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Wednesday, 28 January 2009 16:47

The Naturalist's Corner: To feed or not to feed?

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Anyone who reads this column regularly knows I am a fan of backyard bird feeding. The constant feathered activity just a few feet from the kitchen window is a constant reminder of the incredible diversity that spins around the sun with us on our big blue marble.

Whether it is the almost constant back and forth of chickadees and titmice or the raucous inverted antics of nuthatches, hardly a minute passes without some type of activity at the feeders. The middle of April means it’s time to get the hummingbird feeders up. And if we’ve procrastinated the hum of wings and squeaks at the windows will remind us. Once the hummers are here, it’s not long before the freshly plumaged brightly colored rose-breasted grosbeak will appear at the black oil sunflower seeds. It is not uncommon, in migration, to have groups of four or five grosbeaks at the feeders together. As spring rolls on and territories are carved out grosbeak numbers will dwindle down to one or two pair that will nest in the woods around my house. And throughout the summer a flash of color will announce when one of the pairs has dropped in for the buffet.

The flocks of juncos and morning doves that fed all winter on the ground beneath the feeders will also dwindle in number as spring rolls on till only nesting pairs are left. White-throated sparrows will disappear but song sparrows will remain along with nesting cardinals and towhees.

When autumn rolls around there will be an explosion of hummingbirds as nesters and their offspring battle with migrants over nectar-rights. Cardinals, towhees, titmice and all tired of bill-feeding hungry fledglings will bring them to the feeders and teach them the ropes.

Spring and fall migrations are generally the best time to keep an eye out for some not so common visitors. Last March I was surprised to have a pine warbler show up, nibbling at my peanut butter mixture. I usually get fox sparrows passing through both spring and fall.

Winter means finches — purple and house come and go sporadically and in varying numbers. Goldfinches in good numbers are common most of the winter. But the little buggers that will eat you out of house and home are the pine siskins. And while we’ve not had one in quite some time, there are those winter irruptions that can bring evening grosbeaks and their apparently unending appetites.

I feed birds for the same reason most people do — my enjoyment. I love having these beautiful wild creatures at arm’s length. I’m sure they are more than capable of fending for themselves. And there is research that shows that even birds that frequent your feeders on a daily basis get as much as 70 to 80 percent of their nourishment from wild foods.

But presently there is a fly in the ointment. The price of birdseed, especially popular birdseed like black oil sunflower and nyjer or niger thistle has doubled. I don’t know how many of my fellow bird feeders out there are on a budget these days, but for me $16 for a 25-pound bag of sunflower seed is pushing it, especially in the winter when I can go through a bag in a couple of weeks.

During the next couple of weeks I am going to experiment, in a completely capricious and subjective manner, on ways to maintain numbers and diversity of bird species while slashing my birdseed budget. If any of you out there have done this and would like to share your results please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

I will post my results in the Naturalist’s Corner in a couple of weeks.

Don Hendershot can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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