My walks always begin with the expectation that I am about to discover a “gift.” I am never disappointed.
Sometimes the gift is a song sparrow enthusiastically singing his little heart out near the top of a shrub. Rarely it’s a glimpse of two bright-eyed baby raccoons hiding under a sidewalk drain, peeking at Teddy and I as we walk down the street in the early morning.
Sometimes the gift is the brief sighting of a doe or the mid-day surprise of a large Barred Owl staring at me through a tangle of branches.
Most often the gifts I find are modest; a small patch of violets in the grass, or a particularly charming mushroom I’ve never seen before. I notice them because I’ve chosen to pay attention during my walks, to be fully present, because I’m looking for the gift. These small experiences stay with me for at least a day, sometimes for years.
From now on, I plan to begin my days as I begin my walks, confident that I will find gifts in the midst of cleaning the kitchen, folding clothes, watering plants, laughing with family, coping with small irritations and social distancing, working in the yard, visiting dear friends over Zoom, and watching the baby discover the world.
If we expect something delightful, we will find it. That’s what I learned on my walks, and it’s what I hope to remember more often.
Feeding wild birds can be a delightful distraction in these days of social isolation; but not so much when you find yourself dealing with sprouting seed under your feeder, wet and rotting bird seed, and squirrels who hog what little is left. It took years, but I finally learned that it is possible to enjoy feeding backyard birds without the mess, the spoilage, and the waste, and without inviting rodents to share the feast.
I learned by making mistakes, many mistakes; none more disconcerting than the sunny afternoon I realized I was hosting a family of rats under the feeder (The Honeymooners). Having made so many mistakes, I’d like to share some things that took all the fuss out of what should be one of life’s small joys.
To get the most pleasure out of your yard birds you really only need a few things, a source of water, a good quality feeder and the right food.
Whether you feed or not, consider a bird bath filled with fresh, clean water. Thirsty birds will gladly stop by, and the antics of bathing birds are endlessly entertaining. An inexpensive concrete bath is perfect, but a shallow bowl or ceramic container will do. Even a large rock with a natural indentation makes a lovely bath.
Most important is a clean bath and fresh water. The bath should be kept free of scum. I keep a stiff brush by the faucet to quickly clean the concrete bath as I replenish water. The best bird baths have a gradual slope so that the birds can wade into the depth they prefer. If yours doesn’t slope, a few decorative rocks of different sizes will enable birds to use it more easily.
Feeder and Seed
Your feeder should keep seed dry. Rotting seed, wasted seed, and the mess under your feeder, can kill the birds and will eventually make you feel like trashing the idea of bird feeding.
I stick with a gazebo style feeder and keep it full of sunflower “hearts” (chopped sunflower seeds). Sunflower hearts are the only seed I buy. Since they are already shelled and broken up, even finches love them.
Don’t waste your money on bags of seed mixes. They contain a large percentage of “filler” seeds that the birds don’t eat. You’ll find sunflower hearts in the in the garden section of your grocery store, not the pet section. You can also get them at bird shops, and yard and garden stores.
The gazebo style feeder is ideal for beauty and practicality. Food stays dry until the bird enters the feeder and coaxes the seed from the plastic center cone. A mesh floor keeps water from collecting in the feeder. Because the seed is dispensed in the center of the gazebo, and because it holds only shelled, chopped, sunflower seeds, not a single shell or seed hits the ground. There is absolutely no waste, no shells to attract rodents, and no rot to sicken the birds.
Placing your Feeder
Pick an open spot in your yard, about ten feet from overhanging branches, or any structure which will allow a clever squirrel to jump on top of the feeder. Don’t place your feeder near undergrowth where your neighbor’s cat can lay in wait. Mount your feeder about five feet high (a metal pole in a concrete block is ideal). Don’t forget to add an inexpensive metal squirrel baffle under the feeder, about four feet above the ground.
Now you are ready for years of bird watching without the mess.
If you are interested in attracting colorful woodpeckers, and delightful flocks of tiny Bush Tits, you may consider offering suet to the birds. Suet is fat from cattle and a delight to woodpeckers and other insect eaters. Directions for making suet are available online but I much prefer buying suet blocks at same place I get seed. It’s not expensive, and the birds have not complained.
Suet can also attract more aggressive birds like Starlings, Crows, and Jays; birds that can quickly finish off a suet cake and discourage the birds you want to feed. The trick is to buy a holder that is only open on the bottom. Woodpeckers and Bush Tits are fine hanging upside down while they dine; crows and starlings don’t like it at all and will soon give up trying.
Hummingbirds are fascinating back yard guests. The often behave like ferocious little terriers of the bird world, zipping after each other like fighter pilots and keeping the area around a feeder exciting. The formula for food is simple, four parts water, one-part sugar. Never use honey or any other kind of sweetener and never add coloring. It’s important to thoroughly wash the feeders and give fresh food frequently.
I’m hoping there is something here that will make your bird feeding simpler, less messy, and much more fun. Wishing you a happy spring enjoying the wild birds in your own yard!
Most of us have been sequestered during the last couple of weeks, preoccupied with the health and well-being of our loved ones and ourselves. Some have been busy providing health care and other critical services.
Thanks to wet weather, Teddy and I have stayed close to home on our walks. It’s been an opportunity to appreciate spring in the neighborhood. Waving at neighbors and greeting them (from 6′ away) is one way to hold on to a feeling of connection.
Despite the human state of anxiety, the natural world has moved forward and suddenly it is spring.
Teddy stopped to examine pee mail the other day and I noticed tiny red maple leaf buds beginning to stretch and uncurl, ready to meet their season in the sun. Other trees are heavy with so many blossoms there is enough left over to carpet the ground.
Small white daisies adorn neighbor’s lawns, and daffodils are already nearly done blooming.
I noticed a robin, just one, sitting and singing from the most prominent peak of each house on the block. One robin for each house. I admire the robins for their equitable distribution of territory.
Peace that comes from getting close to nature can be as simple as stepping outside and paying attention. I hope you are clinging to good things, the people and things that keep you grounded while we wait for this strange time to pass, and it will pass. Be well.