Friday, May 8, 2009

Feed the Birds

We have a lot of bird visitors to My Florida Backyard. The lake helps - we get a lot of wading birds like egrets and herons, as well as fishing birds like cormorants. Of course, we throw cracked corn to the ducks (more nutritious for them than stale bread), so there are always plenty of those hanging around.

For a wider variety, though, we needed a feeder. As with many things in My Florida Backyard, it took some experimentation to get it right. In the Midwest (the land of our childhood), you can put out a thistle feeder and draw finches by the hundreds, or a simple black sunflower feeder and draw dozens of other colorful visitors.

Things are a little different in My Florida Backyard, although, like many backyard birders, the first real problem we encountered was the squirrels.

There are about a gazillion supposedly squirrel-proof feeders out there. I chose one with a weight-sensitive design, the idea being that when a light bird lands on the feeder, the feeding ports stay open, but when a heavier squirrel tries to use it, the cage slides down and the ports are closed. We hung it from a shepherd's hood and filled it with black oil sunflower seed.

There were, however, several problems with this feeder.

1.) Squirrels in Florida are a lot smaller than squirrels up north. They are also a lot lighter. You can adjust the cage to be more weight-sensitive, but then some birds will actually activate it and defeat the purpose.

2.) Squirrels are much smarter than people give them credit for. Our squirrels just leaned over from the pole, stuck their paw into the feeding ports, and scooped out the food without ever getting onto the feeder itself.

3.) (And this was the big one) No birds really seemed to like this feeder style. We got the occasional cardinal, and that was it.

So, the research continued. The first great discovery was that although squirrels love to eat sunflower seed (and most commercial mixes contain this), squirrels don't like safflower seed. No one is sure why this is, but it's absolutely true. Once I filled the feeders with safflower seed, the squirrels couldn't have been less interested in the food. Safflower seed costs a little more than sunflower seed, but it lasts much longer because the squirrels don't eat it.

I had solved the squirrel problem, but my feeder still wasn't getting many visitors. Finally, I decided that based on the types of birds we were seeing (mostly cardinals), we needed a platform feeder. This type of feeder works well for birds who generally prefer to eat on the ground. I ordered a hanging version from Duncraft, a company with a really great selection of bird feeders and seeds. We decided to mount it on a pole instead of hang it from the provided chains. I filled it with safflower seed, and we had visitors almost immediately!

The cardinals, male and female, came first. In the beginning, they'd come one at a time, but now that they're comfortable, a pair will often feed together, especially in the evening.

In the winter months, we had a tufted tit-mouse* or two. They pick up the seeds one at a time, hold them between their feet, and crack them open.

And just recently, a red-bellied woodpecker has started stopping by for the occasional snack.

The cardinals visit almost every night while we eat dinner out on the porch. Even if they were the only birds who came to My Florida Backyard, their cheery plumage would be enough to thrill us every time.

I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries,
and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.
- Joseph Addison (1672 - 1719)

*Why is it that, even though I'm grown up enough to know better, I still giggle like I did in seventh grade when I talk about the tit-mouse?

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