February 05, 2004 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

An isolated bird feeder sways slightly while hanging over a snow covered backyard in La Grande.

It appears to be a cold weather Mecca for birds.

In reality though it is often an invitation to rule by bullies.

Find an isolated bird feeder in Northeast Oregon and there is a good chance that a Stellar's jay, red-winged blackbird or squirrel is coming in and pushing out smaller birds congregating at the bird feeder.

Fortunately such situations can be resolved simply. The addition of several bird feeders will often correct the problem.

"More feeders allow shy species to feed away from the more dominant species,'' said Jim Ward of the Grande Ronde Bird Club.

It is best to keep additional feeders at least six feet apart.

"Birds are quite territorial and will fight each other for possession of a favorite feeder,'' said Bill Dowdy of the Grande Ronde Bird Club. "Placing bird feeders at least six-feet part will usually reduce this fighting.''

This is just one of many tips for people who are operating bird feeders this winter. People with bird feeders have plenty of company. About 20 percent of the households in the United States have bird feeders according to Trent Bray of La Grande, the co-owner of the Bobolink, a shop that sells birdseed, bird houses, feeders, field guides and other birding accessories .

Why is operating and watching bird feeders almost a national pastime?

"It is like having an aquarium at home. It is therapeutic but not as demanding as an aquarium,'' Bray said. "Birds are free to go but fish are stuck in your living room.''

Isolation is not the only reason why some bird feeders do not attract as many birds as some owners would like. Another is the fact that birds are particular about what they eat. For example, grosbeaks, jays and chickadees eat black oil sunflower seeds and fiches eat Nyger thistle, but none will eat milo.

"People need to understand that some species simply will not eat certain types of food,'' Ward said.

He said that putting out the wrong food for a bird "would be like feeding steak to a horse or putting a bale of hay in a tiger cage.''

One thing that all birds are drawn to in the winter is water.

"An open water source is a great attractant for birds during cold winter weather,'' Dowdy said.

In the Grande Ronde Valley this is particularly true because their are few open bodies of water for birds to enjoy in the midst of freezing weather.

"All they really have is Hot Lake and the city waste treatment lagoons and portions of the Grande Ronde River,'' Bray said.

People who put out winter water for birds should put a heater in it to keep it from freezing. Small water heating devices can be purchased and easily installed in ordinary bird baths.

Bray recommends that people begin feeding birds in the winter and continue doing so until spring weather arrives and other food sources are available..

"You should keep feeding until it really is spring, not just until the snow melts,'' Bray said.

He often waits until he sees his first warbler in the Grande Ronde Valley. Then he knows that natural spring vegetation is available for birds to feed on,

Bray even encourages people who leave the area for several weeks to have others keep their feeders full while they are gone.

Maintaining bird feeders through the end of winter is good because birds become dependent on feeders once they are established. Birds, however, will not starve if someone stops feeding them, Bray said. Still, they will experience stress while searching for new food sources.

Birds like feeders but, as Bray said, "I don't think that there is evidence that they are addicted to bird feeders. They can take care of themselves.''

He added that he knows of no studies indicating that bird migration patterns are altered by feeders. Some evidence exists, though, indicating that the northern cardinal and the tufted titmouse has extended their range northward because of bird feeders. Both are residential birds found in the Midwest, southwest and east.

People feeding birds should always be aware that they can harm them if they are not careful. Dowdy likes to paraphrase one of the world's most famous ornithologists, author Roger Tory Peterson, when making this point.

"He said that birds don't need man to survive or to depend on for food. So the use of bird feeders and other birding items are for our pleasure and the observation of birds,'' Dowdy said. "It is thus important that whatever we do for birds does no harm.''

Improper maintenance of feeders is one way to hurt birds. People using platform or tray feeders are urged to clean them frequently because they can spread disease. Bird feces can get on the food in these feeders.

People can make tray feeders safer by lining them with a piece of linoleum which can be removed and cleaned periodically, Ward said.

All bird feeders, regardless of their type, should be cleaned often with a small amount chlorine bleach mixed with water. Metal bird feeders are easier to clean than wooden ones, and thus often are preferable.

Feeders should be placed away from vegetative cover because cats and other predators will use it to hide in and attack birds from. Still some cover a safe distance from feeders is good because it helps birds by giving them a place to roost, Bray said.

Snow cover is also an important element of nature, which people feeding birds need to address. Individuals putting feed on the ground for birds like juncos should keep the area where the birds are fed clear of snow.

People also have the option of compacting the snow so that birds have a solid area to get food.

Rocky digestive systems: Small pieces of gravel are another consideration for people operating bird feeders, Ward said. He explained that birds don't have teeth to chew their food. Instead, birds digest hard seeds by eating small pebbles, which grit against the seed in their gizzard.

"During long periods of snow cover, grit or gravel should be made available for birds,'' Ward said.

Uncommon diversity: Bray moved to La Grande 2 1/2 years ago from Corvallis and along with Mariah Hey opened the Bobolink last fall.

One reason Bray came to Northeast Oregon is its uncommon diversity of birds. He said the area is second only to the coast in greatest diversity of birds in Oregon.

"(Of birds in Oregon), there are 15 species in this region that are common only here,'' he said.

Bray believes that the number of people who feed birds and are involved in bird watching is growing, and will continue to grow.

"People are busy," Bray said. "Bird feeding and bird watching helps them slow down and appreciate all of nature more.''