The Cardinal Rules Of Bird Feeding

Dick Stahler, a marketing executive in suburban Chicago, says watching birds feed in his backyard is a gas. Not only does he like to observe the action while sipping his morning coffee but he sometimes drives home from his office during lunch to enjoy the "colorful menagerie of nature" flitting about his four feeders.

Stahler has plenty of company in his bird-feeding fetish. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that 41 million Americans spend $2 billion annually on birdseed. "It's a way to give balance to our frantic lives," says Sue Wells, executive director of the National Bird-Feeding Society (P.O. Box 23B, Northbrook, Ill. 60065-0023).

GIZZARD GRIST. But what gets feathered friends to come a-flappin'? First, give them the food they like to eat. "Birds have taste differences the same as people do," says Wells, whose organization gives feeding tips in a bimonthly newsletter. For example, goldfinches and pine siskins love thistle or Niger seed, whereas mourning doves and juncos would rather munch on millet and milo. To attract the widest variety of species, black-oil sunflower seeds are best, according to preference tests run by Cornell University's ornithology lab in Ithaca, N.Y.

On chilly days, birds also flock to suet packed in blocks or peanut butter smeared on a pinecone. The fat helps them maintain their 108-degree body temperature. Year-round, dried or fresh fruit and baked goods (bagels, hard rolls, pizza crusts) draw winged ones, as does crumbled dry dog food moistened with water. Regardless of what is served, remember that little bird beaks and gullets can't accommodate big chunks. So break the food into small pieces.

Because birds don't have teeth, give them some grit, such as sand or ground oyster shells, which they can use to grind food in their gizzards. Also, commercial bird feeders are often designed to accommodate only certain types of seed: Take care to put in the right kind. Otherwise, birds will peck futilely at inaccessible seeds or become frightened by seeds rushing too easily out of the chute.

Location of food is as important as presentation. Craig Tufts, chief naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation, says that leaving food "right out in the open"--far from leafy cover--is no good. If the birds come at all, they will be easy prey for hawks and cats. Furthermore, many species like to take their food away from the feeder to eat it, particularly if they need another surface, like a tree branch, to break open their seed. "It's best to put your feeders within 5 to 10 feet of a bush, shrub, or tree," Tufts says. It is also advisable to set up more than one feeding station to prevent any beaked bullies from monopolizing the food. Even a gluttonous grackle can't be on two feeders at once.

Backyard planting schemes can attract birds as well. Stephen W. Kress, an ornithologist who offers instruction on creating bird-friendly environments in The Bird Garden (National Audubon Society, $24.95), says the key is to install plants of varying heights. For example, mockingbirds often sing in the treetops, feed off insects on bush branches, and nest in shrubs.

Kress also recommends picking "a mix of plants that will provide birds with food all year." Something like a mulberry tree, which bears fruit in summer, American cranberry bushes, which issue in the fall and winter, and Washington hawthorn, which has springtime berries, would do the trick.

REWARDS. Finally, like every living thing, birds need water. They love the trickle of running water, but if creating a stream in your backyard seems a bit onerous, a garden hose dripping into a shallow metal trash-can lid will work, too. Hummingbirds, with their penchant for midair bathing, will come to a hose with a simple mister attachment woven between the branches of a bush or the arms of a deck chair.

"It's the greatest hobby in the world," says bird enthusiast Stahler. "With minimum investment, you get infinite rewards." That's enough to make anybody happy as a lark.

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