When I decided to create a wildlife habitat in my garden I wasn't thinking of opossums. Birds, bees, bats, butterflies, praying mantises and ladybird beetles, the occasional rabbit and a few toads would be nice, but surprising an opossum on my path the other night was astonishing. The place has come a long way in the last couple of years!
It started out innocently enough with a few birds, but now I wonder if things are not getting out of hand!
First were the purple finches, which I first invited into my yard a year and a half ago. Now, they are so well versed in our ritual they scold me when the feeder is empty of sunflower seeds. Who is training whom here?
The chickadees and titmice know, too, whom to come to for seed and suet cakes when the weather turns cold. I rather prefer the chickadees -- they are so fastidious and only take one bite at a time, flying off to perch at a discreet distance to eat it before coming back for more. One wonders how they get enough to eat.
But the finches! Strewing half the seed on the ground, and fighting all the while among themselves for king-of-the-hill in the feeder pecking order. But they are amusing to watch, and, as I have begun feeding them, it would be cruel to take their meal ticket away.
A family of cardinals lives in the white pines next door, and a pair of mourning doves. For these ground feeders I throw cracked corn and sunflower seed onto the driveway, where there is at least some clear ground and the cat(s) can't sneak up on them.
The squirrels also come out as soon as I put out the food. Though at first I resented their "stealing" food from the birds, I have come to appreciate their playful antics. They have become a little bolder, but never enough to come closer than six or seven feet away. I have begun to decipher some of their "sign language" lately. For example, a tail flicking rapidly up and down usually signals that a cat is approaching.
You may want to have more than one type of feeder to accommodate the feeding habits of various birds. Some birds prefer to feed in the air, like the finches, chickadees, titmice and juncos. I have been told they are very fond of thistle seed, but sunflowerseems to satisfy them well enough. They reject millet and most birdseed mixtures in my experience.
Cardinals, blue jays and most of the larger birds like grosbeaks are more comfortable feeding from the ground, or better still, off an open, raised platform. They, too prefer sunflower seeds, but will eat cracked corn, as will the squirrels.
If you decide to include wildlife in your garden, remember that if you begin feeding them, you should expect to keep it up. If you teach them to expect a meal at your house, it would be very hard on them to remove this favor, especially when the weather gets severely cold and the ground may be covered with snow. It would be quite the same as neglecting to feed your dog or cat. Although the birds are little more self-sufficient, it would still be a hardship.
Also, you should provide fresh drinking water for birds throughout the year. In freezing weather it is often difficult for them to find water to drink and wash in. Other wild creatures may also be attracted to your yard if they know there is a dependable supply of water.
Simply providing hot water once a day in freezing weather will be a great help to them. Inexpensive, electric water defrosters can also be purchased from most pet stores, if you have a weather-safe, outside plug available.
Many birds and small animals like fresh fruit in the winter as well as seeds and nuts. The squirrels I have found very partial to apples and small oranges.
A simple device for feeding these, as well as the occasional corncob, can be made by cutting a circle about 5 inches in diameter out of an 8-inch square of half-inch scrap lumber. Use a screw eye to suspend it at the top. In the center of each side, drill an eighth-inch hole and stick an old fashioned, square-cut nail through each side so the two almost touch in the center. The fruit is suspended on these nails. Your feeder is now ready to hang up.
Pub Date: 12/22/96