Looking forward to my first winter of living life simply, I thought about getting a pet. Companion animals are nice, but at my age I’d feel guilty about adopting a parrot or an iguana because they’d almost certainly outlive me. Since my last dog died of old age I haven’t kept pets, but I’ve developed occasional friendships with the wild and independent animals and birds that visit my property. Most of them are nocturnal and it’s nice to have a little social activity in the daytime as well, so this year I decided to put up a bird feeder.
Any time you interfere in the natural order of things by doing something as simple as providing free food, you acquire a responsibility. It’s a rotten thing to do, to a hummingbird, if you put up a sugar source and then let it run dry. Hummingbirds invest a lot of energy in their territories and the nectar feeder is a mainstay food source. Possibly they wouldn’t survive in your area without it, and wouldn’t have settled there if they hadn’t seen it, so once you put one up you keep it filled until October 10th. That’s when the local hummingbird king departed for South America this fall. Feeding winter birds isn’t a lot different. Once you put food out, keep the feeder stocked until springtime. Birds learn to rely on food sources and if you let it go empty they’ll have to raid the neighbors and establish a new pecking order. It’s a lot like having pets except all you do is put food out.
Putting up a new feeder seems like a simple project. Go to Walmart, get a feeder and some seed, set it up at home, and you’re done. I suppose that sometimes it works this way. I’ve tried this before and this time I considered doing that again, but I looked at the bird feeders in the store, made from red cedar and plastic, and I thought that I could do better. Birds often don’t trust the flashy feeders you buy ready-made. I didn’t believe that until I tried it, and after a month had not seen a single bird at the pretty red cedar feeder. Then I researched the problem and learned that this is a common experience. To attract birds to a new feeder you might need to build something simpler, a drab wooden tray on a post, covered with seed. Put that up near the other feeder and the birds will find both, but they don’t automatically associate a red cedar hut with plexiglass windows with food.
For a few years I’ve been tending a willow hedge along the road and it has started to yield a good annual crop of willow twigs. I used most of them for garden trellises this past summer, but salvaged enough in the fall that I had plenty of dry willow left for projects like this. What I came up with is a corn-crib style feeder with a roof of metal gutter flashing. Everything used in it is something that a bird will find familiar, including the metal roofing (it’s what birds see when they look down). It’s a log cabin type of construction, based on a small scrap of hardwood lumber. This took a couple of days to put together because every tier of twigs requires some hand fitting with a pocket knife before you nail the twigs in place. I used a couple of paint stirrers to make the fronts of the feed boxes at the bottom, and there’s a perch of hewn maple branches around the outside of the feed tray. The metal roof ties down to four screw eyes set in the ends of the feed box, and I added a top beam to the peak of the roof so the birds would have a warm place to perch. One end holds a chicken wire suet cage. It’s all designed for the convenience of the birds and it’s not a commercially viable design. You’ll never see one like this in Walmart.
I wasn’t totally confident in this feeder, but on the second day, the first birds arrived, and on the third I had a flock to feed. There’s nothing in this feeder that will scare the birds, it’s all things they are used to seeing around here. The downy woodpeckers are usually the last to show up, might take them half the winter to risk pecking at a suet block, but within a week they were at this one and now they are regulars.