Is your backyard for the birds?

Consumer Reports News: December 10, 2010 08:08 AM

With the weeds dormant and the mower put away, winter's the time to enjoy your yard without the work. Just hang a bird feeder from a limb or pole and the fun will come to you. That is until a bird startles you by flying into the window you're staring out ... but more about that later.

Over the winter, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology runs Project Feeder Watch, which enlists bird lovers across the country to count the birds at their feeders from mid-November to mid-April and send their data to the lab. It's not too late to sign up (here's how). To get started, download the free bird identification poster.

Budding birders can get information on what to feed their feathered friends from Cornell and the National Bird-Feeding Society, among other places. The best all-around attractant is black-oil sunflower seed, according to Cornell. Birds also like suet, which you can find in the pet aisle or meat counter of your local supermarket. Offering a variety of foods may attract a wider range of birds—you can try peanuts,  plain popcorn, hulled sunflower seeds, soaked raisins, pieces of fruit, fruit seeds (melons, apples) and  grapes. Make sure you also provide water.

Uninvited guests
Other critters will be attracted to the bird seed so you'll want to do your best to discourage them. Unfortunately, few "squirrel-proof" bird feeders actually are although adding baffles can work. Cornell suggests that you try distracting the squirrels by placing nuts and other foods they like away from the feeder. Bears are a different story. If you live in an area with bears, Cornell's Feeder Watch recommends against any feeding except when bears are hibernating—it's dangerous when bears associate food with homes.

Bird strikes
Transparent glass poses a threat to birds that collide into unseen windows en route to some visible target on the other side. Proper placement of your feeder can minimize this hazard. Feeders placed within three feet of windows can reduce fatal collisions because birds do not have an adequate distance to reach high flight velocity, according to the Audubon Society. Alternatively, put the feeder more than 30 feet from your windows. At that distance, birds are less likely to fly toward your house for safety.

Stop the sprouts
Of course, you don't want your lawn to be a casualty of your winter pastime. Like any seeds, bird seed will germinate and grow when it falls to the ground. To prevent that you can sterilize seed without changing the nutritional value.  Wild Birds Forever recommends putting a gallon of seed in a paper bag and cooking it in the microwave on high for 5 minutes. Or using a conventional oven, put the seed on a baking sheet and cook it for 30 minutes at 300 degrees. Some types of bird seed won't sprout such as black-oil sunflower seed, thistle and cracked corn, says eHow. You can also look for waste free blends that don't include filler seeds like milo and millet that birds kick aside in search of the good stuff.

Bird-friendly plants
If feeding the birds has awakened the birder in you, come spring you can consider adding plants to your yard that attract certain species. "Birds prefer the foods and resources offered by particular native plants with which they may have coevolved," says the Audubon Society, which keeps a database of suggested plantings.

—Mary H.J. Farrell

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