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source--Microsoft Design Gallery LiveWinter Birds, To Feed or Not to Feed

As the warm, golden colors and crisp air of autumn descend upon us, I bid farewell to departing migrant birds while my thoughts turn to the resident species that will tough out another Wisconsin winter. Every fall I struggle with the same question: Should I put out my bird feeders this year? Or maybe just the suet cages? Or should I trust nature to provide sustenance for my feathered friends? Making this decision is difficult for many reasons.

On the one hand, I love to attract birds to places in my yard that are visible from living room and kitchen windows. I don't mind working in the kitchen if I have busy songbirds to entertain me. And I can't think of a better way to spend a blustery January morning than to lounge on the couch with a cup of hot tea and watch black-capped chickadees perform upside-down acrobatics as they make their selection of seed.

On the other hand, putting up feeders is like signing a contract because the birds become dependent on this food source for survival. The commitment is a long one, extending from the moment the feeders are in place until the warm spring breezes nudge dormant insect prey back to life. Seed and/or suet must be available at all times during daylight hours throughout the winter months. If I leave the feeders empty for just a day--or even a half day--many birds could starve to death. Their small bodies and fast metabolisms require replenishment almost hourly. They also need to build up fat stores in each in order to keep warm through long winter nights and still have enough energy to fuel their early morning search for food. In fact, availability of seed at first morning light is vital for birds to quickly replace their depleted energy stores. Never should my feeders be empty at this or any time of the day.

So, if making food available helps with bird survival, what's the dilemma? Well, if I escape for a weekend to the city (which happens often during the winter), I must find a willing neighbor to fill feeders and hang new suet in my absence. Without a commitment from a neighbor at the start of the season, my feeders will remain on a shelf in the garage. I will trust that birds will find food in nearby wetlands and will visit feeders in other folks' yards rather than take the risk that empty feeders will lead to their demise.

Say I find a conscientious, bird-loving neighbor. Now I can hang a feeder from every tree in the yard, right? Ah, if only my decision was that simple! Although providing food for winter residents promotes survival of desirable species such as white- breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and (my favorite) black-capped chickadees, other undesirable species may also benefit. Non-native species such as English house sparrows and house finches love to visit birdfeeders. These are aggressive birds that can out-compete our native songbirds for seed at the feeder as well as for nesting sites in the spring.

Depending on the type of feeder I put out, I might also attract known nest predators like the blue jay. Although blue jays are native to Wisconsin, they still pose a very serious threat to birds that build open-cup nests. Once confined to forest edge habitats, blue jay numbers were partly kept in check by built-in defenses of other edge songbirds against their voracious predation. Our conversion of grasslands and forests to suburban or park-like yards has created more edge-like habitat in which blue jay populations have thrived. Eastern kingbirds, grassland sparrows, thrushes, vireos, and wood warblers are particularly vulnerable to a blue jay's predatory skills for they build open-cup nests and lack the defense systems necessary to ward off this efficient nest-raider.

Here again I wrestle with the pros and cons. How can I aid my beloved backyard birds while preventing harmful non-native species and nest-predators from reaping the rewards? Fortunately, some nifty, new feeder designs have become available in recent years. The one I like best is the upside-down thistle feeder because its dispensing holes are located beneath the perches. In order to retrieve seeds, birds must be able to feed while hanging upside-down from the perch--a feat that is a snap for goldfinches and pine siskins but is beyond the physical limitations of house sparrows, house finches, and blue jays!

Placing one or two upside-down feeders in my yard only solves part of the problem. Other desirable species, such as chickadees and nuthatches, do not eat thistle while larger birds like woodpeckers do not feed upside down. Hanging suet in wire cages or in mesh bags will serve as an important supplemental protein source for these birds. An upside-down sunflower feeder would round-out chickadee and nuthatch diets, but I do not know of any that are commercially available. (The dispenser holes on thistle feeders are too small for sunflower seeds to pass through.) I have thought about making my own feeder using a discarded 2-liter soda bottle, an exacto knife, and two or three wooden dowels, but have yet to give it a try.

To feed or not to feed? The snow will be flying before too long. I had better make up my mind soon. Perhaps this is a good year to try that soda bottle feeder. It might provide just the excuse I need to loaf on the coach this January. Before I do that, I must get my new winter roost houses up, to keep my feathered friends warm!