“It’s the best Christmas present we could have given her,” said my wife, Meredith, after finishing a phone call with her mother.
One 40-pound bag of black-oil sunflower seeds and another bag of chicken scratch have brightened every day in the life my mother-in-law, Grace. Santa delivered each in a mouse-proof, waterproof plastic bin and free onsite “setup” assistance.
She already had the feeders but - you know how active 92-year-old seniors are - she’s been so busy she’d lost track of the pleasure afforded by providing a buffet for birds.
Winter makes getting out and about more difficult for Grace. Bird feeding brings the action to her kitchen and family room windows.
Meredith calls her mom daily for a report from her place on the edge of Moscow, and every conversation since Christmas has included a play-by-play on her growing circle of friends.
A growing collection of songbirds gathers at her hanging feeder and the quail and juncos are cleaning up the scratch she puts on the ground.
“A yellow-and-black one showed up today,” she said in the last call, hinting that a field guide to birds would be helpful.
A suet feeder would be a nice addition to add nuthatches, chickadees and woodpeckers to the visitor list. Looks like we have the next holiday gift decisions made.
Feeding wildlife soothes the soul, regardless of your age or gender. Birds in particular have caught our fancy.
Watching and feeding birds is an American leisure activity second in popularity only to gardening, according to U.S Fish and Wildlife Service surveys.
The bird-feeding industry is big business. It’s also a serious concern to ornithologists, who have learned that improper feeding is akin to baiting birds into a gamble with their lives.
Generally speaking, biologists discourage feeding wildlife of any kind. Wildlife is adapted to surviving four seasons outdoors, wet and dry, hot and cold. Giving them an artificial food supply can have consequences.
For example, putting out hay or grain could lure whitetails across a road where they might be struck by motor vehicles. Poorly placed bird feeders in rural areas can lure bears from spring through fall - and the future is not bright for a bear that becomes accustomed to finding food around a house, Birds in particular are vulnerable to predation as well as disease that can be spread when they are attracted in large concentrations to unhealthy conditions.
Millions of house finches and pine siskins - species that feed in large groups - have been lost in the past two decades across the country from the feeder-facilitated spread of salmonella and avian conjunctivitis, a highly contagious eye disease.
Songbirds perish with little notice. A lethargic bird spotted under the feeder or in a corner of the yard might be the first clue that disease is taking a toll.
The pleasures of feeding birds include the responsibility for keeping feeders hanging safely out of the reach of outside cats.
The feeders should be cleaned with a bimonthly scrubbing in soap and hot water, disinfected with a 9-to-1 water-bleach solution, rinsed and dried. Having two sets of feeders makes this easier to accomplish.
Seed should be kept dry and mold-free. A water source is almost as important in winter as it is in summer.
Landscaping for wildlife should be an even higher priority than putting out seed. Birds need cover from the elements and a place to escape from predators. A mix of evergreens and food-providing crab apple and mountain ash can provide cover and winter feasts for many birds, including robins and waxwings that aren’t attracted by feeders.
But for now, my mother-in-law is simply enjoying the cheerful, colorful company that’s warming up her winter.
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