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Nourishing backyard friends rewarding pastime

Winter is when most bird feeder operators do their thing.

Snow and colder temperatures make the birds hungrier. And while the golf clubs are stashed in the closet, and the fishing pole is on the rack, watching wild critters flit about the yard is a good way to ease the January doldrums.

Feeding birds is one of the most popular outdoor activities in the country.

Although this writer has been feeding birds for well over 50 years, I think I’ve learned the most through feedback from other people. Bird feeder people enjoy sharing their knowledge and experiences. And, of course, there’s a plethora of books and Internet info for those starting this endeavor.

Feeding birds can be as simple or complicated as you desire. Certainly, hardcore enthusiasts could enjoy a luxury cruise to some tropical island for what they spend on feeding birds each year — stocking their high-tech, stainless steel/redwood feeders with gourmet suet mixes and exotic seeds and fruits, sprinkled with crickets and mealworms.

Other enthusiasts just grab a few handfuls of chicken scratch and scatter a bit in their driveways.

Perhaps the first thing to consider when you decide to feed birds is to identify what species you have in your area. Just as you wouldn’t feed hay to a lion or a beefsteak to your horse, certain birds prefer different foods.

As a rule, birds that normally feed on the ground — such as juncos, doves, quail and sparrows — look for grains like millet, cracked corn, wheat and milo.

Birds that feed in the trees — such as finches, grosbeaks and chickadees — prefer offerings like sunflower and Nyjer seed.

Set out apples for the early spring robins and suet for the woodpeckers. Of course, birds like jays and magpies are omnivorous and will take almost anything.

Just like habitat, the key to attracting the greatest variety of birds is diversity — providing a little something for all.

Presentation is important when setting up a feeding station. Birds prefer their food offered in a way much as they forage for wild foods.

You’ll have much better luck getting your quail or juncos to eat their grains on the ground, rather than offer it in a funnel-type feeder attached to a pole.

Conversely, chickadees like their food in an elevated feeder, and woodpeckers prefer their suet tacked to the trunk of a tree.

Often, bullies like jays, blackbirds and magpies will scare other, smaller birds from your feeders. Providing more feeders with larger morsels — like dog food, whole corn and suet chunks — will fill them up quicker and ease the harassment.

Cleanliness is very important at bird-feeding stations. Birds can get a number of ailments from contaminated seed and feeders. Moldy grains and dirty feeders can be disastrous. If possible, feeders should be cleaned often with a diluted mixture of water and Clorox.

I like to have two of every type of feeder, so I can clean one while the other one is out. If I feed on the ground, I move my spot often to avoid fecal buildup on the site. And, I simply refuse to use those open, tray-type feeders that allow the birds to stand and defecate on their food.

Many people argue that feeding birds is unnecessary. The birds did just fine before man came along, and concentrating birds at feeding stations promotes disease.

Other people suggest that man has altered wildlife habitat so much that wintering birds need extra help to get them through the tough weather.

Perhaps, there’s a little truth in both camps. Indeed, many studies have revealed that many species are wintering farther north due, in part, through access to human handouts.

I think most of us feed birds just to enjoy them in close proximity and share a bit of the wild with our children and grandchildren. We get a warm, fuzzy feeling by helping out critters in need.

So, when your wife drags out those travel brochures and begins to pore over Internet sites about Tahitian cruises, be complacent. When she discovers your last receipt from the bird seed store and starts to howl, don’t flinch. Just ask her, very calmly and gingerly, how she’d like to spend a frigid night out, with her toes wrapped around a tree limb, and have no nutritious breakfast waiting for her when she wakes up. I’m sure she’ll see it your way.

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