In addition to the plant seed heads I leave intact in the winter garden, I stock birdfeeders with seed, and hummingbird feeders with syrup year round. Feeding them not only provides a helping hand with their survival, it also brings more of them into my garden where they eat bugs, helping me keep down insect destruction. It’s definitely win-win.

Our region has a hummingbird species that stay all year, opting out of the trip south. For them, I make my own syrup of sugar/water, as the boxed stuff with red dye is not only unnecessary color but the dye is reportedly harmful to them. The feeder tube has enough red plastic to attract them. In a one cup measure I put ½ cup sugar and fill to the 1 cup mark with boiling water. Stir to dissolve and cool. Boiling the water first keeps the syrup from spoiling a little longer. They come to sip 365 day of the year. And since more than half their diet is comprised of bug eating, that’s a lot less bugs eating my plants. In this freezing weather, even the sugar water can freeze, but wrapping the bottle with bubble wrap helps keep it thawed longer. And have you ever noticed the chickadees steal a sip of syrup from the hummers feeder? They do! They must have a sweet tooth beak.

For the songbirds, I fill their feeders with black oil sunflower and nyger thistle seeds adding seed imbedded suet cakes in winter. Suet provides the fats they can use to stay warm and these cakes are very popular in my garden. Pictured here are the tiny bush tits (a most disagreeable name) which stay in flocks. It’s not unusual to see more than a dozen all sharing on one cake.

Also the downy woodpecker, flicker, junco, chickadee, nut hatch, starling and even squirrels come to it for a nibble. Ok, yes admittedly starlings and squirrels can be piggy, tearing the whole thing apart in no time but I don’t begrudge them. It’s worth it to get the others to come. You can make your own suet cakes using beef suet, available from the meat dept in your grocery store, melting it, stirring in seed and pouring it into a mold. There are lots of recipes but to me it’s an icky and time consuming job. At around a dollar each, I just buy them.

To keep the squirrels happy and off the suet, I put out ‘Sweet Corn SquirreLogs’, which are simply made of compressed ground corn. I used to put out the dried corn on the cob, but the squirrels would bury the kernels and I’d find corn stalks sprouting up all over the place. I just lay the SquirreLogs on the ground near the suet. It works pretty well and after rain softens the logs the birds eat off them too. You can find them next to the suet cakes at the store. I had a few mushy apples, put them out and the squirrels loved them too!

I like to keep bird houses up for spring nesting, and I often wonder if any birds utilize them during the cold winter weather. I bought a ‘roosting pocket’ once for winter roosting (shelter from the weather) but I never noticed any bird use it and it was made of grasses or reeds or something which didn’t fare well in our wet weather.

A most excellent resource for bird feeding and housing is Russell Link’s Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, published by University of Washington Press. While it was written for the PNW I think the information within can be utilized in most parts of the country and outside the USA as well. Page 112 has a suet recipe and there are several pages devoted to building bird houses with plans and dimension specifications. Did you know the size of the entrance hole on a bird house is really important for bird safety from predators and which bird species you want to attract? And by all means, if you have a store bought bird house, be sure to cut off that peg just below the entrance hole! Nesting birds don’t need it and it makes a great perch for nest robbers who are after the eggs or babies. The book also has plans for building mason bee ‘houses’, butterfly houses, bat houses and more. Bats are important because they consume bugs and moths which fly at night, while birds dine on the bugs that fly during the day. Did you know some bat species are insect eaters and some bats are nectar sippers and pollinators? This book contains a wealth of information about creating a habitat for critters in your gardens from woodlands to wetlands, pond construction and planting hedgerows. Apparently sometimes a messy garden is a wildlife friendly garden. He includes many pages of plants suited to wildlife that you could incorporate into your garden. I could go on and on, but if you’re interested in encouraging wildlife in your garden, this is a great book for your library.

Birds need access to not only food and shelter but also water. In temperatures like these, birdbaths and puddles never thaw. I keep a birdbath heater in my birdbath. It runs on a thermostat that turns off at temps 40 degrees F or higher so I can leave it plugged in all winter. It perches on the rim of the bowl with the heating coils sitting in the water. Be sure to watch the water level for evaporation. The birds are a little wary of the thing at first but necessity wins out and they are soon sipping again.

What are your winters like? What steps do you take to keep the birds coming back to your garden throughout the colder weather?

In bloom in my garden today: in these temps, everything is toast. Even the Borage gave up.

Food ready for the birds: Caryopteris seeds, Mountain Ash berries, Pyracantha berries, Echinacea seeds, Solanum crispum berries (squirrels love them)

Photos courtesy of Pat Chissus


Shari B. said...

Joan, how lucky the birds must feel that find their way to your garden! Sounds like they are well-cared for! And helpful in return.

I think I'm the one needing a 'suet cake' - it's BELOW zero here this week!! I could use some fats to keep me warm!


Joan said...

Hi Shari,
I'm sorry it's soooo cooold where you are! I agree with your thoughts about the suet...you and me both, and it's downright balmy here compared to where you are! Hopefully it will turn around soon. Stay warm!

Shari B. said...

We actually had SOLID ice on the insides of our windows along the north-facing side of our house. The bottom of the ice was over 1/4" thick! I've NEVER seen it do that since we've lived in this house! It's CRAZY cold! I guess it got to -17 the other night. I didn't notice because I was tucked in my heating blanket. But your post makes me think of the poor wild animals out there, like our coyotes, deer, rabbits, etc. I wish I could bring them all inside!!

Joan said...

Yes, I feel for the wild animals out there as well as the domesticated cats and dogs that don't get let in. Shame on those owners.