Gardening | There is more to bird feeders than just hanging them up in the yard

GardeningJanuary 3, 2014 


Bird feeders are a communal feeding area. They need to be moved regularly from place to place in the yard to prevent an accumulation of droppings which allows avian disease to spread.

ED SUBA JR. — MCT photo

If you have one bird feeder or several you know that cleanliness is critical. Wet weather can cause seed to mold. Dirty feeders can become contaminated with bacteria. Scattered seed, old hulls and bird droppings need to be raked up to prevent the debris from becoming a breeding ground for parasites and bacteria. Winter’s occasional warm interludes can spoil suet and render nuts rancid.

Bird feeders are a communal feeding area. They need to be moved regularly from place to place in the yard to prevent an accumulation of droppings which allows avian disease to spread. More than one feeder reduces overcrowding and it is a good tactic to help birds stay healthy.

All birds do not eat seeds. Some eat insects, others eat fruit or berries and, yes, some are carnivores – but they are not so much served by bird feeders and food we can grow for birds in our gardens.

You may find your zen moments cleaning up after the birds and that is truly wonderful. However, it makes sense to me to provide bird food naturally with what we grow for them in our backyards.

Birds need food, water and cover, all of which can be provided in even a small backyard. Both resident species and birds passing through will be attracted to the right trees and shrubs. That means those that provide berries, seeds and nuts. Of course water, cover from predators, and weather and nesting spots add necessary appeal.

The friendliest yards to birds are planted with various levels that include shade trees, understory trees, shrubs, perennials and vines. A small yard can’t provide such a varied range of vegetation but it can attract both resident and migratory birds with the right plants.

Among medium and large trees, for example, eastern red cedar, river birch, southern magnolia, long leaf pines and various oaks provide good cover, nesting areas and food.

Small deciduous trees like dogwoods, fringe trees and crabapples serve up fruit and berries in the summer. Small evergreen magnolias, American holly (Ilex opaca) and junipers offer cover and berries later in the year.

Shrubs that draw birds include yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), inkberry (Ilex glabra), sweet bay, wax myrtle, cherry laurel, mistletoe, beautyberry and viburnum. Depending on variety viburnum adds attractive red, yellow, blue or black fruit to the landscape. Shrubs are not just for the birds; they are a decorative element in our yards, too.

Grow your own feeder for seed-eating birds by planting asters, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower, coreopsis, helianthus, goldenrod, sedums, sunflowers and zinnias. Wait until spring to cut them back. Birds will pick at the plants’ seed heads all winter.

Beware of Russian olive (eleagnus angustifolia), privit (ligustrum), Oregon grape (aka leather leaf mahonia), and Japanese honeysuckle among other invasive plants. Birds are attracted to their berries but spread their seeds with their droppings. The seeds readily germinate and become invasive thugs.

Ever popular bluebirds and robins are not seed eaters and will not be drawn to a bird feeder. They eat insects and berries rather than seeds. Aside from the fact that robins eat worms (they are not insects) which are good for the soil, insect eating birds are largely good for our gardens. It makes sense to increase the lure to our gardens with the right plants for the berry eaters among the insect eaters.

Nuisance animals like bear, deer, coyotes, raccoons, rats and mice are a concern if bird feeders are not carefully maintained. The Department of Natural Resources advises that bird feeders do attract these problem animals. Birding organizations recommend that only the amount of food that will be consumed by nightfall be put out each day. Maintaining a bird feeder is a responsibility to the birds and our neighbors.

Whether we keep up a bird feeder or not we can all grow more food and an improved environment for the birds.

Reach DEBBIE MENCHEK, a Clemson Master Gardener, at

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