Birdscaping brings benefits on the wing

Published: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 12:00 a.m.
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Ron Robinson

DARON DEAN/ Special to The Sun


Sowing the seeds of attraction

Different birds like different feeds, so provide a variety to attract a variety.

  • Attracts various birds such as cardinals, tufted titmice,
    blue jays, finches, chickadees and brown thrashers.
  • Attracts finches, along with red-bellied woodpeckers, chipping sparrows, mourning doves, collarded doves, Carolina wrens and thrashers.
    BIRDSCAPE BASICS Some things in mind when extending a welcome for feathered friends:
  • Birds like cover for protection, so keep that in mind when planting bushes and trees. Above, a brown thrasher sits atop a camouflaging brush pile.
  • A birdbath with a fresh water drip system can attract a wide variety of species. Above, a blue jay sits atop a bird bath. Available water is the second most important feature in birdscaping, according to Ron Robinson.
  • Specially-designed feeders also help keep the seed for the birds, not the squirrels. Above, a lone Carolina chickadee eats with some goldfinches on one of Robinson's homemade birdfeeders. Below, a male cardinal eats black oil sunflower seed. Squirrels can't climb the pole on the feeder because it is too thick and too slick.
  • Keep feeders well stocked with a variety of feeds to attract a variety of birds, such as the robin, above, and discourage squirrels. Thistle seed and safflower seed are less appetizing to squirrels. A grey squirrel, below, munches on fallen black oil sunflower seeds.
  • Overhanging limbs and bushes can provide squirrels easy access to feeders.

  • As Ron Robinson walks through the yard, there's a chatter and rustling in the bushes and scolding chirps directed his way from nearby branches. The American goldfinches are upset that he's hanging around their feeder.
    Just minutes before, more than a dozen finches were engaged in a black oil sunflower seed feeding frenzy that he and fiancée Elaine Beem were able to observe from the kitchen window.
    The yard is a living textbook in the art of what Ron calls birdscaping - landscaping that makes a yard a birdwatcher's paradise.
    Ron is a hard-core birder. Many of his ideas were incorporated at Gainesville Regional Utilities' Chapman's Pond near Kanapaha Park, helping develop it into a hot spot for birds and those who like to watch them. He's a warehouse manager for GRU, and as a sideline business he's a consultant who helps homeowners come up with their own bird-friendly yard designs.
    While feeders and feed are important, one of the first things he looks at is the existing vegetation.
    "Birds spend more time in cover than they do feeding," he said.
    Not becoming food for cats, dogs, hawks and snakes is a prime concern for most winged backyard visitors. Without cover the variety is limited.
    "If you have a parking lot, all you're going to have is mockingbirds," he said.
    Tucked neatly against a back fence is a stack of dead limbs. It's not there by accident. It's cover of a different sort.
    "Birds absolutely and positively love brush piles," he said, adding that he scatters seed on the ground near the edges of the pile.
    Near a fence that separates the backyard from a pasture are two birdbaths, one a couple of feet high, the other built into the ground.
    "That's advertising," he said, listening to drops plopping into the baths. "You can attract a much wider variety of birds to water than you can to a feeder."
    The dripping sounds, along with the visual disturbance on the water, help alert birds to the presence of water. While not all species will come to a feeder, they all need water for drinking and feather care, which he says is more important for many reasons.
    He explains that feathers are the equivalent of cars, since they provide transportation. They are also housing, since it's what birds live in. Feathers also equate to clothing, and colors and condition are important for attracting a mate.
    He's also particular about birdbaths. Shallow is better than deep. The best have gently sloping sides without a lip and a drip system to supply fresh water. He has a high and low bath because some birds will only go to a bath at ground level, others prefer a little elevation. He provides a branch near the baths where the birds can perch and look around before taking the plunge. The bushes nearby are where they can sit safely tucked away while drying.
    He said a major design consideration is for the people who will be watching the birds.
    "Where do the people living in the place see (the outdoors)? Where can they look out?" he said are the questions he asks. "Why have it, if you can't enjoy it?"
    That's why the feeders and bird baths in Elaine's yard can be seen from the kitchen window near the stove and sink, and from the sitting room where she spends her time.
    One window is covered with large mesh netting - easy to see through - and it serves a purpose.
    "It prevents the birds from hitting the window," he explained.
    The plants in the yard provide more than cover, they also serve as living birdfeeders. He rattles off nearly a dozen plants, trees and bushes that provide food and attract birds.
    "Anything that has a berry or seed on it," is how he sums it up. "If you have the right plants, you don't need the feeders."
    But he has feeders, too, several of them, at different levels and locations, all designed to feed birds, not squirrels (see accompanying story), and they are well stocked.
    "The seed mix is very important," he said.
    He designed and built the tubular finch feeder from quarter-inch hardware cloth and two recycle peanut cans. It is stuffed with black oil sunflower seeds, that also appeal to house finches, titmice, chickadees and cardinals. Along the hedge another squirrel-resistant feeder carries a mix of sunflower seeds and white proso millet that attract the finches, along with red-bellied woodpeckers, chipping sparrows, mourning doves, collarded doves, Carolina wrens and thrashers. A basket by the kitchen window is stocked with suet which appeals to woodpeckers, thrushes, wrens and warblers. Different birds like different feeds, so he provides a variety to attract a variety.
    The approach works. Ron said when he had a home in Alachua he counted 108 species of birds that either landed there or flew over it.
    When it comes to design, he has one basic premise, "I don't like junky stuff."
    "I like to try to blend it into the existing landscape, to not be intrusive," he said.

    Feeder under attack? Call squirrel busters

    One of my Christmas gifts this year was a bird feeder. Right after Christmas I mounted it on a pole, filled it up with seed, planted it in the flower bed by the patio and a few minutes later birds were circling like planes over O'Hare. Chickadees and cardinals were doing touch-and-go landings and feedings.
    The cylinder-shaped feeder was designed with smaller birds in mind, a couple of short perches and a little tray at the bottom to catch the dropped seed. The show was amazing - for about two days. That's when the squirrels moved in and the birds moved out.
    I was sitting on the couch watching the show when the first fuzzy-tail rat arrived. I wasn't too upset by this, even though I have a strong anti-squirrel streak dating back to a few rogues that chewed their way through a Tupperware container at a picnic, jimmied the lid and proceeded to dance and devour my homemade carrot birthday cake, leaving their disgusting little gray hair and footprints all over the cream cheese icing.
    Anyway, I've tried to temper my less-than charitable squirrel views over the years. I even do my best to avoid them when they do the dance of death in front of my car. I've been known to bite my tongue when I hear of people going to great lengths to save babies that I know will grow up to eat birthday cakes and rob birdfeeders.
    So I watched the invader with a live and let live attitude - and 40 minutes later it was still on the feeder, its gut so fat that it appeared to have doubled in size since climbing aboard. So I opened the porch door and hollered at it, and I could swear it gave me the rodent equivalent of an obscene gesture and continued to stuff its face until I approached the feeder and it dropped to the ground and waddled to a nearby pine.
    I went back inside and squirrel No. 2 arrived and tried to show his predecessor how to really do some damage at this all-you-can-eat seed diner. By early afternoon the feeder was empty. And when I went out to fill it up, I could see that not only had they eaten the feed, they'd helped themselves to the feeder. The little plastic guards on the perches were gnawed off, and the paint around the little seed portholes was chiseled away.
    So much for my good attitude. I took off the little seed-catching tray the squirrels used as a perch. I was apparently suffering from a delusion that this would slow them down. About an hour later my buddy was back, hanging upside down and gorging himself, scampering back to the post just long enough to swallow, then doing his trapeze act again to devour what was left.
    I knew I couldn't win this war without a battle plan. I visited Wild Birds Unlimited and asked Bubba Scales for help.
    In spite of what the store's name might imply, "We spend more time talking about squirrels than birds," he informed me.
    His store on NW 16th Boulevard, on the front side of Millhopper Shopping Center, has feeders, birdbaths, feed, spotting scopes and more, including an entire arsenal of feeders that the manufacturers claim are squirrel proof, but that Bubba refers to as squirrel resistant. A video touting the Yankee Flipper brings customers in just to see it, Bubba says, and they frequently return with friends in tow to show them.
    The flipper combines a birdfeeder with a merry-go-round. When squirrels go to grab the circular perch on the bottom, the weight pulls it down, engaging a tiny electric motor which sets the wheel spinning and sends the squirrels flying, complete with little cartoonesque voices. The video is a hoot, but it's not going to win any award based on production values. It does make an effective pitch for the feeder. Bubba says he's sold a bunch of them at $110. But he lets the buyers know the backyard show may not match the video.
    "The squirrels learn so fast they often don't get to see the squirrels fly off," he said.
    A similar model, without the special effects or motors, simply closes the door to the food with the weight of a squirrel. Another operates like a teeter-totter, when the squirrel steps aboard, the perch drops down, and the food access disappears. He also sells a baffle device that fits over a post that prevents squirrels from climbing up to the feeder.
    But in his line of work, he's always hearing about squirrels that out-smart the feeder makers.
    "They slow squirrels way down. They provide a great deal of squirrel resistance," he said.
    By visiting Ron Robinson's, my squirrel busting education continued. Robinson is an avid birder and helps homeowners with birdscaping, landscaping that is bird-friendly. Like Bubba, he says one of the keys to keeping squirrels off of the feeders is cutting their access, making sure there are no limbs within 10-feet that will provide a convenient diving board to the buffet line. His hanging feeders also are equipped with large conical baffles that prevent the squirrels from scampering down the wire or chain to the food. Keeping the baffles 5 inches wider than the feeder prevents the free-fall and grab approach to the feed. He also keeps the feeders at least 5 feet off the ground, to discourage high jumpers.
    "My credo is not to feed squirrels," he said. "They can have anything that hits the ground. I don't persecute them."
    In the center of his yard is a feeder on a post that to an untrained eye would appear to have "Squirrel Cafe" emblazoned in neon on the roof.
    "This is about 20 years old and I've never had a squirrel in here," he said.
    Located away from surrounding bushes and branches, the secret is in the mounting post. The 8-inch diameter PVC pipe is too slippery to scamper up and too wide to grab.
    "You can paint it green and it blends right in," he said, slapping the post.
    Even without elaborate countermeasures, Bubba says there is a simple step to slow the squirrels down - changing feed.
    "Safflower seed is a great low-tech fix for a lot of people," he said. "It's bitter, and squirrels, unlike birds, have many more taste buds."
    Ron says squirrels aren't crazy about thistle seed (sometimes labeled niger), and he recommends a mix of safflower and thistle to attract birds and repel squirrels. He says the squirrels don't seem to be interested in his recipe for suet - 1 cup of lard, 2 cups of corn meal, ¶-cup peanut butter and a tablespoon of sugar - that he throws into the blender then rolls into balls.
    So, after doing my stint in squirrel buster boot camp, I returned home to find my feeder empty and a squirrel that seemed to be tapping its toe impatiently, waiting for me to fill it.
    But I switched to a thistle and safflower seed combo, and the fuzzy guys aren't as interested, which is good, but the birds aren't as enthusiastic either. I may have one of those econo model squirrel resistant feeders in my future. Until then, I'm considering it a standoff. I've lost some battles, but the war isn't over.
    Gary Kirkland can be reached at 338-3104 or gk

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