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It's bird feeding season

Doug Greenberg
Doug Greenberg
Doug Greenberg

It’s officially bird feeding season. I usually wait until mid-winter to get into the subject of bird feeders, since there’s not much else to do by then but stare out the window looking for some sign of hope. But this is the all-important season when interesting birds from faraway places can settle in at feeders, just in time for the Christmas Bird Count season which is a mere two weeks away. If you’re a birder, this scared you, because that means you may actually only have another 14 shopping days before the bird count season eats up all your free time. But I digress – let’s get back to bird feeding.

In winter I just do a few squirrel-proof feeders with black oil sunflower seed, some suet cages, and a couple of bird baths, one with a small heater. I also have an old regular tube feeder with some cheap birdseed, the kind that’s mostly millet. The cheap stuff is actually favored by certain birds, like the rare overwintering Indigo Bunting I had last winter. People who are lucky enough to get one of the few Painted Buntings we get here on the Cape every winter usually see them on the cheap millet mix. Other rare birds like the expensive hulled sunflower seed, particularly the Western and Summer Tanagers that sometimes – through very rarely - winter at feeders around here.

But perhaps no food attracts more interesting winter birds than suet. Whether you do pure beef suet from the butcher or the processed stuff, this fatty, high energy treat brings everything from overwintering orioles and tanagers, to bluebirds, to several species of winter-possible warbler. I had a late oriole at my suet about two weeks ago, and a vagrant Western Tanager was already reported visiting a suet feeder in West Barnstable this week. Pine Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers also love suet, and I see them regularly at mine in Harwich, usually along with the wintering flock of bluebirds. A few people may see an Orange-crowned Warbler at their suet in winter, look for a little, entirely yellow-olive bird with a teensy pointed bill.

I also leave a hummingbird feeder out into the winter and try to have some pineapple sage plants in a pot – this is a hummingbird magnet flower that blooms through November around here. Why would I do this when our local hummingbirds left in September? Because every year the Cape gets some rare hummingbird species from the western US, usually Rufous Hummingbirds. Other species like Calliope, Broad-billed, Allen’s and Black-chinned have also turned up here, always in late fall or winter. A likely Rufous Hummingbird showed up in Sandwich in a yard full of Pineapple Sage a couple of weeks ago, and a Black-chinned visited a yard in Brewster in the last week. Any hummingbird at this time is rare – if you see one, get a photo and then tell me!

It’s hard to talk about bird feeding without the dreaded “r” word coming up – rats. In my neighborhood we have everything they need – multiple backyard chicken coops, compost piles, trash, and bird feeders. As a result, I sometimes have to stop feeding birds for a while or put out some old-fashioned traps – I can tell I have them when they tunnel into my compost. But I mostly don’t have them, and have always been able to get back to feeding the birds after a break. If you have rats, make sure to skip the poisons based on anti-coagulants – a lot of research has confirmed that these get into predators of all kinds and have killed owls and even an eagle locally. If you really need to use some poison then D-Con products all use a safer active ingredient, activated Vitamin D, which is toxic to rats for some reason. It’s much less likely to affect predators that eat the poisoned rats, but the bait itself is toxic to pets.

So if you can, now’s the time to get those feeders out, and keep an eye out for unusual visitors among the chickadees and Song Sparrows. If you can’t put them up because of pests or local ordinances in your homeowner’s association or complex, then there’s nothing else to say but “rats!”

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.