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A Feast for Feathered Friends 

Bird (not raccoon) feeder basics

click to enlarge A black-headed grosbeak at the feeder.

Photo by Sarah Hobart

A black-headed grosbeak at the feeder.

When you love watching birds, you're often willing to sacrifice the comfort of your cushy armchair for an hours-long vigil under a Humboldt downpour in pursuit of your hobby. But suppose you could have both — what if the birds came to you?

That was my vision a few years ago when I decided to put up a feeder. I built my first one from scratch: a cute little cottage perched over a shallow tray that was filled with a tempting array of birdseed. I attached a suet cage to the roof, and envisioned a Downy Woodpecker or two tapping away on the eaves while grosbeaks and chickadees and nuthatches feasted below. My sons and I secured the feeder to the deck railing and waited for the birds to show up.

Just after dusk, my eldest called me over to the window. "Look at that," he said.

Three raccoons were moving purposefully along the railing. Their black masks were striking in the fading light. When they reached the feeder, they made short work of the seed in the tray, snatching up the choicest morsels and scattering the rest. The ringleader then wrenched open the critter-proof door of the suet cage and absconded with the entire block. As they marched single-file back into the darkness from whence they'd come, the last raccoon, in a final "up yours" gesture, pushed my best ceramic flowerpot off the railing. It smashed into bits on the deck below.

Looking back on that debacle, I realized I'd made a number of rookie mistakes. My feeder design and placement attracted trouble, not birds. A little research taught me the basics about feeding the birds safely and successfully.

1. Location, location, location. Your type of feeder will help determine its best location. Placing an open platform feeder, such as the one I built, close to the house will invite rodents (not to mention raccoons) to feed and possibly find access into your home. An ideal location for my design would have been atop a 5-foot post well away from the house, with a cone-shaped baffle underneath it to prevent critters from climbing up, and sufficient tree or brush cover to avoid creating a buffet for Cooper's or sharp-shinned hawks.

But there are myriad other designs to choose from, including anti-squirrel feeders with weight-limiting perches that seal off seed access if something larger than a songbird lands there. There are also feeders designed to limit seed waste. Explore your options and don't be afraid to experiment.

Suppose you choose a nice squirrel-proof feeder and your dream location is just outside your kitchen window so you can watch the birds while doing the dishes. Think safety: an estimated 1 billion birds die each year after window strikes. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to treat your window glass to make it more visible to birds. One of the most effective — and cost effective — I've tried is using a white glass paint pen (it's washable) to draw vertical lines spaced no more than four inches apart down the glass. Other options include window decals, netting and hanging string curtains, known as "zen" curtains, available online. It's worth the effort to save even a single bird.

2. Keep it clean. Good feeder hygiene is a must. Feeders tend to crowd birds together, causing pathogens to spread far more easily than they would in the wild. Last winter, a salmonellosis outbreak took a devastating toll on bird populations, and the public was asked to adopt a strict cleaning regimen of weekly disinfecting with a 10 percent non-chlorinated bleach solution or take their feeders down altogether.

At least every two weeks, take time to sanitize your feeder, then rinse it well and allow it to air dry. Clean up seed waste and bird feces, too, to discourage rodents. And just because, well, ick.

3. Choose a high quality seed blend. Cheap bulk seed mixes sometimes sit in warehouses for months and some of their common ingredients, like cracked corn and peanuts, can harbor aflatoxins that are potentially fatal to birds. Look for a mix that's heavy on black-oil sunflower seeds and buy in small quantities.

4. Leave your native vegetation in place and plant more. Birds are seldom attracted to perfectly manicured lawns. If you have some control over how your yard looks — you own your home, or have an agreeable landlord — encourage native vegetation and/or plant natives like twinberry and California wax myrtle. Even the non-native Himalayan blackberry, the bane of most gardeners, can provide shelter and sustenance for sparrows and other birds, if it's kept under control. And leaving dead snags standing can attract flickers and other woodpeckers — just make sure they're not likely to fall on you or your car during a windstorm. Not that it's happened here at my house.

5. Should we be feeding the birds at all? Some experts say backyard feeders fundamentally alter how birds behave, bringing together species that normally wouldn't interact and affecting migration patterns. But the National Audubon Society says when done with careful attention to cleanliness and a variety of good quality seed, feeding can often be a boon to birds, especially those affected by extreme weather brought about by climate change.

I ended up investing in a cylinder-style feeder with weighted perches that is dishwasher-safe for easy sanitizing. It hangs from the eave outside my dining room window, which has both vertical lines and decals — there's never been a window strike death. Every few weeks, I sweep up hulls and fallen seed, and wash down my deck. I've let my yard transition to what I like to call "scruffy natural vegetation."

And I get a lot of birds. My main customers are chestnut-backed chickadees and dark-eyed juncos, but there are others, too: beautiful red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, purple finches, downy woodpeckers, lesser goldfinches and a gorgeous pair of black-headed grosbeaks, to mention a few. Working the ground below are fox and song sparrows, and spotted towhees. I lost one junco to a sharp-shinned hawk and a second one to my neighbor's cat before we reached an understanding, but for the most part it's been an enjoyable and mutually beneficial arrangement.

And I never did see those raccoons again.

Sarah Hobart (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County

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