ELi on Earth: Winter Wild Bird Care

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Thursday, December 13, 2018, 8:51 am
Aron Sousa

Image: An East Lansing blue jay photographed by Ann Nichols.

As the weather turns colder, some East Lansing residents begin to add birdfeeders to their yards in hopes of attracting and helping wild birds. Adding feeders will attract more birds to your yard, although it is not clear whether bird-feeding helps support overall bird populations. Unlike feeding other wildlife (such as deer and raccoons), there does not appear to be a significant downside to having birdfeeders in your yard.

There are a few potential concerns about birdfeeders that can be simply controlled:

Avoiding window-collision injuries:  To decrease the likelihood of East Lansing birds hitting windows, feeders should be more than 30 feet from windows or less than 3 feet from windows. Keeping feeders a long way from windows decreases the chances that bird will think the reflection off a window is open space, safe for flying. Putting feeders three feet or less from windows prevents birds from going fast enough to hurt themselves from a window strike. There are many products and simple solutions that can discourage bird-window accidents.

Limiting cat dangers: The Humane Society feels that cats should be kept indoors for their own safety as well as the safety of birds. House cats are a particular problem in the habitat of endangered, ground nesting birds, but East Lansing does not host endangered, ground nesting birds. Birds make up a minority of kills by outdoor house cats (in order, cats mostly kill insects, small mammals, and invertebrates), but they can still be a problem. To give birds time to escape hunting cats, keep plants and other potential cover 12 feet away from ground feeders. Alternatively, put a five-foot-diameter circle of two-foot high fence around your ground feeder to interrupt cats charging the feeder.

Hawk kills: Seed-based feeders attract small birds and, in our area, small birds attract sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper’s hawks. If your goal of feeding birds is to attract interesting birds, well done. (The photo here shows a sharp-shinned hawk that picked-off songbirds at the author’s feeder.)

If you want to avoid the hawks treating your feeder like a lunch buffet, the simple solution is to take down the feeder for a few days until hawks move on to other feeding grounds. Alternatively, you can put your feeder near trees and structures that will impede the hawks’ approach and give the small birds a quick path to protective cover.

Disease management: Flocking birds do spread disease to each other, but there is no proof that feeders increase the likelihood of disease spread. That said, rotting and infected food is not good for birds, so if you want healthy birds, keep your feeders clean. Also wash your own hands in soap and water for at least 30 seconds immediately after dealing with feeders or birdbaths. Yard birds can carry salmonella, psittacosis (C. psittaci), histoplasma, Cryptococcus, E. coli, and other human pathogens.

Thwarting squirrels: Squirrels will go after many forms of birdfeed, especially sunflower seeds and peanuts. (They are less interested in safflower, but so are many interesting birds.) Some authors claim that putting capsaicin (hot pepper) on seeds will discourage squirrels (mammals can taste capsaicin and birds cannot), but that has not been the experience of this author. There are many contraptions designed to be sold to people who are trying to keep squirrels from eating from birdfeeders. In this author’s experience, baffles, covers, and clever “squirrel-proof” devices do attract human feeders of birds and their credit cards, but do little to hinder clever rodents. Try hanging your birdfeeders well off the ground from a thin wire. You could also try to be more Buddhist about it and enjoy the squirrels’ antics, as my wife does. (Her philosophy is that squirrels do not cause suffering; struggling against squirrels causes suffering.)

“Nuisance birds”:  The house sparrow and pigeon are often less-desired visitors to birdfeeders. East Lansing residents can avoid these birds by not using commercial seed mixes that include their favorite seeds (like millet) as filler. As a member of an omnivorous, nuisance, mammalian species, this author has a certain respect for birds that have become asphalt-adapted and does not begrudge them a place in his yard. But not everyone feels this way.

Migration: Generally, the instinctual drive to migrate will overcome any amount of food at feeders. When it is time to go, birds go; some will even leave nestlings behind. Far from disrupting migration, feeders can provide a useful refueling stop for birds that stop in East Lansing along their migration route.

What else? One of the best ways to attract birds, and other creatures, to your yard is to provide water. Birds must bathe to keep their feathers healthy for flight and insulation. Even in winter, birds will bathe if you provide liquid water with the help of a heated birdbath. Another good way to attract birds to your yard is to design your yard with plants that provide food, shelter, and nesting habitat.

[This article was originally published on December 1, 2014]

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