Keeping Birds On Their Feed

THE REAL DIRT

November 20, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The first crisp morning of autumn, I sprang out of bed and lunged for the switch on the thermostat.

Click. Whoosh. Boom.

Boom? Furnaces aren't supposed to go boom. I peered down the cellar steps. Wisps of oily smoke wafted up from the basement.

Uh-oh. I'm no Bob Vila, but I'm pretty sure smoke is supposed to leave by the hole in the roof, not by windows and doors. Something was wrong. My first thought, of course, was to awaken my wife.

"The furnace is smoking," I said, slipping back into bed. "Could you check it out?"

Well, it was worth a try.

We summoned a repairman, who quickly located the problem. "These were blocking your chimney," he said, handing us a bag of charred objects.

The bag was full of birds. Or what was left of them. The repairman, who said he sees this problem all the time, figured the birds toppled down the chimney, one by one, last winter until they blocked the passage.

What caused these swan dives?

"The birds probably dozed off while sitting on the edge of the chimney and fell inside, where their goose was cooked," he said.

Ecch, what a way to go. I found myself mourning the doves, finches or whatever poor birds fried in the furnace.

We acted quickly to stop the carnage. We covered the chimney top with a metal cap that lets smoke out, but keeps birds from dropping in. Now there is a black-capped chimney to protect the black-capped chickadees and other fowl that perch on the roof to warm themselves in winter.

Now the birds cannot huddle so close to the heat. I hope they understand why. Keeping birds healthy is important to gardeners. They are such a boon, come summer, that we dare not ruffle their feathers -- or singe them.

How helpful are songbirds? An oriole can eat 17 tent caterpillars in one minute. A crow can polish off more than a pound of insects a day. Weed seeds make up the bulk of the purple finch's diet. And the goldfinch loves dandelions, devouring the seed like popcorn.

These birds, and others, I feed and protect in winter. I reckon they'll repay me when the weather turns warm.

I open the snack bar in November, when the birds' natural food supply dries up. They can pull their own weight until then, foraging for apples, pokeberries, acorns and even the poison ivy berries in our yard -- not to mention the bugs that still frequent the garden. Some birds guard the yard year-round: Chickadees search out aphid eggs, even in the dead of winter.

Eighty-two million Americans feed the birds, and every one has his own style of doing it. I've tailored my menu to the tastes of my flock. Here's my advice:

* Target your buffet for particular birds. It reduces waste. Buy specific foods to draw certain species. Cardinals love safflower seed. Mockingbirds like raisins and peanuts. Most birds relish sunflower seed (the smaller oil type); alas, so do squirrels. Sunflower shells are a nuisance to clean up. They also contain a natural herbicide that can kill the grass beneath the feeder.

* Forgo generic seed mixes that contain lots of junk that birds won't eat, like the tiny round seed called millet. It's the brussels sprout of the bird world.

* Ignore fancy feeders; they're designed more for buyers than birds. Cardinals and blue jays are happier eating off a plain flat tray than a thatched-roofed replica of William Shakespeare's boyhood home. Avoid feeders with metal parts, which may stick to birds on frigid days.

* Purchase several feeders and place them at different heights around the yard, to reduce squabbles between birds. Some of them like to eat on the ground; others prefer a TV tray. Feeders mounted on poles are less apt to spill on blustery days than hanging feeders.

* Recycle your own leftovers as bird food. Robins like spaghetti noodles; thrushes like cheese. Stale cornflakes, oatmeal and bacon are treats for many birds, who'll also eat the cat food that kitty left behind. (Watching a bird eat leftover 9 Lives drives our cat nuts.)

* Despite manufacturers' claims, no feeder is completely squirrel-proof. Trust me, I've tried them all.

* Birds need water year-round, so keep the birdbath filled and free of ice.

* Once you start feeding birds for the winter, don't stop. If you're going on vacation, buy a hopper-type feeder that dispenses seed a bit at a time. Or ask a responsible neighbor to fill in, one who has a cap on his chimney.

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