A bad year for forage

Gray squirrel acrobatics

means an important year for bird feeders


Last week the New Hampshire Fish & Game issued an advisory to people who enjoy feeding the birds through the winter: don’t start until December this year. It seems that after two banner years for tree mast and berries, the 2018 growing season was relatively lean. Consequently, the bears are hungry and if you put up a feeder, they are going to eat everything in it and maybe part of the feeder too. The Fish & Game folks are recommending pushing pause because eventually the bears will crawl into their winter dens and begin to hibernate. What was not mentioned, although we can guess at it, is that bears who go into hibernation less than completely larded, as it were, are going to wake earlier and hungrier in the spring. So, sometime in March, don’t be surprised if your bird feeder gets mauled.

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We fed the birds when I was growing up and my mother would not let us start until the ground froze. She reasoned that once that happened, it was harder for the birds to forage for seeds and all the insects were either dead or dormant. My mother could be surprisingly ecological at times. As it happens, I have kept this rule into my adult life, and have generally put off putting out feeders until sometime in November.

There has recently been a lot published to discourage folks from feeding the birds throughout the year. The reasons for this are both ecological and biological. The ecological reasons include the fact that birds set up breeding territories in the warmer months, and you create a bit of havoc when your feeder is in one bird’s territory and not it’s neighbor’s. The biological reasons include the fact that the food (especially suet!) will get rancid and moldy in the warm weather and make the birds sick. (And, of course, there is the aforementioned bear problem.)

The boom years for mast (technical term for tree seeds) has given us a bumper crop of gray squirrels as well. The squirrel surplus has caused all kind of mayhem as they roam further afield in search of enough food. They constantly crossing the roads in their endless quest for a meal, and gardeners and farmers have been faced with what amounts to an invading force. I’m already shuddering at the prospect of how mercilessly persistent the gray squirrels will be in their efforts to entirely drain my feeder of seed.

With this in mind I plan to sink a pipe into the middle of my front lawn at a point equidistant from the house and a clump of lilacs and the hedgerow that marks my northern property line. I’ll have to sink the pipe before the ground freezes so it will be in place to insert the pole that holds up my bird feeder when the time comes. The nearby shrubbery is important to give shelter and cover to the birds, but has to be distant enough for prevent a successful flying leap by a squirrel. And of course the pole will have to be equipped with a squirrel baffle, a big one.

I might be somewhat protected from an onslaught of gray squirrels by an unlikely ally: the red squirrel that basically owns my front yard. Red squirrels like eating at bird feeders too, but they are fiercely territorial throughout the year, as far as I can tell, I’ve never seen a group of them massing at a feeding station the way gray squirrels do. 

Last winter in the Adirondacks, I affixed a feeder to a bracket next to my second-floor window. It was a good ten feet from the nearest tree and the overhang on the roof above was about two feet. It took about three months for the local red squirrel to find my feeder, but when he (she?) did locate it s/he was unstoppable. This animal crawled straight up the shingles to get to the feeder. When I tapped on the window or shouted at it through the glass, it would just sit there with this “Hey, I’m eatin’ here” look on its face. I had to open the window and reach out toward it to get it to move, at which point it would take a lunge for the tree and land successfully about 80 percent of the time.

I wouldn’t mind feeding squirrels if they let the birds eat along side them, but the little fur faces chase off any feathered interlopers. Even blue jays are cowed by squirrels.

While squirrels like all bird food, birds are fussier. Last winter I started out with pure sunflower “oil” seeds and attracted chickadees, purple finches, blue jays, and a few goldfinches. When I switched to a mix of millet, corn, and sunflower seeds the diversity increased, including more goldfinches, a very unhappy and lost juvenile chipping sparrow, tree sparrows (“winter chippies”), and the occasional junco. 

This was a feeder that was hanging from a hook on a bracket, so the sparrows and juncos were not particularly enamored of it. They prefer feeding on the ground and don’t like anything to moves beneath them. So I took to throwing a few handfuls of seed down to the ground whenever I filled the feeder. That meant not seeing the sparrows at the feeder anymore, but the white-throated sparrows began showing up at that point.

I’m looking forward to seeing what shows up at a New Hampshire feeder. Living in the High Peaks region I was pleased at the regularity of the purple finch visits and assume I’ll see some here, although there are fewer conifers in this forest. I was further north and 200 feet higher there than I am now, but maybe we will get lucky this year and it will be a year of irruptions by pine or evening grosbeaks and the crossbills. A friend of mine in Denmark posted on Facebook that they are getting an influx of Bohemian waxwings from Norway and Sweden this year. 

Now I just need to find a pipe and sledgehammer ...

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