Deep in the thick of winter, when the view out my window is mostly white-on-white-on-white, there comes a scarlet flash. Or a blue-and-black-and-white one. Or brown little specks, lined up like ellipses on the wires that run from the alley into my house. They are my winter flocks, my blessed winged friends, and they come because I feed them heartily, all winter long, and often into the spring.
Over the years, I’ve learned a thing or five about what to look for in a bird feeder. Most of what I know I’ve learned from my own personal bird man, Tim Joyce, birdscaper and manager of the Wild Birds Unlimited shop in Glenview, Ill., (wbu.com). He has been keen on birds since growing up at the edge of the woods in north suburban Lincolnshire, Ill., where he got his first feeder when he was all of 5.
1. You say you’d like a cardinal? You know how some folks like to shovel in the gruel while standing at the counter, and others might prefer to take a seat and be so polite as to dab at lips with linen napkin? Well, the birdies aren’t so different. Cardinals like a lot of room while pecking at seed. And they’re a bit too big to have to squat on a perch, and turn their head into a little bitty hole. They’d much prefer to lean elegantly forward, the cardinal ergonomics of choice, says Joyce. A hopper feeder, or tray feeder is best if it’s the cardinal you seek. Finches like to cling to a tube — wire mesh or hole-punched plastic. When it comes to menu, cardinals gobble sunflower seed, finches like nyjer or thistle seed and blue jays will take peanuts, please (in or out of the shell). Chickadees prefer their peanuts shelled, from a wider-mesh tube.
2. Fill ’er up. You might not think about this when standing in the comfy confines of your friendly feeder shop, but remember that cutesy feeder will be hanging outside where it can be bitter cold, and to get there you might have to throw an Arctic parka over your jammies to fill it when it’s empty. So pay attention to the size of the gizmo where the seed gets dumped. Look for a feeder that might hold up to 12 or 14 pounds of seed, he advises, and you’ll spend more time on the side of the window where the snows don’t blow.
3. No squirrels allowed. Believe it or not, there are some folks who throw all caution (and a ton of birdseed) to the wind, and say, “Oh, let nature do its thing,” eschewing squirrel-proof feeders, reports Joyce. Won’t be long, he says, till they’re back with heavy-duty doses of buyer’s remorse. Here’s the brutal truth: Squirrels are voracious little critters. We’ve tried the Squirrel Buster Plus feeder that really, truly gets the job done.
4. Feeding till the end of time. As in so much of life, you get what you pay for. It might not sting so much to drop a mere 15 bucks for a feeder at the hardware store. But feeders put up with plenty — freeze and thaw, unrelenting sun and rain, pesky squirrels and ’coons, to name just some. You’d be wise to spend a bit more upfront and get a lifetime-guaranteed feeder. In the tube-feeder department, check out Droll Yankees (drollyankees.com) or Aspects (aspectsinc.com), two of the most respected of a flock of top-flight Rhode Island-based feedermakers.