Birdfeeder blues

  • Blue tits and a Great tit at a bird feeding TT

For the Gazette 
Published: 2/8/2019 11:01:20 AM

I heard someone say recently that feeding birds “wasn’t rocket science.” It might not be rocket science, but it does have its challenges, as I’ve learned over the past few years.

My husband and I usually keep our bird feeder going year round. Not that the birds need sustenance during the summer months, but it’s such a joy to see them coming and going. Unfortunately, last summer there were many bear sightings in our area. A neighbor called to tell us she had seen one in our driveway. We went outside one night when our dog, Allie, was barking furiously at some nocturnal predator and saw to our dismay that she had treed a bear on the other side of the fence that surrounds our backyard. We could see the silhouette of the large, rotund creature hugging the tree trunk, twelve feet or so above the ground. It looked like a cartoon, but we wouldn’t have been laughing if the bear had managed to scramble over our fence.

After that incident, I reluctantly retired our bird feeder for the summer. I yanked the pole out of the ground and stashed it in the garage, along with the two cylindrical feeders, one for regular feed and one specifically designed to hold tiny niger seed that finches are supposed to love. (By the way, in my experience, finches seem to prefer the regular mixed seed I put out for the other birds.) When fall rolled around, I didn’t think to poke the pole back into its hole in the yard. Suddenly, the ground was fully frozen and it was too late to reestablish the bird feeding station. I hoped that a few warmish days would thaw the ground sufficiently, but not a chance. I despaired.

One day recently I found myself eyeing the inviting bags of birdfeed at the Hadley Garden Center. I couldn’t resist buying some. Pole or no pole, I decided I had to feed the birds. As soon as I got home, I filled the feeder and hung it on a branch in the crabapple tree in the backyard. I feared that this arrangement would make the feeder far too inviting to squirrels, who could simply climb the tree, hang onto a branch and chow down. Over the years, I have watched squirrels destroy many a feeder that was said to be “squirrel proof”; my set-up was truly a squirrel’s best friend. As it turns out, I need not have worried: Allie spends all her time in the backyard, and in her mind, the only good squirrel is a dead squirrel. When it comes to small rodents, she is a veritable killing machine. It seems that only squirrels on a suicide mission are likely to set foot in Allie’s domain.

So far so good. Within a few hours, I noticed a few chickadees hovering around the feeder. I shouted to my husband with great excitement that the birds were back. I didn’t pay much attention for the next couple of days, except that I did notice that the level in the feeder hadn’t dropped much. Yesterday afternoon I was out in the yard and I decided to have a closer look at the feeder. Oops. I discovered that I had poured a tantalizing mixture of sunflower seeds, nuts and dried fruit into the finch feeder with its tiny holes, rendering it maddeningly inaccessible to the poor, hungry birds. If birds could talk (and if we could hear them), I’m sure they’d be saying: “What the hell?” and “That woman is an idiot!”

I admit that this is not my only misstep with birdfeeders. A couple of years ago, I decided to splurge on special birdfeed that attracts woodpeckers and grosbeaks. Of course, this is more expensive than the black-oil sunflower seed that our usual assortment of chickadees, nuthatches and tufted titmice seems happy with. (I love that the Sibley Guide to Birds refers to these birds collectively as “chickadees and their allies.”) To satisfy all the birds, I bought both kinds of feed and mixed them, thinking that the chickadee crowd would eat the sunflower seed while the bigger birds would eat the pricier seed. What was I thinking?

It took me several months to notice that a suspiciously large amount of black-oil sunflower seed was collecting under the feeder. Even then, I didn’t stop to question why this was happening. One day it dawned on me that the chickadees and their allies were happily eschewing the inferior seed in favor of the delectable mixed nuts I had set out for the woodpeckers. Oops.

This time around, my feeder is filled with one all-purpose assortment of nuts, seeds and fruits. The birds can take it or leave it. I’m happy to report that they seem to be taking it. Since I put out the proper feeder, we have had downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers visit along with plenty of chickadees and their allies. No squirrel sightings yet. Allie seems to have things under control. Life is good for those with and without feathers!

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Upcoming garden eventsBaking with ancient grains

Ancient grains are a nutrient-rich, flavorful, and healthier alternative to conventional wheat. Using them in baking can present challenges, however. On Feb. 9 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge is hosting a baking class and demonstration by Rachel Portnoy centered on einkorn, one of the oldest and lesser known ancient grains. Einkorn is a relative of modern wheat that has more easily digestible gluten. The class will make savory and sweet treats that highlight einkorn’s adaptability and flavor. Portnoy is a talented local pastry chef who trained at the Cordon Bleu in London. She opened Cakewalk in Lee in 2002 and now owns and runs Chez Nous, a restaurant in Lee, with her husband, French chef Franck Tessier. Members: $45/nonmembers: $55. For more information and to register, go to:

Growing native perennials from seed

On Feb. 9, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge will host a hands-on workshop on how to grow native perennials from seed. Dottie “Lou” Kratt, owner of Northeast Native Seeds, will talk about the benefits of using native plants in various types of landscape, native plant selections best suited for our region, seed stratification and site requirements. Participants will learn how to prepare a site for growing plants from seed and various low-tech techniques for starting native plants from seed. Each participant will go home with seeds to plant in their own gardens.

Kratt is the owner of Northeast Native Seeds, a small native seed company specializing in local native species. Previously, she was the Propagation and Seed Bank Manager for Project Native and a gardener at BBG. Members: $15/nonmembers: $25. For more information and to register, go to:

The curse of the gypsy moth

Most of us have suffered the dreaded gypsy moth infestation. One friend of mine became so obsessed with killing them off, one by one even, that she feared becoming addicted to the practice. So, what can we do to combat this pest? On Feb. 26, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., UMass entomologist Joe Elkinton will give a talk at the Hitchcock Center in Amherst about gypsy moths (Lymantria dispar dispar) and how to deal with them. The event is free, but registration and donations are appreciated. For more information and to register, go to:

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