Time to prepare feeders to help birds this winter

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By Sylvia Brockner

I can’t believe it’s September already. But Labor Day is past, yellow school buses roll along our roads, and yellow wildflowers bloom along the shoulders of the road to my house.

School has started and soon cold weather will return. This is the time to think about feeding the birds during the winter. Days are still warm enough to set feeder poles in concrete, and many stores have fall sales on seed.
Feeders need to be sturdy in this area because both bear and elk like sunflower seeds and will go to great effort to obtain them. At least the bears become inactive most winters, but squirrels are a constant problem. The bears will continue to consume more food in a day than your birds will eat in several days. Raccoons and red fox also are attracted to feeders and are unwelcome guests that should not be fed. Therefore, the location and design of feeders in most important.
My most useful and critter-proof feeders are mounted on poles. They are made of old 21/2-inch galvanized water pipe. The pipe is 25 or so feet long. At least two feet need to be inserted into the ground. This is done by digging a big hole, putting the pipe in and filling the hole with stones and concrete. This may look like a lot of work, but a bear will push anything smaller than that out of the ground and/or bend the pole until it gets the feeder down where it can be reached.
Before the pole is erected, a 5-gallon pail must be attached to the top upside down to keep squirrels from climbing the pole, and two heavy-duty cross bars attached to the top with pulleys and ropes attached. In this manner, you have four feeders attached to each pole, and mine are relatively critter proof.
They have been trashed twice, once by an elk pushing the pole over and once by a bear, but they work relatively well and they hold the weight of a big feeder. Be sure there are no overhanging limbs from a tree for the squirrels will figure out quickly how to climb the tree, get above the feeder and jump down to it. They can and will jump and glide as much as 30 feet down. They cannot jump up anywhere near that distance. For the birds’ sake, there should be a good thick evergreen nearby in which they can hide if a predator discovers them.
Feeders should be placed where you can see them from the inside of the house, so you can see when they need to be refilled. Be sure you cannot only see the feeder but can also see the ground below it. No matter how much or what kind of seed you use, the birds will scatter some on the ground. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a flash of color that might be a rare bird at your feeder than to have it disappear to the ground below, which you cannot see.
There are two main types of food: suet and seed. Most of the wild bird-seed mixes are made up to appeal to us, the people who buy them. They are basically about 70 to 80 percent white proso millet with some sunflower seeds and a few other colorful seeds thrown in to make them look good.
It is much less expensive to buy these two seeds in 40- to 50-pound bags. I feed black oil sunflower seeds and white proso millet, which I purchase in the large bags when on sale, and raw, unsalted peanuts.
Suet can be fed as is by just putting a solid chunk of it in a wire mesh suet feeder. Small pieces or crumbling suet can be melted down and reshaped by pouring it into plastic boxes the right size to fit your suet feeder. Melted suet can also be mixed with corn meal, sugar and flour to make bird pudding, which is a very good high-energy food for especially cold weather. You can also vary bird puddings every day as they have been reported to cause gout in birds that eat them daily over a long period of time.
If you make your own suet blocks, plan to make a lot at one time. It is a lot of work, so pack it into feeder-sized plastic boxes and put it in your freezer. It will keep forever in there, and you will have it ready when you need it.
In very cold weather, below zero, I take one out of the freezer at night, so it has thawed by morning. Then I crumble it with a fork and put the crumbs out on a flat tray for the little birds. Chickadees love it on a cold morning but can’t chip off frozen pieces when it’s that cold.
Birdbaths are not really necessary here in winter. The heated ones can’t compete with our cold night temperatures, and they freeze anyway. If there is snow, birds will eat it when they need moisture. In hot dry summer or September weather, they need water for bathing but don’t encourage them to bathe in winter for a wet bird is a cold bird.
Enjoy feeding the birds this winter. Although there seems to be a good seed crop this year on wild plants, the birds do like our special treats, and it often attracts any rarities that are around to come where you can see them.