The Cranky Gardener

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Wildlife Feeders

The creation of a natural habitat will go a long way toward attracting wildlife to your garden. But it will take some time for you to transform a relatively barren area into a safe haven for birds and other native species. Using supplemental feeders is a good way to ensure activity while your habitat is becoming established. And using feeders has the added advantage of bringing wildlife to a regular location which allows you to observe it at close range.

When most people think of feeders they think of birds. Watching our feathered friends and listening to their beautiful songs is one of the joys of life. So much so that selling bird feeders and birdseed is a multi-million dollar industry. With a rudimentary understanding of the feeding habits of birds you will be able to tempt many species into your garden.

Unlike some wild animals, birds will not become overly dependent upon your feeders. They use natural food sources first. If you don't always find birds at your feeders it is probably a sign that your neighbourhood is a healthy habitat for the native species. But birds are opportunists, so once they discover your feeders are available they will make use of them. So be patient. You also need to realize that only about 25% of bird species will use a feeder. That's why you are going to be providing a native plant community as well.

There are a number of different kinds of bird feeders. Probably the most common ones are tube feeders. These are tall in comparison to their circumference and normally have several openings with perches allowing small birds to land and feed. Some have divisions inside allowing you to use three or four different varieties of seed. Tube feeders can be hung from a tree limb or shepherd's hook or can be attached to a post.

Platform feeders are the best choice for those species that forage on the ground and don't like hanging feeders. Doves, sparrows, jays, pheasants, grackles and quail are examples of birds that will appreciate a platform feeder. These are not as readily available ready made, so you may want to build one yourself. Instructions for the construction of a simple platform feeder can be found in this Bird Watching article and instructions for a variety of bird feeders can be found here.

Hopper feeders are my favourites. They have roofs to keep the seed dry, hold a large amount of seed and come in a wide variety of styles and sizes. I have one that has wire cages at each end to hold suet cakes, so it is actually two feeders in one. The one in this picture looks like mine.

Suet, which is a high-energy food source, will be appreciated by your birds during the winter. It is sold in cake form to fit standard suet feeders. Usually it is mixed with a variety of seeds, fruits and nuts. You can make your own suet cakes or balls (I have an old feeder that requires suet balls) by saving raw beef fat or buying it from your butcher. Melt the fat in a heavy pan over low heat and add whatever seeds or nuts you want and cool. When it is nearly cool you can form it into a ball. Or you can pour it into a dish to create a large block and slice off the amount you need. Store unused suet in the freezer. It will keep all winter. It doesn't smell too great and is messy, but the birds will really like it.

Some birds that especially like suet are wrens, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, starlings and hawks. If they can get to it, squirrels and chipmunks will also eat suet, as will raccoons, opossums and foxes.

Nectar feeders are used for hummingbirds primarily but will also attract orioles and tanagers. They are designed to simulate the flowers that are their natural food source. You can buy nectar or make your own. For hummingbird nectar, boil one part sugar in four parts water. Add a few drops of red food colouring if your feeder doesn't have red glass. The bright colour will attract the birds. Orioles need a mixture of one part sugar to eight parts water. You can also tempt orioles with grape jelly or orange segments. Change the nectar in your feeders after three days or it may spoil and make your birds sick.

Almost all birds like black-oil sunflower seed. Use it to attract cardinals, sparrows, finches, jays, chickadees, goldfinches, pine siskins, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers. You can also buy striped sunflower seed, sunflower hearts, safflower seed, niger, red millet, white millet, cracked corn and peanuts. You can also buy mixtures that contain three or more seed varieties.

Fruit can be used to attract orioles, tanagers, bluebirds, chats, jays, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers and mockingbirds. Cracked corn is eaten by pheasants, quail, doves, sparrows, starlings, grackles, blackbirds, cowbirds and jays. Millet is used to feed starlings, juncos, doves, sparrows, blackbirds, and cowbirds. Peanuts are relished by cardinals, jays, sparrows, doves, starlings, grackles, chickadees, titmice, juncos and finches. And niger seed is used for finches, chickadees, pine siskins and sparrows.

Other food items your birds will enjoy include raisins, currants, popcorn, cherries, cranberries, peanut butter, grapes, orange halves, grapefruit halves and jelly.

You will need to store your birdseed in a dry place to prevent mould from growing on it. Otherwise you will have sick birds. You will also need to clean your feeders at least once a month. Use a stiff brush, hot water and a mild detergent. Rinse completely and allow to dry before adding fresh seed. Keep the area under your feeders raked clean as well unless you want to attract mice. Lastly, don't locate your feeders near an area that can shelter predators.

You can also feed butterflies. Some stores sell butterfly feeders which use nectar. Or you can use a shallow dish. To make butterfly nectar you will need to boil one part sugar in eighteen parts water. Butterflies will also drink Gatorade. As with hummingbird nectar, you will need to change it every few days to prevent it from spoiling.

Some butterflies will not eat nectar. Wood satyrs, wood nymphs, commas, hackberry emperor, tawny emperor, red-spotted purple and mourning cloaks prefer tree sap or fermenting fruit. To make a feeder for woodland butterflies you can take overripe fruit such as grapes, bananas, apples, pears and melons and place them in a shallow container. Slightly mash the fruit. Or you can hang clusters of overripe grapes from a shepherds hook.

Are you tired of the squirrels raiding your bird feeders? Then you may as well put out a squirrel feeder. A full squirrel is a happy squirrel. Unlike lots of folks, I actually enjoy my squirrels. Squirrel feeders come in two styles. The most common one is a large nail sticking through a piece of wood to which you attach an ear of corn or chopped fruits or vegetables. The second style is similar to a hopper feeder and is used to hold dried corn. Squirrels also love peanut butter. You can spread it right on a tree trunk.

What you don't want to do is to feed animals such as deer, raccoons, skunks and bears human food scraps or pet food. These mammals become dependent easily. In the coldest months, if you wish to feed these animals, buy dried corn.

Next time we will talk about providing water in your garden for wildlife.

I know we're heading into summer in the northern hemisphere, but for those of you in the southern hemisphere here is a recipe for muffins that will be gobbled up by your feathered friends on a cold winter's day.

Bird Muffins


  • 1 cup chunky peanut butter
  • 1 cup shortening or lard
  • 2 ½ cups stone ground cornmeal
  • 2 cups seeds, raisins, dried fruits and nuts.

Mix together and spoon into muffin cups. Insert pipe cleaners to act as hangers. Sprinkle with additional bird seed. Place in the freezer to harden then hang from a tree.

You can take this same mixture and spread it onto pinecones through which wire has been wrapped to use as hangers. Roll the pinecones in additional birdseed and hang. Or, scoop out grapefruit halves, poke three holes in the edge, tie ribbons or string through the holes leaving at least a foot for hanging, and place your frozen muffins inside. You can also mix suet and birdseed together and fill the grapefruit halves.

The Cranky Gardener


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