Whether you enjoy bird-watching year round from the comfort of your den or take a steward's role for threatened bird populations with supplemental feeding, a few simple guidelines will encourage your native species to stay nearby and thrive. Wade Kammin, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, answers frequently asked questions for the warmer days ahead.
--Should I feed just during harsh weather seasons when natural food supplies are reduced, or all year?
Feeding all year will bring people the greatest enjoyment. Birds are not "dependent" on feeders, but they are a nice boost for birds during stressful times, including the spring-summer nesting season.
--Does it matter what kind of food I put out?
Food definitely matters. The wrong foods will not bring in the species most people want to see. Avoid blends with "filler grains," such as milo, wheat or oats, as few birds will eat them. Instead, look for blends or single-ingredient bags of sunflower chips, peanuts, safflower, oil sunflower and suet.
--Are some foods particularly important at certain times of the year?
Harsh weather isn't the only stress for birds. Raising a family is also a high-energy ordeal. Many of the same high-fat foods used in winter (nuts, sunflower, safflower, suet) will be utilized during breeding season, as well. One additional requirement is calcium, needed for strong eggshell and bone development. Provide crushed, sterilized eggshells or oyster shells, or offer calcium-fortified bird-food blends.
--What about water?
Food will be the biggest draw for many species, but fresh water will draw species for drinking and bathing to keep feathers clean and resilient, including those that may not eat seed. It is also a big boost in dry weather.
--What is the best style of feeder?
Not all species like the same foods and feeders, so the more choices provided the more species one may see. For example, a woodpecker may love clinging to the side of a mesh-style peanut feeder and needs no perches, while a cardinal (who doesn't cling well) would much rather sit on a wide, flat tray feeder filled with safflower seed.
--I have a tree as well as a tall pole where I can put feeders. What's the best way to arrange a few different styles of feeders for the small gold finches, medium-sized wrens and nuthatches, and the bigger cardinals?
For viewing purposes, there are benefits to clustering feeders together. But overall, birds will be happier if they have a bit of space between feeders. Some species are more forgiving than others, and some experimentation may be needed in any given backyard.
--Is there anything else I can do to attract birds to my yard?
Fresh food and water are just two of the four requirements for long-term bird survival. Shelter and places to raise young can be provided in the way of diverse plantings (trees, shrubs, vines, etc.) and via birdhouses, which double as winter sleeping spots.
In addition, part of being a good steward to nature is keeping bird-feeding stations clean. Dirty feeders are not good for birds. We recommend washing feeders at least monthly with dish soap and a good scrub brush, followed by a bleach-water soak to disinfect. Rinse and dry feeders before refilling.
--What is the purpose of putting feeders inside cages, how to attract specific birds, best times of day to feed?
For more information from Kammin about bird species, when to feed and how to attract specific birds, visit www.wbu.com/springfieldil.
Schoolteacher Judy Williams lives in an older residential neighborhood with established trees and teaches in a school where she can keep birdfeeders full throughout the school year. Williams says she enjoys watching cardinals, blue jays, Carolina wrens, nuthatches, chickadees, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers, sparrows, gold finches, juncos (in the winter), and hummingbirds (in the spring, summer and early fall).
To encourage a wide variety of birds, Williams provides a variety of foods, including safflower, nyjer (thistle), suet and peanut pieces in a combination of raised-tray and tube feeders attached to trees and poles spread out with enough distance to allow the "shy birds" to feed away from the trays, as she says. To provide the most energy for the birds and to get an occasional view of them feeding, Williams refills the feeders at home in the late afternoon for early evening and morning feedings.
As for the squirrel population, Williams uses baffles on the poles and provides squirrel houses away from the bird feeders. She also plans to install a squirrel feeder.
Williams' favorite birds? "I love them all, but probably the woodpeckers because their color patterns are so unique, and gold finches -- there's nothing like their bright yellow to say, 'Summer is here!'"
*For the Hummingbirds
If hummingbirds visit your region, your extra attention to maintain a hummingbird feeder is sure to be rewarded with a happy, healthy hummingbird population and the enjoyment their habits bring.
Make a high-energy food by bringing to a boil 1/2 cup of sugar and 2 cups of tap water. Maintain a gently rolling boil for one minute; cool, then fill a clean feeder. This is less expensive than commercial blends and avoids harmful chemical colors. Feeders with a central tube are designed to keep ants and bees out. Keep that central receptacle filled with plain water. During warm weather, check your feeder every week or so to ensure it isn't cloudy, full of bugs or fermenting. If so, empty the old mixture, clean the feeder thoroughly, and replace with a new sugar-water mixture.
Placing red banners and planters with red flowers near your feeding station will attract hummingbirds, as will a red feeder. Foods with red color added are not recommended.