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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Feb 25, 2016

evelynevandersande_mugDo you want to add excitement to your life, open a nature observation station and do wildlife comparison on a daily basis? You do not need to move and become a ranger. You can accomplish this easily in your own backyard by installing a bird feeder and bird bath close to a window where you can observe the birds on a regular basis.

Let’s get a few arguments against having a bird feeder out of the way. You won’t affect bird migration. Some people are concerned that with an abundance of food, some migrants are going to stay put in their backyard. That’s not so. Migration is a result of the length of the day. In April, we are going to see many migrant birds going back north. They will grace your backyard for a few days and enjoy your bird feeder, but no amount of food can prevent them from going north. It is a hormonal response, and they are making this trip in order to mate and reproduce.

birds01The local birds you help by providing a bird feeder find plenty of natural food. You are only there to find a quick and easy supply. Do not feel guilty and start to worry if you cannot refill your bird feeder the minute it is empty. The situation might be a little different in a harsh climate where the winter is severe, but we live in Southern California, so the situation is never that extreme. They won’t suffer and go hungry if you forget to refill your bird feeder; you just make their search a little bit easier.

The nesting season has started for many small species, and having a supplemental feeder helps the parents to successfully raise more chicks. Chicks will fly earlier and have a higher survival rate. The population of house finches, scrub jays and titmice has expanded over the last 50 years, and it seems to be linked to the use of bird feeders in certain areas.

I have enjoyed years of watching birds eating at the two bird feeders close to my kitchen window. I have seen many different species, and it is difficult to describe the joy I find starting every day seeing those little bodies gobbling seeds with great enthusiasm and chirping happily along.

birds03However, I must add that I have seen a Cooper’s hawk in the coast live oak in the lower part of my backyard. I could say he is almost a local resident, and I have been wondering if my bird feeder was not my mistake in presenting the hawk with a ready lunch.

However, the bird feeder is too close to the house to accommodate his hunting technique, and he has never approached the bird feeder. The bird bath is a little farther, and he bathes there with great joy. If the Cooper’s hawk kills some of those birds, it is part of the circle of life, and that is what birds of prey do. The birds that get eaten are the slow or sick ones, and their absence makes for a healthier flock.

squirrel01What are the other problems with having a bird feeder? You should hang it in a spot where rain cannot reach it – we should still get a shower or two before the summer – because the seeds should always be dry. Humid seeds are a sure way to spread diseases in birds. If the seeds get wet for any reason, empty the bird feeder right away and start with fresh seeds. Cleaning the feeder is easy to do when you refill it, but check the model you buy so it does not allow birds to soil the seeds with feces.

The place where you are going to hang your feeder is most critical. No cat or squirrel should be able to reach your feeder. You might have to study the situation carefully. I have seen squirrels jumping from the ground like a spring trying to reach the feeder. Squirrel guards exist, but they are not all effective, and hanging your bird feeder from a thin nylon thread might help. If you have a serious squirrel problem, I recommend you use only Nyjer thistle seeds. These are a small black seed that the gold finches love; they will invade your feeders in clouds of happy little yellow bodies, and the seeds are not interesting to squirrels.

You want to hang your feeder in a place where birds can wait for a time on a nearby bush or tree to study if the feeder is safe, before they dare to fly to your feeder with confidence.

rat01Are you going to attract rats to your yard with a bird feeder? Yes, you will. I won’t lie to you. Rats have to feed, too, and they like to eat the seeds that fall from your bird feeder. Let’s hope you will also attract an owl to visit and take care of the problem.

As I mention rats, I must also remind you never, ever to use rat poison. The same owl saving you from the rat problem will eat the poisoned rat and will die. The poison goes though the food web and does tremendous damage. I know one child who died after eating rat poison because it looked like blue candy, so that is something to avoid at all costs. Dogs get poisoned by rat poison much too often.

Rats are active at night, which is something to keep in mind if you want to set up a trap … and you should remove it in the morning because squirrels are active in the morning.

You will attract pigeons to your bird feeder; I never saw a problem with those. Pigeons are birds, too, and I have seen lovely band-tailed pigeons visiting the bird feeder. However, they have larger droppings, and if you leave your pillows on your outdoor furniture at all times, you might have some unpleasant surprises, so put those cushions aside.

If your bird feeder is close to a window, birds might get confused and strike the glass. It should be five feet away from the window. If that is not possible, stickers in shape of birds can be attached to the glass so they will notice the window.

I think I have covered a few of advantages and disadvantages of having a bird feeder. I hardly wrote about the renewed joy every day of observing so many birds coming to your bird feeder. You will see the changing color of the plumage with the passing of the seasons and the different behaviors when they eat. I touched on the gold finches that invade the bird feeder, greedy and noisy like school kids at recess; the titmouse is a study in restraint. It gets one seed, goes to a branch, cracks the seed open, eats the inside, and starts the process again.

I have to add some advice about bird baths. Birds are always looking for water, and with this next year of drought, water is again going to be a concern. They need water to drink but also to bathe, and that is why it is important to clean up the water on a regular basis. Do not just refill the bath; change the water, because feces will be mixed in the water. Do not use detergent of any kind; a stiff brush or Scotch Brite pad to scrub the bottom is perfect. You do not want algae to develop. If you bird bath is too deep, small birds won’t be able to drink or bathe, so add a few stones to the bottom so they can perch easily in the water. Do not have your bird bath close to the ground so a cat could pounce on a bird.

There you are with a long list of do’s and don’ts. What else am I forgetting? Oh, yes – have a small pair of binoculars handy, near your window. Not in the closet or in another room; keep it right there so you can grab it easily to see all the details of the birds coming to visit. They are fast, and they do not give you much time for hesitation. If you are really enterprising, you might even keep your camera close by. You have no idea how much fun and joy it will add to your day.

Spring is here. Go outside and listen for it.


Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since 1986. She lives in Newhall.


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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for mentioning the connection between bird feeders and rats. There is an epidemic of wildlife poisonings going on right now because of the use of rat poison. If you love birds, please think of the birds of prey that are being poisoned when you put out rat poison. Songbirds have sometimes consumed the bait directly too. And please do not use traps in the open where songbirds can also get caught in them.

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