Feed the birds now so they eat garden pests in the future

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It hasn’t been a terrible winter this year, but early in the season we decided to feed the birds that help us so much throughout the summer by picking off the insects that feed on the fruits and vegetables in the garden. We bought a feeder and a general mix of wild bird seed because, even though we generally have house sparrows and chickadees, I really hoped to draw in more species as part of my bigger goal to make our garden a welcoming place for all of them.

Bird feeding and bird watching is one of the most popular hobbies in the world. According to an article by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Why do we feed the birds – and should we?, people who feed their backyard birds spend 4 billion (yes, that’s with a B) dollars a year just in the United States. They figure roughly the same amount is spent in Europe. That’s a lot of seed!

So we set up the feeder and waited. Nothing. After a week, I asked a member of our local Audubon chapter about what I could do to entice them. She recommended adding a suet feeder since birds need a high fat diet in the winter to maintain their metabolisms during the cold, along with fresh water. Thankfully, I still had the heated pet bowl I used with the chickens, which works great to provide a shallow drinking and bathing area for them that can be plugged in when the temperatures are below freezing. That did the trick.

Before we knew it, we had dozens of house sparrows taking advantage of the seed, and trying to eat the suet. After an adjustment to move the suet feeder closer to some branches that the birds could use to reach it better, they started utilizing this important source of energy during the cold spells. 

On a practical level, it’s nice to know we’re helping them have an easier winter, but it’s immensely enjoyable to observe their antics. For those few times when I can actually sit down and watch them, they’re highly entertaining, particularly with the chickadees clinging to the cage on the suet feeder or the birds taking turns in the water. 

But it’s not all fun and games at the feeder. We have an inordinate (we’re talking hoarding level) number of cats in our neighborhood who can potentially wreak havoc on unsuspecting birds. The feeder is also a target for the multiple raptors who live in the area, although I’ve never witnessed them taking a shot at the birds close to the house. The predator threat is why some sort of cover needs to be part of your feeder set up. The suet feeder is along the fence kind of tucked among the lilac branches, so it works pretty well. And when I dragged out the Christmas tree the day after Christmas, it went right to the bird area. The love it! It’s amazing to watch them flit from branch to branch, dash out for seeds, then head back to cover. When the time comes, we’ll torch the tree, but for now it makes the birds happy. 

As the days grow longer, it’s a reminder that all of the birds will be back soon, and we’ll be ready with sustenance for them until there is enough natural feed for them in the spring.  It’s just one way I can help the birds that help me so much in the gardens. 

Related blog by Marci Martin: ‘Birds as Pest Control in the Rose Garden

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