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Caring for Your Wild Birds

Paul James offers some creative ways to attract and maintain birds in your garden.

Birds are not only a joy to watch and listen to, but they keep your garden in top shape by feeding on pesky pests. Master gardener Paul James discusses some creative ways to attract and maintain birds in your garden.

"It's hard for me to separate gardening from another one of my favorite pastimes — feeding all the birds that call my yard home," says James. "After all, in exchange for providing them with everything they need to thrive, they gobble up all the bugs that would otherwise feed on my plants."

But even if they didn't eat plant pests, James says he would still do everything within his means to attract as many birds as possible, and that includes maintaining several bird feeders, a few birdbaths, a bunch of birdhouses, as well as growing plants that provide a few bird treats in the form of berries or seeds.

In spring as temperatures begin to climb, it's especially important to focus on birds' needs, says James, especially since many nests are filled with babies who need massive amounts of food everyday. And within the next few weeks or so, migratory birds will begin preparing for their long journey south.

Chances are that traffic at your bird feeders will slow down considerably as temperatures rise, but that's hardly reason to panic. Birds simply don't need as much food during the hot months as they do during the cold winter months or at the height of a busy nesting season. And even when birds are hungry, they seem to focus more on natural food sources like plump, juicy caterpillars.

Keep your feeders stocked but not full. By lessening the amount of seed in the feeders, you help ensure that the seed stays fresh. Birds won't eat seed that's gone rancid, and depending on how fresh the seeds were to begin with, many seeds — especially those with high oil content like sunflowers and peanuts — will spoil within a couple of weeks.

"For that reason, I suggest you buy your seed in much smaller packages than you normally would during the busier fall and winter months." Store birdseed in a container with a tight-fitting lid to not only preserve its freshness, but to prevent critters like raccoons, mice and even weevils from getting into it.

This is also a good time to clean your feeders with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water. A long-handled brush works well for cleaning tube feeders, while just about any bristle-brush will do for most other types of feeders. Once you clean the feeders, rinse them several times with water and leave them in the sun to dry.

"In the meantime, you can tempt birds with unconventional treats, including many even I enjoy," James says. For example, lots of birds like doughnuts, especially chickadees. Just tack a cake-style doughnut to a tree, board or post, and in no time, it will be gone.

Muffins, especially those filled with fruits, nuts and seeds, also make great treats.

And speaking of fruits and nuts, many birds go nuts over both. Try setting up a fruit feeding station made of a board into which you pound a few nails. On the nails impale a few fruits like grapes, apples, plums, pears, and if they're in season, cherries."You may find that the birds don't take to your fruit feeding station right away, and that's not particularly unusual. If the fruit rots before they discover it, just toss it in the compost pile and start over." But rest assured that in about a week or so, the birds usually gobble down the goodies.

When choosing nuts, you'll probably have the best luck with pecans, peanuts, walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts. Just mix them in a shallow saucer and place it on the ground.

And don't forget that birds get thirsty, too. James recommends having at least one birdbath on your property. There are all kinds of birdbaths on the market. This birdbath is too deep. Birds will drink from it, but they won't bathe in it because the copper bottom is too slippery and deep. Birds actually prefer a birdbath that's one or two inches deep.

That's why James insists the simple, old-style birdbaths are still the best. This birdbath has rough edges and is just the right depth.

"I bought this one without a stand so I could place it on an old tree stump." Where you place your birdbath is an important decision. If cats cruise your neighborhood, make sure you put it in a relatively open area, ideally at least three feet from shrubs or other types of cover so that the birds can spot the covert cats. Also, if you put a bird feeder near your birdbath, you'll attract birds to the bath even faster.

You may find that you have to clean the bath every few days to remove debris, droppings and algae. A stiff brush works best for cleaning birdbaths, and when you're done, just refill the bath with water, and sprinkle a few pellets of BT into the water to destroy mosquito larvae. BT isn't harmful to birds.

"Difficult as it is to imagine a life without gardens, it's perhaps even more difficult to imagine a life without birds," says James. "And thankfully, I've got plenty of room for both in my life. What about you?"

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