Connecticut residents call state wildlife biologists almost daily, and certainly every week, with questions and commentary about feeding birds.
They ask about the types of birds they're seeing, and which seeds work best. They comment about other animals eating the bird seed, like squirrels or bears. They ask why birds aren't at the feeder, too, said Jenny Dickson, wildlife biologist at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Winter is a good time of year to provide seeds and other food because the birds benefit from an extra boost in the food available, Dickson said.
If feeding birds seems a hobby of little consequence, consider that Connecticut residents spent $65.7 million on bird food in 2006, the most recent data available through the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
They spent an additional $5.8 million on binoculars and spotting scopes, $37.8 million on photography and videography equipment, and $17 million on bird houses, bird feeders, nest boxes and bird baths, according to the study.
Some people are more avid birders than others, but wildlife experts say anyone who puts seed in their yard has a responsibility to know what they are providing. For example, different seeds attract different birds, and it's important to regularly clean a bird feeder to keep it free from disease.
"If you're going to do bird feeding, you have to do it right," said Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation at Audubon Connecticut, the state office of the national Audubon Society.
For many, buying bird feed means getting a bag of mixed seeds to fill a feeder, which may not be the best approach.
One of the nation's leading bird research universities, Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., says "the worst choice" for birds is an inexpensive mixture of red millets, oats and other "fillers" that most birds just kick onto the ground where the seeds rot, get moldy and become a bacteria breeding ground that can make birds sick.
Each type of seed has a different appeal.
The tiny, yellow millet seeds are less expensive than sunflower seeds or thistle, and are often used as filler.
"Millet is a good choice for the ground feeders in the winter time," Comins said. "I throw millet around, on the ground from, say, September or October through April when the white-throated sparrows and juncos are still around."
Comins offers sunflower seeds -- either striped or black-oil -- in feeders across the yard, which brings a different set of birds.
Black-oil sunflower seeds have thinner shells and are easier for birds to open, Dickson said.
"Black-oil is, it's more like, if you think about the sunflower hearts that we tend to buy and snack on, it's much more like that inside, but it's all black in color," Dickson said. "So, instead of being the really big, black-and-white-striped seeds, it's an all-black sunflower seed."
Black-oil sunflower seeds appeal to a variety of species, which helps with the diversity of birds at a feeder, Dickson said. The oily seed also has more nutritional value for birds.
Comins also offers thistle, sometimes called niger or nyjer, which are the thin, black seeds often put in a sock-like feeder. Thistle can attract goldfinches.
"Sometimes I'll used cracked corn," Comins said. "It's essentially seed corn that's been cracked up into small pieces. The problem with the cracked corn is, if it gets wet, it can get toxic much more easily than the other options."
Corn appeals to grouse, pheasants, turkeys, cardinals, grosbeaks, crows, jays and other species, but it's also attractive to bears, raccoons and deer, according to Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology.
Some birds eat peanuts, too.
Titmice, blue jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees all like peanuts, Comins said.
"And some of them will even take peanuts right out of your hands -- titmice in particular," Comins said.
Birds can get seriously ill from bird feeders that aren't cleaned regularly, or from seed husks or seeds that become moldy, particularly if they sit in water.
Bird feces also can pass along illness.
Feeders should be cleaned about every other week, according to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.
Wash the feeder in soapy water, then soak it in a solution of bleach water that is one part bleach and nine parts water, according to the Cornell bird experts. It's important to dry the feeder completely before refilling it so that the seed doesn't get moldy again.
Hummingbird feeders should be cleaned each time the nectar is replaced, or about three to five days.
Birds that feed off the ground can get sick from the remains of seeds that get left around. Be sure to clean up husks and other debris as often as possible.
Thistle feeders also can get moldy and toxic.
For information about how often to wash bird feeders, visit Cornell's website (www.birds.cornell.edu) and search for "feeder care."
Invariably, feeding birds invites unwelcome guests. Most are fluffy, gray acrobats who seem to outwit even the brightest among the bird-feeding community.
Squirrels have a knack for jumping on, raiding and gnawing through bird feeders.
Comins recommends feeders that are at least 8-feet tall and not within 10 feet of a place where squirrels could launch a hopeful jump. Manufacturers make some "squirrel proof" feeders that close under the squirrel's weight. Some people used barriers, or "squirrel baffles," such as plastic disks or half globes, to prevent squirrels from climbing to a pole feeder, or tightrope-walking to get to a feeder dangling from a clothes line.
Some birdseed is treated with capsaicin, which has hot peppers, but Cornell bird experts say it may irritate the eyes of birds. Researchers also haven't looked into the full effects of capsaicin on birds' digestive systems.
Cats can be devastating to bird populations. Both Comins and Dickson believe house cats should be kept indoors, which allows them to live longer lives away from cars, coyotes and things that can be toxic to cats. The best way to protect birds is to provide cover for them -- thick bushes where the birds can hide, but not so close to the feeder that a cat can ambush the birds.
Bears love bird feeders. Winter can be a good time to offer bird seed without running the risk of attracting bears, but it really depends on the weather, Dickson said. If it's warm enough, a bear will ransack a feeder in January.
People who live in areas where bears frequent should take down their feeders in the spring. Knowing when to take them down depends on the neighborhood, Comins said.
"I think most people who live in bear areas know to take the feeders down because it gets expensive," Comins said. "They destroy your bird feeders once or twice and you've learned your lesson, you take them down."
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