One of the best shows around waits just outside the door. All you have to do is put out a little bit of seed and a troupe of feathered acrobats will come to entertain you for hours.
Bird feeding has quietly become one of the country's favorite hobbies, with more than 65 million of us doing it at least part of the time. It's an ageless pastime but many parents are finding that it's an especially good way to teach children about the natural world.
Although the colder months are thought of as prime time for feeding because the birds' natural food sources are slim, experts say there's no reason not to feed birds year round.
Birds need seed, suet, a source of water and nearby cover, according to Dick Gibbs, executive director of the Irvine Natural Science Center in Stevenson. "You need some kind of vegetation, trees or shrubs, near the feeders that the birds can fly to in case a hawk flies over or a cat comes along."
What you find most often in stores is a seed mix, but that is not really the best kind of food to buy. From the birds' point of view, the ideal situation would be to have several different kinds of feed offered separately in different feeders.
"Birds have preferences just like we do," says John Haley, manager of the Wild Bird Company, a new store in Frederick selling supplies for those who like to feed and watch birds. "When you mix it together, cardinals will come down, kick through millet and feed on sunflower. Doves will do the reverse. They start kicking the seed out they don't like and it ends up on the ground.
"With mixed birdseed, there is a lot of seed in there that isn't the favorite of any one bird and some, like milo and red millet, that virtually no bird likes."
Not only is spilled food a waste of money, but food on the ground can cause other problems as well. Molds on the ground and droppings from the birds above will contaminate the feed and may threaten the health of the birds. Rodents can also be attracted to the feed.
"One of the worst things to do is throw the seed on the ground," Mr. Haley adds, "because of the problem with contamination from bird feces and because they're more vulnerable to cats and other predators when they're feeding on the ground."
Even birds like mourning doves and sparrows, which are normally thought of as ground feeders will come to a platform feeder.
"If you only feed one type of seed," Mr. Haley says, "black oil sunflower seed is the preference."
While sunflower seeds, both grey-striped and black oil, are popular with many birds, you can to a certain extent select the birds that come to your feeders by selecting different types of seed. Niger thistle seed feeders, for instance, attract house finches, goldfinches and pine siskins.
"Starting at this time of year you have birds that migrate down from the north like the northern junco and the white throated sparrows. They like the white proso millet," says Mr. Gibbs. "And blue jays like a platform feeder with grey-striped sunflower seed.
"You should also be sure to hang suet," he adds. "Suet gives a balanced diet with the seeds. And woodpeckers particularly like suet."
There are many different types of feeders available commercially -- tube feeders, platform feeders, wire mesh cages for suet, house feeders, and nectar feeders. Several are specialized for -- the different types of seed. Some have design features that attract certain birds. Others have features to keep away squirrels. There are also swing arms for hanging feeders from porches, balconies or decks.
It's important to practice sanitation, Mr. Haley says. "Try to keep the feeders clean and dry. Take down the feeder every two weeks or once a month and clean them in a solution of hot soapy water."
If you store your birdseed outside or in a garage, keep it in a metal can to prevent squirrels, mice and other rodents from getting into it, Mr. Gibbs says.
Placement is another question. You'll want to find a spot that suits both you and the birds. Choose a location that can be seen from the house, is safe for the birds, away from squirrels and convenient for you to fill easily.
Research with banding birds at the INSC has indicated that songbirds return to the same small areas year after year. "It's even the same acre", Mr. Gibbs says. This is one reason why it's important to maintain regular feeding of birds throughout the winter. They will become dependant on your feeder for a large part of their food supply.
Once you start feeding birds, you'll probably want to buy at least one guide to help you identify the birds that come to your feeder. Thereare a number of good ones on the market and one of the best is "A Field Guide to Birds of North America" (Golden Press, paperback, $10.95) by Robbins, Bruun, Zim and Singer.
Birdseed, bird feeders, squirrel feeders and baffles, bird-song recordings, plus books on bird feeding and other aspects of the natural world are available at the INSC. The hours for the center are noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.