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The Elbert Files: Feeding the birds


The downy woodpecker outside our family room performs an elfin-like dance every morning before he eats. He lands on the redbud tree about 8 to 12 inches above a suet feeder and hops backwards until he’s on the same level, where he picks seeds from the tallow.

He and his mate are engaging creatures, and watching them and the dozen or so other species of neighborhood birds pull seeds from feeders that hang in nearby redbud trees has become part of our daily routine. 

“Bird feeding starts as a hobby and turns into an addiction,” warned Monty Freeman of Wild Birds Unlimited in West Des Moines where we purchased the feeders and return weekly for bird feed.

I bought our first feeder the week before Christmas. 

It took several days, but soon we tufted titmice, two kinds of finches, four species of woodpeckers, starlings, flickers, blue jays and cardinals appearing regularly outside our family room.

By New Year’s Day we had added five additional feeding stations, and we now have a virtual aviary within a snow shovel throw of our house.

Fiona McSqueaker, our retired Scottish Fold breeder cat, spends much of her day perched atop a stuffed chair that backs up to the window closest to the feeders.  

Her looming presence has no effect on the activity outside the window, which appears to ebb and flow on a daily schedule with activity beginning around 10 a.m. and peaking between noon and 1 p.m.  

We’ve had cats who would chatter at birds, but Fiona and Cooper, our 18-pound red tabby, are silent observers.

This is not the first time we’ve fed birds.

We did it once before during the 1980s, when our children were young. 

Back then, we had a loose-feed, house-shaped contraption that sat atop a metal poll roughly 12 feet from our kitchen window. 

It worked well, and we added additional feeders the following year.

That’s when the trouble started. 

It seemed innocent enough at first. 

I remember looking out late one night and seeing a deer eating birdseed scattered on the ground below the feeder.

“How cute,” I thought. I even took a photo of the deer, who was largely unfazed by the camera’s flash.

That should have told me something.

It wasn’t long before more deer came; some with fawns, a couple with antlers. 

By the time spring arrived, our feeder was the deer equivalent of a truckstop café, complete with bathroom activity throughout our backyard. As snow melted, the animals’ hooves tore up the grass. With all the deer poop my backyard resembled a cattle feedlot.

Another lingering memory of those years is the acrobatic squirrels who overcame baffles I installed below the feeders by sometimes flinging themselves from nearby trees and hanging upside down to shake seeds out of the feeder.

When I asked Wild Bird owner Scott Knox about squirrels, he said: “I call squirrels worthy adversaries, because they adapt and overcome many of our attempts to foil them. Some people take it personally, while others are amazed at what they are able to accomplish.”

If squirrels get too bad, Knox suggested a special feed that contains peppers, which squirrels don’t like, although judging by my experience, neither do some birds.

So far, our neighborhood squirrels have been a minor nuisance and have remained mostly on the ground, picking up seeds that fall from a tray or that Amy spreads for ground feeders, including juncos and mourning doves.

Speaking of which, one of my favorite memories this winter is the below-zero morning when I saw a finch eating a seed from the feeder on our cat’s warming pad, just outside our deck door. The little guy was clearly more comfortable on that warm pad than he was standing in the snow.

Another memorable event was the day a predator Cooper’s hawk landed and cleared out a group of bickering starlings.

The hawk has not returned, but everybody else has.

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