Connecting to Nature: The Bird Feeder Story


Connecting to Nature: The Bird Feeder Story

Connecting to Nature: The Bird Feeder Story


Joe Baust


Having bird feeders are a great way to encourage songbirds to visit your yard or garden, whether urban, suburban or urban. It is at least one way of connecting to nature and an opportunity to view birds either informally or formally.

I have been feeding birds for years. Every year it is a chance for me to plan, what kind of feeder to use, where to place the feeders, what type of food to use, what kind of birds I wanted to encourage to visit, amongst the many questions one might pose. Yet, the ultimate purpose of feeding birds is to be able to have the opportunity to view them. For years bird feeding has been a way to spend time observing these glorious creatures.

For me it became just an opportunity to be able to look out of the windows, throughout the day to watch. It made me become more aware of beauty and the variations of birds that visited throughout the year. But as time went on, it was a natural iteration to observe and make inferences about what I was doing, how I was doing it, and what I could do to do a better job providing food and shelter for those wonderful, colorful, songful birds for which I had become enamored. So I evolved from being a novice bird feeder to one that became much more planned and informed. Perhaps that is how many of us connect to nature, informally moving to a more formal approach.

Along the way I dealt with some problems I had not anticipated. There were raids by squirrels, and black birds, plus many questions that arose. I found it was sometimes entertaining to see how inventive our fury friends were in taking what we thought was ‘bird food’ and now making a bird feeder more than I intended.

I soon discovered sharing the food meant the squirrels deterred the birds and it became a squirrel feeder instead. It then morphed into a place for squirrels to be fed who decided to eat not only the bird seed but also chomp on the wooden parts of our house, never a good thing. It is uncanny when one has an invasion of squirrels how other people have stories to share about their own home attack. One friend tells the story of their poplar house that was invaded by a bevy of squirrels causing over $1,000 in damage. Then one thinks, oh no, this could happen to my house.

So we bought bird feeders that were less prone to a squirrel takeover, but it did not prevent them from trying. Often an amusing situation with these critters losing, but they always were trying. This however led to their taking out their frustration on the house. We awakened one morning to one of the feeders on the ground and most of the seed gone. Was it a squirrel, a band of squirrels or what? We knew squirrels were industrious, but able to chew through the hanger, it did not seem possible they would take down the bird feeder.

To prevent this we purchased a Have-A-Heart Trap to discourage the squirrels. To my surprise, they were never interested. Watching them, they just walked by the cage with the good food and either went on an exploration of how to get to the food in the bird feeder, or right to the wood on the side of our house.

Undaunted we continued to try different food for the trap. Our first capture was a poor dove that wondered into the trap for a snack. We felt sorry for it as I went out to release it and it flew off, never to enter a Have-A-Heart Trap again. I suppose this was a lesson it may have learned.

After reading about what attracted squirrels we put in the trap food that we felt surely was better and hoped we would not attract any more doves. One night we heard the sound of the trap closing. Looking out the second story window, indeed something had been captured. In the morning light I checked the trap and inside was a huge, 30-pound, surly, and outraged raccoon. Where was I going to release this unhappy animal? I drove it eight miles away and opened the cage and it scampered out into the woods with glee.

Again, I cleaned the trap, set it with food and lo and behold, I captured something. This time I did not wait for the next morning to see what was in the cage. Yes, this time it was another raccoon, this time 35 pounds and even angrier than the first one. I took this poor critter outside of town. This time when I opened the cage to release the raccoon, it looked back at me with disgust and I thought there was potential of it coming back to pay me back for its incarceration. Whew, it decided against retribution and went into the woods.

This was not the end of my adventure, we captured a large possum, and at that point I was ready to quit using the trap because I never was able to attract any squirrels, just anything else. How frustrating, but I still was experimenting and problem solving. At least that was my way of justifying my capturing a dove, raccoons and a possum.

I went to the hardware store and shared my story. The proprietor said he understood the problem and was not sure he had an answer. But now I had two of us thinking about a solution so I would not have another bird feeder destroyed with what I had come to discover was not an invasion of squirrels, but of raccoons. He suggested aircraft grade wire and some metal clamps to hang the feeder. This worked perfectly and I had no more downed bird feeders. But I still had a rather robust number of squirrels feeding on the ground and scaring away some of the birds. And of course, in the spring we had blackbirds too who did scare away even the more aggressive birds such as Blue Jays and Mocking birds.

Yet the grandchildren loved to watch the feeder, we all loved to spend some time watching them. Often while I was working in the Center for Environmental Education, I would receive a call from home.  I picked up my office phone and heard, “They are back!” “What is back,” I asked. “The Rose Breasted Gross Beaks, there are at least a pair of them this time!” The bird feeder, in spite of the challenges, was a wonderful way to bring the outdoors to us.

Over time the grandchildren enjoyed watching the feeders so much they requested binoculars. They would spend a fair amount of time observing the birds visiting the feeders and the next iteration of their interest was when they called for a bird book to identify the visitors. To them watching the feeders was fun, entertaining, and we thought, an opportunity to connect to nature, even from our indoor view. From informal watching to a path of learning more about bird identification, bird habitat and other connections to the natural world.

As we all tend to do over time, if we are open, we learn to do a better job feeding birds and trying to deal with squirrels robbing the feeders. We bought feeders that highly discouraged squirrels and we had many songbirds visit daily.

We tried different kinds of food to discourage squirrels, and found that safflower seed seemed to be an answer. We noticed not as much diversity of species of songbirds, but squirrels simply disappeared from our feeders. We found once, that when our safflower seed was gone and we could not find any locally, we went back to the songbird mix we bought in the past. Indeed, there were more birds, more variety and yes, the squirrels returned with a vengeance. When I found more safflower seed the problem abated.

One thing we have found about feeding birds, there is always something to learn. I had read that feeders should be cleaned regularly, which I used to do only once a season. The reason, dirty bird feeders were a source of disease for songbirds. I felt terrible about my lack of knowledge in taking care of my bird friends that came to visit. So I began a regular ritual of disassembling the feeders after taking them down from the aircraft wire used to hand them from our River Birch tree. I made every effort to clean them well, rinse them well with clear water, and dry them. It was labor intensive, but a way of taking care of the bird friends that came to the feeder.

Recently I cleaned both feeders and noticed no birds visiting. I thought perhaps it had something to do with the feeders needing to be aired out after cleaning. But there were very few visitors for a couple of weeks. I did notice when I was talking with someone in our back yard a Cooper's Hawk flew through the yard. Perhaps this was the reason song birds were not visiting? We had had seen a hawk feasting on birds in our yard before, only once did we observe it eating a black bird, and we were happy to have that population diminished, if only one black bird at a time. Was that the reason for not having songbirds, a predator?

I was doing something inside of the house and noticed a Titmouse trying to eat from the one feeder, then another bird that seemed perplexed. It would not land on the perches to eat; instead, they were landing on the outside feeder cage without a way to reach the seed. This puzzled me why they were visiting the feeder without eating. So I went outside and noticed the foolishness of my ways. In reassembling this feeder, the perches and the feeding holes on the feeder were not aligned. In fact the perches were nowhere near the place where birds could eat.

The lesson was clear, I made an inference that something was the matter with the food, or with the way I cleaned the feeder, when indeed it was the foolish way I put the feeder back together after cleaning. I thought of every reason about the problem when I failed to observe the obvious. The birds were telling me -  “you want us to visit? If you do, make it so we can reach the seed!”

Connecting to nature, even from an indoor vantage point is filled with opportunity, if we are willing to take the time. Bird feeding in my back yard taught me how much a person can learn if they are open, observe, use problem-solving skills, and yes, be willing to recognize we make mistakes. In this case, I guess my story is “for the birds.” Perhaps the birds might say, “don’t disparage us, your story is for the silly people.”