Make feathered friends with shelter, food, water

For most folks, feeding wild birds means using traditional feeders but we're only limited by our imaginations. I discovered a creative approach after reading an Ann Koch e-mail.

"I feed our local robin and thrush population by digging deep into my compost pile, where the worms are most prolific, and filling a 5-gallon bucket with compost," Koch said.

"Then I spread it on pieces of scrap plywood in the middle of our lawn. The robins and thrushes quickly zone in on the feast and within a few hours have gobbled up everything edible."

Koch and about 50 million other people feed wild birds in the U.S. Adopting a holistic approach (shelter, food and water) is the most effective.

Gimme shelter

A feeder on a pole in the middle of a lawn is not attractive to birds, which prefer brush piles, bushes and trees that provide shelter from storms and predators (raptors and cats).

A tree near the feeder allows birds to get close to the food supply without turning into someone's meal. Planting a variety of berry-producing plants also provides shelter year-round and food into the winter.

What's on the menu?

The prime rib of bird food is the black-oil sunflower seed. It's high in oil and fat content, fairly easy for small birds to crack, and fits in almost every feeder. Sunflower chips are more expensive but can last twice as long as a similar-sized bag of whole seeds. They're easier for small birds to handle and don't cause a mess because there are no hulls.

Little round millet seeds make up the bulk of mixed bird seed but birds tend to flick them out of the feeder and concentrate on the few sunflower seeds in the mix. Pine siskins and finches like expensive and tiny Niger thistle seeds which need a feeder with tiny holes. Safflower seeds are sold locally but Northwest birds are generally not fond of them.

Suet is animal fat, usually rendered into commercial suet cakes and popular with most species. Don't buy the kind that contains whole seeds because the seeds are so slippery with fat that they're almost impossible to break open.

Or you can keep the fat trimmed from your steaks. Birds will eat it whole but grinding it makes it easier for them. Freeze it until you're ready to put it in a cage or onion bag.

Drinks on the house

Add water to your menu, a necessary part of their diet. A shallow container of water occasionally doubles as a bird bath. Water also keeps the birds within view much longer.

Feeder types

Feeders come in different shapes, sizes and functions.

Platform: It's easiest for ground feeders and larger birds. A wire mesh bottom allows rain to pass through; strong winds can blow away the seed and the platform collects bird droppings, so extra cleaning is necessary.

Hopper: It's usually a barn-type shape with Plexiglas panels that contain the seeds except at the bottom, where they're accessible to birds.

Tube: A long cylinder with short-perch-and-hole combinations is best-suited for small birds and gives them respite from larger birds that tend to take over a hopper or platform feeder.

Globe: It's similar to a tube feeder but round. The flight approach to the feeding holes is from the bottom, ideal for chickadees and nuthatches but discouraging to woodpeckers.

Cage: Drop a suet block into the rectangular-shaped cage and hang it.

If your feeders are taken over by aggressive species, consider putting them inside wire cages that keep out the bullies.

Ironically, threatened or endangered species are rarely helped by bird feeders, and it can be argued that humans gain far more from bird-feeding than the birds.

Next week: The dark side of bird-feeding.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.