If your bird feeder has been vacant this past month or so, don't worry -- new tenants are on the way.
During this time of year migratory birds are winging south, and many will choose Carroll for their winter homes.
Juncos have already appeared at home feeders, as well as migratory blue jays from up north. They will soon be followed by chickadees, titmice, finches and other winter species. In January or February, lucky observers may find colorful evening grosbeaks adding excitement to their winter feeder.
Melinda Byrd, a naturalist and administrator of Piney Run Nature Center, advises that it is important to understand the feeding habits of various species in order to attract birds and feed them effectively.
For instance, insect eaters such as woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches need a diet rich in fat to replace the insects they normally eat. Suet -- the thick, creamy fat that surrounds the kidneys of a cow -- is an ideal food for these birds.
Although suet can be rendered and molded, the extra work is not necessary; birds will devour it just as it comes from the butcher. Don't tie or nail suet directly to trees.
"The fat will rot the bark," Melinda Byrd advises. "Instead, tie a board to the tree and attach a hunk of suet to that. Or hang it in a wire basket or a net bag."
The insect eaters also enjoy sunflower seeds, preferring the smaller, darker kernels of the oil sunflower seeds over the larger, striped variety.
For apartment and town-house dwellers who do not wish to cope with the mess of discarded shells, sunflower kernels may be the answer.
Peanut butter is another food popular with the insect eaters. Although rather expensive, it can be extended by mixing with cornmeal, uncooked oatmeal or bread crumbs.
"There's no truth to the old myth that peanut butter will cause birds to choke," Byrd says.
Cracked corn and white provo millet are the foods of choice for the seed-eaters, which can be identified by their strong, thick bills. Unlike insect-eaters, which prefer to feed from a high location, seed-eating birds, such as cardinals, buntings, sparrows and cowbirds, like their food placed at or near ground level.
Niger, or thistle, is a delicacy preferred by the finches that often visit our area in great numbers. Some bird-lovers fear that seeds of the Niger thistle will propagate and become a nuisance, as is our native thistle. This will not happen, however, because the seed is sterilized before being imported from Africa.
It does no apparent harm to feed stale bread and cracker crumbs or an occasional leftover doughnut, although these foods will probably attract house sparrows, which many consider to be a pest.
Byrd recommends buying bird seed at a regular farm supply store, as the mixture found in grocery store and variety stores often contains a high percentage of "fillers" that the birds do not eat. Seeds to avoid in mixtures include rice, wheat, milo and oat groats. Red millet is often added for human eye appeal, but birds avoid it.
Custom-mixed, high-quality bird seed may be purchased at Piney Run Nature Center. This seed contains no fillers and there is no waste. The "Piney Run Regular" contains 20 percent sunflower seed and the "Piney Run Premium" contains 40 percent sunflower seeds, as well as more exotic seeds such as Niger thistle and safflower. Each year the center conducts two bird- seed sales. The next sale will be in January; call 795-3274 to receive an order blank.
Bird feeders need not be expensive, Byrd says.
"You can make a perfectly adequate platform feeder from a piece of plywood with strips for a rim and holes drilled for drainage.
"Ideally, you should have a number of feeders at different locations on your property. Birds are territorial and will fight for food. Too much competition at a single feeder creates stress."
Recent studies have shown that a bird feeder placed within a foot of a window helps prevent birds from flying into the glass and injuring themselves, as well as offering a closer view for human observers.
Although some believe it is safe to site feeders 6 feet from any tree limbs that a squirrel might use as a launching pad, that distance is not always effective.
"Squirrels are like monkeys -- they can get into any feeder, even the supposedly 'squirrel-proof' ones," Byrd warns. "The best solution is to buy cheap feed like cracked corn and scatter it in an area away from the feeder. Or spike unshelled corn ears where squirrels can get to them."
The naturalist stresses that birds don't actually need to be fed except during ice storms or prolonged periods of bitterly cold weather. Weeds and natural growth provide food for most species through the winter, and some mortality is nature's way of controlling the bird population.
However, she adds, there is little harm in feeding birds, and for humans it is a positive experience.
"Don't worry about going on vacation," she says. "The birds will find their own source of supply."