Even with a heavy blanket of snow on the ground and single-digit temperatures, I can hear the boisterous chirps of overwintering birds outside my office window. Red-breasted robins and little brown birds are the most frequent visitors to the bubbling fountain and low-branched birch tree, but an occasional blue jay will sweep in, scattering the smaller birds from the water in a raucous frenzy.
The more I watch the birds outside my window, the more intrigued I am by their behavior, and for the first time in my life am considering putting out a little bird food. Since bird feeding is a new endeavor for me, I decided to call on an expert.
Longtime Douglas County resident, birdwatcher and gardener Ruth Ellen Bartels says she first started observing bird behavior when she was a young girl. She has been planning and planting her garden with birds in mind for about 20 years.
For new and experienced birdwatchers alike, Bartels stresses, "You don't feed birds to keep them alive. You feed them for your own enjoyment. In reality, birds can take care of themselves."
Bartels enjoys watching the birds' behavior so much that she keeps a pair of binoculars next to each of the windows in her house where she is likely to watch her feathered friends' antics. She also has a spotting scope that allows for what she calls feather-by-feather viewing.
The feeders in Bartels' yard are carefully placed for the birds' safety as well as her viewing enjoyment. She recommends feeders be either right next to the house or more than 30 feet away.
"When the birds come off the feeder, they can fly directly into windows. If the feeder is very close to the house, they don't get up enough speed to kill themselves," she says.
When the feeders are farther away, birds typically see the house and avoid it.
This time of year, platform feeders, tube feeders and suet blocks are scattered in ideal locations around the yard. When spring arrives, Bartels will add feeders for hummingbirds. When I asked about unintentionally feeding squirrels, Bartels reports that she has never had a problem. Her platform feeders have baffles that keep squirrels from climbing the poles, and all of her feeders are placed far enough from trees and shrubs that squirrels cannot jump down onto them.
When asked what she enjoys about feeding birds, Bartels says, "There are so many things: I like watching their behaviors, seeing what birds eat what seeds, how they interact and the excitement of having a living creature that near."
With a fresh bag of black oil sunflower seeds, I'm starting to relate to Bartels' enjoyment. Now I just need a good bird book.
• Know what seeds birds prefer. Bartels uses only black oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds and nyjer seeds to attract a wide range of birds.
• Purchase high-quality seed. Black oil sunflower seeds have a higher fat content than the striped ones and more birds will feed on them.
• Read the label. Some seed mixes contain milo seeds and other seeds that few birds will eat.
• Clean scattered seed from the ground regularly. The seeds will mold and are likely mixed with bird feces, which can contribute to the spread of disease.
• Clean feeders regularly. Bartels uses a dilute bleach solution to rinse her feeders. Cleaning frequency depends on how many birds visit, but typical intervals range from once a week to once a month.
• Provide a water source. For winter, a submersible heater or heated fixture is necessary. A regular birdbath or small fountain is adequate for the rest of the year.