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Baltimore County Now

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Date: Mar 20, 2014

photo of male cardinal on evergreen branchWinny Tan, Oregon Ridge Nature Center Director

I’m never short of visitors in my backyard. Winter, spring, summer and fall, I’ve got lots of colorful characters dropping by.  

Once you put out a feeder, it doesn’t take long for the birds to zoom in. Feeding birds is not a recent phenomenon; it’s been an American tradition since the times of Emily Dickinson and Henry Thoreau. People do it mostly for the enjoyment of observing different birds and their behaviors, without going too far outside their homes. Birds, too, benefit from this arrangement. A birdfeeder filled in the midst of spring and fall migration, and during harsh winters, will help these avian critters through tough times.

To ensure birds’ health and safety, feeding stations should be maintained properly to prevent disease organisms from taking hold. Wet and moldy seeds should be discarded immediately. Feeders should be washed thoroughly with warm, soapy water every two weeks and occasionally disinfected with a light bleach solution. The ground should be cleaned of hull build-up and uneaten seeds that can get spoiled and moldy.  Feeders should be repaired or discarded if sharp edges occur to prevent injuries. Ideally, place it near bushes and trees to allow for easy resting spots between feeds and an easy refuge to escape a predator, like the hawk. 

While we like to view birds up close and sometimes from the comforts of home, millions of birds are killed by window collisions. Place your feeders somewhere in the yard away from glass, or less than 3 feet away. When placed 6 feet or more from a window, the bird can take off and fly at optimum speed, which can cause more injuries or death if it hits the window.

Picking the type of birdfeeder and the food is a simpler task, and there are websites and stores that can advise a beginner. Pick the right food, since inappropriate food can be unhealthy and possibly lethal to wild birds. I put out only black-oil sunflower seeds and see cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and titmice year-round. My winter regulars, the northern juncos, join them each year. Occasionally, a bluebird will sit on the shepherd’s hook that holds the feeder, a great lookout point for juicy bugs in the grass. Woodpeckers, like the Red-bellied and Hairy, often drop in from the woodlands. One fall the birdfeeder enticed migrating rose-breasted grosbeaks, and Mom and I watched them until they moved on a few days later. Things can get exciting at times. One morning a Cooper’s hawk, going for a titmouse dining at the feeder, crashed landed into our deck.  Unfortunately, instead of feasting, the titmouse was feasted upon by this avivorous (bird-eating) hawk.

One caution —your birdfeeder is subsidizing food to exotic, invasive birds such as the English Sparrows and European Starlings that can wreak havoc on native bird population. If you see more of these exotic or opportunistic birds, take down your feeder for a short period and then put it up again, hopefully discouraging these visitors from staying.

Birdfeeders not only bring enjoyment, but also help science. Project FeederWatch, set up by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, collects data across the United States with the help of kids, families, nature centers, and schools, who record the birds visiting their feeders from November to early April. Scientists can then track broad-scale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance. For more information, check out www.feederwatch.org. or start helping by signing up for one of Oregon Ridge’s FeederWatch programs, which can be found on www.oregonridgenaturecenter.org.


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