It's a sure sign of spring - hungry birds

March 11, 1999|By Dennis Shaw

Just a week until spring! That means it's time to start feeding the birds.

Most people think I'm weird, of course. They STOP feeding the birds when spring approaches. But the arrival of warmer weather is when I put the process into high gear.

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Actually, I have had my feeders out since Thanksgiving. I don't do it then so much for the birds' sake, but to please my human holiday guests. They love to see the array of chickadees, cardinals, finches and other birds that flock to my front yard to dine.

The birds really don't need the food then, for nature's pantry is still full at that time of year. Seed- and berry-producing trees and shrubs are heavily laden with choice meals, enough to last through the winter.


By spring, however, these seeds and berries are gone, and it'll be months before new ones ripen. So that's when the birds could use a helping hand ... and that's when most people take their feeders down.

I can sympathize with them. By then I'm usually tired of buying and hauling sacks of feed, filling and cleaning the feeders and raking up mounds of sunflower seed hulls underneath them. But then I see a hungry-looking bird, and I stock up for another two or three months of feeding.

The most rewarding time to feed birds is after a big winter storm. They really appreciate it then, when their natural food supply is buried under a layer of snow or ice. They show up in great numbers and eat with real gusto. That's not so obvious in the spring, but that's when they need it just as much. Several months of bird-feeding can be expensive, but I've found ways to cut the costs considerably.

First, I don't buy bags of "mixed seed" in grocery stores. They're relatively small and expensive. Instead, I buy seed in bulk at local lawn and garden centers, farm feed suppliers or home improvement centers, where I can often get 50 pounds of sunflower seed for around $10. I store it in my garage in galvanized garbage pails to keep out mice and other unauthorized nibblers.

This way I can also choose only the seeds I want. Most mixed seed collections contain a lot of seeds that birds won't touch. I've narrowed my menu down to black oil sunflower seed for hanging feeders and a mixture of sunflower and white millet for platform feeders and to throw on the ground.

These two, combined with suet or suet cakes for woodpeckers, satisfy almost any bird that I want to attract. I used to serve niger thistle seed, but the finches that like that are just as happy with the sunflower.

Sometimes I also offer safflower seed, peanut hearts, peanut butter, bread, cracked corn or fruit such as apples, oranges or raisins.

However, by spring I'm ready to downsize, and the sunflower and millet take care of 90 percent of my restaurant's clientele. And by spring there's the garden to till, perennials to prune, trees to plant and seeds to sow to provide the birds' natural menu for the fall and winter.

This spring I'll have one more bird-related project. I'll be helping out this afternoon at the Maryland Ornithological Society booth at the Flower and Garden Show at Hagerstown Community College. Stop by if you want to hear me - or people far more knowledgeable than I - talk about birds.

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write him at P.O. Box 276, Clear Spring, Md. 21722 or call 301-842-3863.

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