Feeding the Birds


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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.

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White Crowned Sparrow

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.

Water
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.

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Many creatures appreciate the bird 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.

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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.

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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.

IMG_0382Now you are ready for years of bird watching without the mess.

Suet
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.

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Flicker Enjoying his Suet

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
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.

hummer in January

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!
Be well!

Labor of Love

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David and Lenda Black worked side-by-side on their Woodburn home for thirteen years. As they worked, they turned a modest 1970’s home and lot into a one-of-a-kind garden showplace. They have artfully blended the tidy look of a formal garden with the relaxed warmth of home and garden; a place where one might wander and lose track of time for hours.

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David & Lenda Black

Tall fir trees surround parts of David and Lenda’s back yard, making a lovely backdrop for flower beds and providing home to a pair of large hawks (possibly Northern Harriers). While Lenda and I savored lunch on the patio, chipmunks, ground squirrels, and tree squirrels, enjoyed sunflower seeds at their nearby feeding station.

 

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Partial view of back garden as seen from the screened patio (to see the back yard before the project began 13 years ago, go to the end of this article)

Although there is plenty of plant variety in David and Lenda’s yard, it’s not hard to guess that Hydrangeas are Lenda’s favorite.

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“Buttons & Bows” Hydrangea

 

“If I could have only one flower in my garden, it would be Hydrangeas,” Lenda said.

 

 

 

 

Hydrangeas bloomed in many colors that day, some varieties with flowers so unusual Lenda had to tell me they were Hydrangeas.

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“Annabell” Hydrangea (Lenda sometimes calls them “Mopheads”

 

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Hydrangea with Lace Cap Flowers

Like most gardeners, Lenda admits that she sometimes sees only the weeds that appear overnight and forgets to appreciate what she and David have created.

Every corner of David and Lenda’s garden is well-loved. The side yards are tended and cultivated as lovingly as the back and front yards. Every bed is home to many happy plants, and flower beds have pleasing shapes and soft edges. The beds seem balanced, with each plant seeming to belong exactly where it is, though Lenda says they didn’t plan the garden in advance.

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Lenda calls this spectacular Hydrangea “Pink Spirit”

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As Lenda and I walked, I realized what a generous source of life a well-loved garden can be. Everywhere I looked there was movement; hummingbirds, bees and other insects, tiny white butterflies moving from bush to bush, and huge yellow and black Swallowtail Butterflies. The garden was teeming with creatures dancing quickly from plant to plant, and flower to flower, while colorful Goldfinches took turns at the feeders.

 

 

 

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One of many lush spots in David & Lenda’s gardens

As we walked through the yard, I couldn’t help but imagine the balance of heavy labor and tenderness that created Lenda’s garden.

 

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A portion of the side yard. Just beyond the daisies is the vegetable garden.

“I look to the garden for peaceful reflection and to keep the body in motion,” Lenda said. “David considers himself a Jack of all trades, master of none; yet he constantly amazes me with his ability to learn new skills.He has done all of the remodeling of our home and has built all of the garden structures.”

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One of David’s creations built to support the huge Wisteria. On the other side of this structure is a play area for grandchildren and a strawberry patch for the children (and the birds!).

David created the door that leads from the house to the covered patio and the back garden. It is simple and lovely, made of straight grain fir, which I will admit means absolutely nothing to me. I only know that I find the door very beautiful.

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From Inside Looking out to the patio and garden.

The first time I saw that door it seemed to speak me, “Welcome, I am an invitation, a promise that you will be delighted when you walk through to the garden beyond”

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Looking in from the patio you can see the lovely doors and the cedar ceiling David installed over the patio.

David recently created a beautiful clear cedar tongue and groove ceiling for the covered patio. He also screened in the patio, which in no way inhibits the view of the garden, but did enable a delicious, yellow-jacket free, fresh air lunch the day I was there.

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The garden structure from the screened patio

Lenda and David are modest about the beautiful home they have remodeled and the amazing garden they have built from scratch, though they confess it was, “an awful lot of work.”

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Another view from the patio
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She was kind enough to pose for a minute

A few minutes before I left their home, David, Lenda, and I were admiring a large blooming white Hydrangea in the back yard. Only a few feet away from where we stood, a bunny was busy collecting grass in her mouth. She didn’t seem to mind us as we watched her carry the grass under a large bush where she settled down comfortably on her nest. She was just another example of the richness of David and Lenda’s garden, and she was a delightful end to a lovely afternoon!

 

 

The back yard before David and Lenda began their gardens:

 

 

One Step Too Far

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Japanese Anemone one of my favorites (photo by Shutterstock)

I stepped into the middle of my Japanese anemones the other day, intending to cut off blossoms and stems past their prime. I had cut a few stems when I took one step closer to the center of the spent blooms and was immediately surrounded by an angry buzzing horde of black and yellow striped demons.

I ran, of course, but they flew faster. I felt a sting on my shoulder and another on my arm. I ran some more. One or two stings wasn’t good enough for them. They kept coming. I flew across the front yard screaming, unashamed of humiliating myself in my own yard, swatting myself all over.  I felt another sharp pain in my shoulder, then another, then a pain on my hand. 
They were relentless!
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Shutterstock

I screamed some more and shook my left hand as a Yellow-jacket clung tightly to the space between thumb and fingers. Shaking him off was impossible with that business end so deeply imbedded.

The neighbors weren’t outside. If they had been, they would have heard me uncensored.

“No, get off of me you monster!” I screamed.

I’ll be honest. I never used the word ‘monster’ that day. Instead, it was a word that burned the end of my tongue when it flew out of my mouth, a word I don’t recall ever using before. I’m not proud of myself; but please, judge me when you have a dozen yellow-jackets riding and stinging you all at once.

At the same time, more ‘monsters’ had formed a buzzing cloud around me as I pumped my legs and prayed they wouldn’t follow me into the house. 
Yes, I was also praying.

Finally, I brushed the Yellow-jacket from my hand and ran for the door.

A split second of relief hit me as I closed the door behind myself and stood in the kitchen.

Then I felt a sharp pain in my right shoulder again, and another on my left upper arm. A yellow-jacket flew off my right arm for a second then settled back down to deliver more punishment.

Teddy had been watching me through the front window as I screamed and flailed across the yard. Now that I was in the house, still screaming, the little dog looked confused and worried. He quickly decided there was nothing he could do. Much later, I had to coax him out from under the bed . I don’t blame him. Not even Lassie could have helped.

It turns out that when I’m desperate, my mind can work fast.
I ran into the laundry room and slammed the door to confine the little demons. Yellowjackets still clung to my shirt. I closed my eyes and held my breath as I pulled the shirt over my head and past my face and hair. Then I threw that shirt in the washer and slammed the lid down.
Now the tables were turned and I was feeling murderous. I turned the water setting to hot. 
I let that machine run for a full cycle.
An hour or two later, I felt a little braver and cautiously opened the machine. Carefully, I  lifted and shook the shirt. Dead Yellowjackets littered the bottom of the washer.
Benadryl and ibuprofen helped with the eight or ten stings I had. My left hand swelled to the size of a baseball mitt. I also visited the doctor for one dose of steroids to help the swelling.

This unusually warm and sunny fall weather has kept the Yellowjackets active so far, but the nest should die soon. It’s in a spot that endangers only me, the family gardener. 

Yellowjackets aren’t active when it’s cold, and the early mornings are very chilly lately. If the cold doesn’t get them soon, I have a plan.