GET GROWING WITH THE MASTER GARDENERS: Wise bird feeding tips

BECKY LOCK/Sun-Gazette
In a photo taken last week, a female cardinal eats seeds at a feeder in the photographer’s backyard.

BECKY LOCK/Sun-Gazette In a photo taken last week, a female cardinal eats seeds at a feeder in the photographer’s backyard.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This column, written by members of the Lycoming County Master Gardeners, will be published every third Sunday.)

Bird feeders seem like an easy, beneficial summer garden task. But, too often, bird feeders actually harm wildlife more than they help.

With a little knowledge, gardeners can work for the good of both their bird-brained neighbors and their gardens.

How do bird feeders harm birds? According to a study printed in “The Economist,” supplemental feeding negatively interferes with the mating habits of male birds.

Making it a bit of the hungry bird gets the girl, male birds full on easy-to-find food delayed putting on those lovey-dovey courting displays and thus lost out on the prime females, which had already been courted.

Another way supplemental feeding harms birds occurs when young birds are just leaping from the nest and learning to hunt. The fear is that easy-to-find food interferes with young birds’ instincts to find food when food it becomes scarce during winter.

Bird feeders can also harm gardeners. Most meat-eating birds will have a lovely picnic on the pests terrorizing their garden. But if bird feeders offer an easy meal, then the birds will go for the feeder instead of garden pests.

Even primarily seed-eating birds will go after insects when they need extra protein to feed their young — but not if bird feeders are getting in their way first.

So, is a bird-loving gardener meant to completely abandon their feathered friends? There are a few things that one can do to greatly help backyard birds.

Suet feeders at the right time of year are the most beneficial thing gardeners can do to help native birds.

Suet feeders usually contain a mix of rendered fats with some nuts and seeds, held in by a metal cage. A few cakes even resist squirrels by mixing in hot pepper, which has no impact on birds but are effective at keeping away those bushy-tailed “tree rats.”

Gardeners should hang suet feeders in the fall, keep them filled in the winter and put them away in the spring.

Suet is ideal for birds that like meat — the chickadee, tufted titmouse, nuthatch and woodpecker.

Birds will nest near this excellent food source in the winter and then take up with insects when the suet feeders are empty.

Secondly, bird baths when water is scarce also helps birds. Pop a bit of BTI pellets in the water if you’re nervous about mosquitos.

Even more, you could keep a few dusty, bare patches of lawn so that birds can take a dust bath and get rid of any niggling mites that would be biting at them.

Lastly, choose native plants that attract wildlife.

The National Audubon Society has a list of the top 10 plants to choose from. Topping the list, echinacea is both attractive, drought tolerant and a major draw for many native birds.

Explore the list of Top 10 Bird-Friendly Plants for the Backyard to see even more — www.audubon.org/news/10-plants-bird-friendly-yard.

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