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December 12, 2012

Feeders, birdbaths and more help birds in winter

Homeowners can try to attract specific birds to their yards

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

In the spring and summer, birds forage for protein-rich insects, along with seeds and nuts on the ground. But as the temperature drops, their eating options become sparse — insects go dormant, and snow inhibits a bird’s ability to find alternative food sources.

That’s why some homeowners like to outfit their yards with bird feeders, birdbaths and birdhouses, providing food, drink and shelter for avian-kind. Providing the right type of structure and the right type of seed can even attract specific species, bringing the spectacle of bird-watching right to your home.

“They spend a lot of time and energy looking for food, so people try to provide some of that with bird feeders,” said Ed Kammann, who, alongside his wife, Pam, owns and operates Wild Birds Unlimited in Novi. “There are two benefits (to feeders): It’s easier for the birds to survive, and when they come out, we get to enjoy them a bit more.”

In addition to providing a variety of seed blends and the feeders to dispense them, Wild Birds Unlimited offers a unique feeder-pole setup, where rather than relying on a lightweight shepherd’s hook that can bend and move, they screw the pole into the ground and secure it with a four-pronged stabilizer, which keeps it straight and sturdy.

Standing about 7 feet tall, the pole puts the feeder or birdhouse within easy reach of humans, while preventing squirrels, raccoons or cats from climbing up to the birds’ domain. It’s always advisable to have two poles, Kammann said: one for the feeder and one for the birdhouse, since birds tend to nest in a separate location from their primary food source.

Jack Robbins, stepson of Valerie Robbins and member of the family business, Val’s Pet Supplies in Troy and Clawson, says that when it comes to birdhouses, the best kind are the ones that are easy to open up and clean out, which should be done each year.

“It’s a bummer to build a birdhouse and then find you can’t clean it out for the next generation of birds,” Robbins said. “After the spring nesting season, they may have several broods, depending on the bird, so you should clean it out, removing waste and starting them off fresh so the new babies have a fighting chance. Otherwise, what will happen is you’ll get wasps, bees and other pests, and then the birds won’t use it.”

Both Kammann and Robbins recommend heated birdbaths as another way to help birds during the winter. Birds are hygienic creatures and need to stay hydrated, as well. Maintaining hygiene and hydration can be difficult, since birds have to break down the snow and melt it first.

A heated birdbath solves this, and some even have thermostatic functionality, so that the power only turns on when the temperature drops near freezing — saving electricity and simplifying the process.

A birdbath should stand at least 4 feet tall to reduce the risk of cat attacks. It should also be set up near a densely layered bush, giving the birds a place to escape and hide.

But feed is the main obstacle facing birds in the winter. While many birds migrate, others, such as cardinals, don’t. Val’s Pet Supplies has a variety of blends and straight seeds that are locally sourced and custom-tailored to the needs of local birds.

“All of our bird mixes are blended to the specifications of birds right here in Michigan,” Robbins said. “If you’re going to some big national chain, you’re getting a large company that just blends different seeds that may be fine for birds in California or Texas, but they’re not fine here. Plus, our stuff is shipped out weekly, which means it’s fresher and cheaper, and you’re keeping people employed in Michigan, too.”

Different seeds attract different birds. Maybe you want to have a variety of seeds handy to feed every bird in the neighborhood. Maybe you want to see blue jays, so you mix in the larger striped sunflower seeds, or maybe you want to see chickadees, in which case you use the smaller black oil sunflower seeds.

Other mixes might include safflower seeds, thistle seeds, cracked corn and peanut splits — peanuts, being high in fat and rich in protein, are great for cardinals and blue jays during the winter. Dehydrated mealworms can even be used during the spring to attract migratory birds that are only here during the warm months and that don’t eat seed, allowing you to see some birds rarely spotted around here.

The feeder’s opening size and whether it uses a perch, base or tray can also play a role in what kinds of birds utilize it.

For Robbins, trying to draw out specific birds made for a memorable bonding experience with his three daughters, as they were growing up. When one of his daughters was in grade school, she even did a science project in which they tried to see what birds they could attract with various kinds of feed.

“I like to tell people this is all a big experiment,” Robbins said. “You do different things and see what happens.”

Wild Birds Unlimited is located at 47760 Grand River Ave. in Novi, and can be reached at (248) 374-4000. For more information, visit http://novi.wbu.com.

Val’s Pet Supplies is located at 6975 Livernois Road in Troy, and 4 N. Rochester Road in Clawson. The Troy location can be reached at (248) 813-8961, and the Clawson location can be reached at (248) 588-2177.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.