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Thursday, Nov. 6, 2003 02:20 pm

How to serve guests when they’re covered in feathers

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This fall consider joining the more than 65 million Americans who enjoy bird watching. You can enjoy the fastest growing hobby in the country (second to gardening) by providing some basic necessities for birds in your backyard. While bird feeders may attract birds in the winter, in order to enjoy birds in your backyard year-round you will need to provide them with food, water, shelter, and a place to raise their young.

Wild animals, including birds, appreciate a gardener who leaves natural food such as seed heads, twigs, leaves, and dead vegetation in the garden. If you have put off the task of removing dead stems in your garden consider leaving some purple coneflowers, asters, goldenrods, black-eyed Susans, and dandelions for the songbirds in search of food.

As insects hibernate and less food becomes available for the birds, consider providing supplemental foods. A few well-placed feeders can attract a large variety of birds. Feeders should be placed in an open space, out of winter winds, and within five to ten feet of trees or shrubs. The area around the feeder should be open to allow birds to keep a close eye on the neighbor's cat. Place feeders so they are accessible to you year-round. Also pick a location where the mess of discarded seed shells and bird droppings won't be a clean-up problem.

Feeding stations should be in use before it snows. Select a feeder made of durable materials that will keep the seed clean and dry, easy to fill and keep clean. There are basically two types of feeders: tubular feeders and tray (or platform or hopper) feeders.

Tray feeders make seeds available for all types of birds. These types allow for spillage and can attract squirrels.

Tubular feeders may have either openings for niger seed or sunflower seeds.

Birds need fresh, clean water for drinking and bathing. The water source should be shallow (less than three inches deep), have a gradual slope, and preferable a non-slip bottom. Place birdbaths on the ground or two or three feet above ground, in an open area but reasonably close to trees or shrubs. A birdbath heater will keep ice from forming.

Enjoy watching nature's feathered friends and probably a few squirrels this winter. For more information about bird feeding visit Cornell lab of ornithology Project Feeder Watch Web site at www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/

On the menu

The most effective way to attract the largest variety of birds is to put out separate feeders for each food. While commercial seed mixes of cereal grains are inexpensive, they are not favorites of most birds. A feeder filled with a seed mix will empty quickly because birds are throwing out most of the seeds in search of better treats.

Black oil sunflower seeds will attract the largest variety of birds. Cardinals, blue jays, chickadees and finches favor sunflower seeds. Other large seeds that are a favorite include striped sunflower, safflower, and peanuts. To avoid the mess of seed hulls, consider purchasing sunflower hearts.

Niger seed, which is grown in Africa and India, is a favorite food of goldfinches. Often confused with thistle seed, niger seed is sterilized and will not germinate in our lawns.

Suet is a good choice for attracting insect-eating birds such as woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches and chickadees. If starlings are a problem, use a feeder that forces birds to feed upside down.

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