Laying out the welcome mat

By Claire Curry | Published Wednesday, November 2, 2011

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As it gets cooler, birds will start coming into our yards if we are offering food and shelter. They are probably already in your yard for the water at bird baths and sprinklers. With such a dry year, our yards may also be oases of food in a desert of, well, desert-like conditions. What can you do to make your yard bird-friendly?

First, a bird bath is welcome in both summer and winter. Thawing it out when it ices by pouring hot water in the bath will allow birds to get a drink when everything else is frozen. Running water in the form of a garden pond waterfall will also allow birds to drink when puddles are frozen.

Putting out food is another easy thing to do. The bird seed aisle even in the grocery store can be a bit overwhelming, though – mixes for finches, mixes with fruit bits, mixes with corn, mixes with sunflower seeds giant and small. What to pick? The best seed for your money, that all the birds like, is black-oil sunflower seed.

Why black-oil sunflower seed? Giant sunflower seeds (the big striped ones that look like the kind sold as human snacks) are too big for the smaller native sparrows and goldfinches, although cardinals will eat them. Millet and milo will feed mainly House Sparrows and doves. But those birds will eat sunflower seeds, too, making the super-cheap millet and milo more of a filler than anything else unless you regularly have bobwhites coming to your yard.

There are tons of options for suet, too. Suet is fat in various forms. The suet cakes sold in stores have additives to keep them from dripping everywhere. You can also ask for pellets of suet from the butcher counter. Not as many birds eat that here. When we fed these, we got lots of crows coming to take the pellets from the ground and from the mesh cage where we hung it. They were very entertaining as they tried to hover and grab as many chunks as possible.

Depending on the weather, though, woodpeckers and other birds would also take a bite. Up north, people get nuthatches and ravens making off with the suet. Suet sounds terrible to eat, but wild birds need all the energy they can get, especially as the weather gets colder. For tiny birds and during harsh conditions, energy to keep warm through the night can be critical.

You can make your own suet mix with lard, peanut butter and corn meal. I start with equal amounts of each and mix until the consistency is not so grainy with cornmeal that it falls apart, but also not so much peanut butter and lard that it is hard to handle.

I then stuff this mixture into a log with holes drilled into it. You can also smear it onto a pine cone or rough bark, or put a chunk of it in a mesh cage. I’ve had everything from woodpeckers to sparrows to meadowlarks to cardinals to warblers to goldfinches eat this. You can add hulled sunflowers (sunflower hearts), already-shelled nuts and raisins, too.

Peanuts are another good bird food. Jays will fly off with peanuts in the shell (squirrels like them, too). Shelled peanuts in a mesh feeder will get all sorts of birds picking off bits – chickadees and titmice, sparrows and goldfinches, and even wrens. They are a bit more pricey than black-oil sunflower seeds but won’t leave behind piles of sunflower shells either.

Finally, the best thing you can do for the birds in your yard is make sure the habitat is welcoming. Grackles may like a broad expanse of lawn (and I am a fan of grackles, unpopular as they are), but typical yard birds like cardinals and finches prefer to have at least some cover.

Leave seed heads on the flowers in your garden if you can – sparrows and finches will eat them over the winter. If you live out in the country, your yard birds will tend toward meadowlarks and Savannah Sparrows with an open yard, but even they will appreciate tall native bunch grasses such as Little Bluestem (in place of bushes) for cover.

As you watch your yard birds this fall and winter, keep your eyes peeled on the feeders and in the bushes for your favorite birds. You never know what you may see!

The next monthly field trips on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be Nov. 2 and Dec. 7. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For more information, contact Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service District Office, (940) 627-5475.

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