Out There: Food at feeders draws in Creston Valley’s summer birds

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A male downy woodpecker checks out an aspen sapling while waiting his turn at the suet.

Late summer and fall, and spring are times bird feeding enthusiasts change their bird feeding habit. In late August, the hummingbird feeders come down, or at least they should so as not to encourage hummers to stick around beyond their favorite season. There is usually plenty of early fall flower food for them. Later in the fall, when snowflakes flit on chilly breezes, the winter bird feeders seem to appear out of nowhere, or out of some dusty garden shed.

In spring, it seems, for varied reasons, less attention is given to bird feeding and feeders. Sunflower trays and silo feeders go empty. About this time, because it seems to be the thing to do, some people take their feeders down. But, perhaps, it’s time to leave them up.

Bird grub that does need to come down are suet and beef fat, or any substance that contains such. Suet comes from around cow’s kidneys. Although it doesn’t go rancid in warm weather as fast as beef fat, it should still come down now as it may be a little too heavy for parent-fed baby birds’ digestive systems. Beef fat, because it is a heavy snack, or even fatal, for baby birds and because it goes rancid quickly in warm weather, should also be taken down now. Now, after you have done all that, hairy and downy woodpeckers, and chestnut-backed chickadees, regular customers at the fat feeder, might just keep coming back to your feeding area, but for some other treat.

This time of spring may be a tough time for young and adult birds. If the weather is cold and wet, insects may not hatch out so early if the leaves and flowers on plants and trees don’t unfurl in time. Plants support insects and insects support many kinds of bird life, even hummingbirds. Keeping the rest of the winter menu in the bird feeding area may help the birds bridge this hard time.

Chickadees and nuthatches, along with other insect eating species, may make fewer visits to the feeders as summer approaches. But bird feeder enthusiasts of the human kind who keep the feeders supplied through the summer with the regular winter menu, and, perhaps, a few other tasty morsels, may be in for some surprises.

Surprisingly, in summer, hairy and downy woodpeckers have been known to dine on black oil sunflower seeds. Chickadees continue to partake of sunflower seeds from the summer feeder; however, they tend to come in pairs rather than individually or in groups, as in winter. I am noticing that some birds are now much more territorial around the feeders. There is one male junco that now keeps chasing other juncos out of “his” space. One time, he flew at another junco while still holding a piece of cracked corn in his mouth. Once in a while, it and another flew up a few inches off the ground, and hovered momentarily while having a face off in mid-air.

Attracting summer birds to feeders may become more exciting with the addition of different types of feeders and/or by increasing the variety of locations. Many birds who like sunflower seeds may try out or prefer suspended net feeders or silo feeders. It is sometimes amusing to watch a bird try to get food that is a bit difficult to extract. Birds will often leave a spinning net feeder or some will stay on for the ride and feed when it stops turning.

Some birds, as some of you are aware of, prefer to feed on the ground, or on a flat surface of wood or cement. Song sparrows, which may come to your feeder, are quite amusing when they scratch in the grass for bits of cracked corn. Chipping sparrows, a summer resident in the Kootenays, along with juncos, go for bits of cracked corn scattered on the ground and also pick up white millet. You might try putting millet or birdseed containing millet in a silo feeder for the summer.

Now, feeding birds in summer may attract other birds such as merlins and pygmy owls, who, of course, are not after food for birds but after birds for food. Then there is another sort — those that also come to feed on the food you have spread on the ground. In some areas, it could be pigeons but here it could be mourning doves or perhaps those prolific Eurasian collared doves. Then, lurking around your feeders you might find some wild turkeys or even the neighbour’s old white hen. To keep a ground supply of food for smaller birds, some people have constructed a bell or cone made of chicken wire and placed it over the feeding location. This has allowed smaller birds like chickadees, siskins, juncos and similar sized birds access to the food while keeping larger birds out.

This device may keep out jays and towhees or some birds that won’t go through the chicken wire so an open location may be set up for them. Varied thrushes, which might be a summer surprise, will help themselves to that spot too. An unusual type of bird treat, which in another part of the continent attracted Baltimore orioles when they first returned in spring, was orange sections. If there are orioles around your place, give it a whirl. The orange sections were attached to a perch or branch with a small nail or wire. Perhaps apple pieces could be tried. Some techniques, like the chicken wire bell that people try, may be, for other people, a bit of a bother and not worth the effort. However, the benefits gained may far out weigh the bother. And, besides, if you are capable of doing that, it’s good exercise!

Bird watching continues even more so to be the most popular outdoor recreation and/or sport in North America. The cost is quite reasonable and perks are included at no extra cost! Where do we get a bargain like that? Try attracting birds to your environment this summer too. Start off with the usual winter foods, excepting the fat. Watching birds can be an exciting, educational, entertaining, enlightening experience! And, what else?

Ed McMackin is a biologist by profession but a naturalist and hiker by nature. He can be reached at 250-866-5747.


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