Whether you're setting out to create a thriving habitat for your wild birds or you'd just like to add a new feature, wild-bird expert Wade Kammin has several ideas for spring. If you cover all your bases -- food, water and shelter -- then the sky's the limit.
*Food and Feeders
Kammin, who owns a Wild Birds Unlimited store, encourages enthusiasts to continue to support area bird populations with the right foods and feeders throughout the year, not just during the winter months.
"When talking about the best choices to feed birds, we first have to talk about what not to feed," Kammin begins, "such as wheat, milo and oats. These filler grains are often found in bags of seed, but aren't birdseed. For a diversity of birds, we try to mimic the diet of birds in their natural habitats."
A high-quality bag of food will balance ingredients in the right ratio for birds who feed at different levels and prefer different foods, such as sunflower seed and safflower seed for cardinals; peanuts for titmice, wrens and nuthatches; and suet for woodpeckers. "These foods are high in fat and protein for quick energy," says Kammin, who adds that including some millet in the mix also encourages doves and juncos, who like to eat on the ground.
In addition to offering good foods, try to purchase feeders that will accommodate the variety of standing, perching and clinging styles of your birds. According to the National Audubon Society, "To avoid crowding and to attract the greatest variety of species, provide table-like feeders for ground-feeding birds, hopper or tube feeders for shrub and treetop feeders, and suet feeders well off the ground for woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees."
If you're an apartment dweller, select feeders and no-mess seed combinations that can be supported by patio stands or attached to windows and rails.
And be considerate of the four-leggers who may just be trying to make a living. Drawing squirrels to the ground level with a corn, seed and nut mix will help keep them out of your songbird feeders, as will a baffle on your stand feeder.
And when, as happens occasionally through the year, you notice an increase in starlings, grackles and other bigger birds, be patient for a couple of days and get to know them until they move back out into the trees and fields. Grackles like to dip corn kernels in water before they eat. Starlings eat in noisy groups, making a variety of calls the whole time. Blue jays have a veritable playlist of songs and calls, often mimicking other bird sounds. Cowbird and catbird calls sound unmistakably like a drop of water and a cat meowing, respectively. They're all interesting and entertaining.
"Living in harmony with them is probably the best approach," says Kammin. "I try to have an appreciation for every individual bird. Blue jays get a bad rap because people think they're mean to other birds. But actually, they just come into feeders quickly and scatter the birds, pick up what they want then fly away to eat it. The other birds come right back. I have to marvel at the brainpower of the jays. You can put in-shell peanuts in a separate feeder away from the other feeders and enjoy watching their large family social network."
Audubon offers an important safety note about feeders. "Uneaten seed can become soggy and grow deadly mold. Empty and clean feeders twice a year (in the spring and fall) or more often if feeders are used during humid summers. Using a long-handled bottle brush, scrub with dish detergent and rinse with a powerful hose; then soak in a bucket of 10 percent non-chlorine bleach solution, rinse well, and dry in the sun. In early spring, rake up spilled grain and sunflower hulls."
For the experienced feeder looking for a new feature, consider the increasing variety of compressed seed blocks, which offer longer-lasting, lower-mess and lower-maintenance feeding options; and some of the new specialized feeders on the market, such as the meal-worm feeder, specifically for insect-lovers who can't crack open hard seed coverings, says Kammin.
Last, try to place feeders about 10 feet from shrubs and trees, says Kammin. "This is far enough away that birds at feeders can see predators coming, and close enough to dive for cover."
If you do see a natural predator strike a bird, he adds, "Avoid the temptation to try to help the victim. The hawk or other predatory bird will have to hunt again and get somebody else."
Provide fresh water daily. As winter turns to spring, use a heated birdbath or a dog dish filled with enough stepping stones to prevent smaller birds from falling in and drowning. The rest of the year, refresh the water in traditional birdbaths each day and add a sprayer, dripper or jiggler to attract hummingbirds and discourage mosquitoes.
*Shelter and Attraction
For the most diversity and activity at your feeders, Kammin emphasizes the importance of one factor: "Above all else, habitat, habitat, habitat. Plant native shrubs, perennials and trees at a combination of heights for nesting, cover and food." Add a few well-constructed housing options as needed, and leave some dead and dying limbs for woodpecker and nuthatch nests, Kammin suggests.
Many birds look for brightly colored flowers when choosing feeding and nesting sites. Reds, oranges and bright pinks will all be good attractors for hummingbirds. These will also attract butterflies and bees, so your habitat will contribute to the overall health of your area's ecosystem.