COLUMN: Bird feeders serve up unmatched outdoor education

‘No book, TV show or movie can come close’ to watching flurry of activity at feeder station, says outdoors columnist

The sassy call of the lone chickadee flitting above my head did a better job of announcing the feeder was open than any ‘bells and whistles’ I may have thought of.

Each November, the weather is carefully monitored, along with the available wild seed crop, as both are used to determine the starting date of filling the feeder for another winter. Too early a start and it feels as if I’m wasting money on food that could otherwise be found in a natural state, and too late will mean the local birds have discovered the neighbour’s feeder, leaving us with just a small flock of freeloaders.

Within a minute of that first advertising call, several more of the cute black-capped bandits appeared, each eager to delve into the offerings of sunflower, peanuts and cracked corn. These birds were quickly followed in queue by a few more of our natural neighbours: a white-breasted nuthatch and two blue jays.

Over the next hour, a total of 11 birds of various species enjoyed the offerings, and no doubt the number will double by tomorrow.

Operating a bird feeder, also called a feeding station, has been a highlight of every winter I can remember. Memories of evening grosbeaks and blue jays quarrelling over seeds just outside the kitchen window remain as vivid today as when my father first set out a feeder in about 1959.

At that time, it took us almost a week to find someone who knew the names of our exotic feathered guests. Birdwatching wasn’t the popular hobby it is today, and it took a bit of ‘asking around’ to find the answers.

But the contacts that were made, and identification methods discovered, have stayed with me: how a library works, becoming involved with naturalists’ clubs, and being surprised by who knew the answers — doctors, foundry workers, engineers, Sunday school teachers, and librarians.

The feeding station we operate today is a bit more elaborate than that early piece of plywood nailed to the porch railing six decades ago, but the results are just as rewarding. To see wild birds feed, groom, argue and roost just inches away, with only a pane of glass between you and them, is an entertaining education.

When our daughters were young, they spent hours each winter with their noses pressed against the window, announcing the arrivals and departures of each species at the feeder; this was followed by the next generation as our grandson did the same.

No book, TV show or movie can come close to giving them as valuable an insight to our natural world as the experiences gained while watching this simple feeder. They have witnessed death and near death as the occasional northern shrike or sharp-shinned hawk used the feeder as a diner.

Not that putting out seed is a hobby meant only for children: Adults smile just as widely as little people when a chickadee alights upon their fingertips, its black eyes flashing, and snitches an offered seed. When I worked at outdoor education centres, more often than not it was the parent-helpers who begged to stay just another couple of minutes longer to hand feed the birds.

Bird feeders, no matter what the style or fare offered, usually turn into wildlife feeders. Several winter mammals will eat the seeds, too, such as grey, red and flying squirrels and their rodent cousins, the mice and voles. A feeder may also attract cottontail rabbits or even white-tailed deer. The greater the variety of food offered, the wider the range of wildlife species that may be attracted.

The amazing simplicity of today’s digital cameras add to the excitement of feeder watching, as a simple point-and-shoot-type of camera has the equivalent of a not-so-long-ago multi-thousand-dollar set-up. Capturing images of these wildlife species and sharing your ‘prize winners’ is a way of educating others about the wildlife of our area.

Add to this array of information sources apps such as instant picture recognition, and now ‘everybody’ is competing for that prize-winning image of a blue jay alighting on a branch.

Despite my earlier comment, don’t worry about who has the greater number of birds, you or your neighbour. These birds have a knack for knowing exactly where the feeders are, what’s in them, and how often they’re replenished. They fly in merry contentment around the neighbourhood, putting on a performance of desperate starvation at each station.

Try to make the operation of a bird feeder as much a family affair as possible. Have several family members responsible for filling the feeder; make notes of what species show up and when; or study behaviour patterns as the birds battle it out for dominance at the feeder. These simple observations can be both entertaining and educational, and are guaranteed to stay with you a lifetime.

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