As with most good deeds, feeding birds in the winter is done primarily for the benefit of the feeder, not the eater. We place feeders near our window, to enjoy the comings and goings of various small birds all day long. But the standard feeder has some problems.
Houses are surrounded by cleared areas, where a concentration of small birds attracts the attention of hawks, who are faster and manoeuver better than small birds away from protective shelter. Thus, to satisfy our desire to observe them, we expose them to additional risk, and some are sacrificed for our pleasure. You may argue that hawks are also birds, and surely also deserve to be fed at bird feeders. Indeed. Certainly, nobody can deny the thrill of watching them swoop, rush, twist and turn. But just like the small birds, once they learn of a constant food source, they return with regularity. Small birds learn to stay away. There is no fun in watching an empty feeder all day.
Blue jays also thwart our desire to see a variety of small birds: although jays do not chase or threaten smaller birds, when they fly in, small birds flee, presumably wary of anything the size of a sharp-shinned hawk. Usually they can tell the difference, and do not disappear altogether, but only fly as far as the nearest tree. Still, they desert the feeder as long as the jays are there. And jays have a nasty habit of spilling a feederful of seeds onto the ground in less than an hour to select a few morsels to their liking.
Squirrels are equally prone to driving off small birds. Some have devilry in them, and delight in chasing off every bird in sight, just for the sheer pleasure. Our red squirrel is considerably smaller than the gray of the mainland, so that most “squirrel-proof” feeders, created for mainland squirrels, pose no obstacle to ours. Ditto, as you will learn, for transformer guards. Live-trapping them and taking them to distant forests is futile. Immediately other squirrels fill the vacuum—the woods have no shortage.
After considerable thought about small birds, hawks, jays and squirrels, we came up with a plan. To keep hawks away, surround the feeder area with an 8 × 8 foot trellis on two sides, one against the house, making a semi-enclosed feeder space in front of the dining room window (Fig. 1). Little birds could fly in through the trellis, larger ones from the open end or above. We expected hawks to stay outside the enclosure, unable to fly through the trellis and unwilling to enter a dead-end. For jays and squirrels, do not fight them. Instead, provide plenty of food that they prefer above other offerings, on the periphery of the feeding area. Avoid mixed seeds, but use many feeders, with different feed in each. Provide enough room and board for all, with something for every taste.
We built the trellis and put up big feeders with platforms along the deck railing, filled them with peanuts, dry dog food and big sunflower seeds for squirrels and blue jays, smaller sunflower seeds for chickadees, smaller seeds for other birds. Above this we suspended hanging feeders of Nijer seeds, suet, and other seeds (Fig. 1).
The result was birds right outside our window on three levels: a high level of hanging feeders, a middle table-height level of big feeders, and a lower deck level for ground feeders (Fig. 2). There was also a fourth layer, visible from a basement workroom, of birds on the snow under the deck, eating the gleanings from this bountiful table. The season is over, and here we report the outcomes of this experiment.
Small birds. They came from first light until just after dusk. There was a colourful diversity of regulars: red polls, siskins, goldfinches, chickadees, blue jays, nuthatches, woodpeckers, juncos, and a couple over-wintering white-throated sparrows and one song sparrow. How like humans they all behaved! With a hundred times more food than they could eat, they all spent more time and energy chasing each other off the food and otherwise engaging in threatening and hostile behaviour, than peacefully chowing down all day long.
Chickadees and juncos came immediately, the latter almost overrunning the place at one stage. Then came goldfinches, then siskins and in February, redpolls, both common and hoary. This was a bumper year for redpolls (Fig. 3). Each successive wave mixed with the incumbents for a while, but eventually almost replaced them. Chickadees continued flitting in and out, nuthatches and woodpeckers came to the suet, and groundfeeders like juncos always found a place, but otherwise it was wall-to-wall goldfinch, siskin and redpoll, in that order. Often flocks waited their turn in the surrounding trees (Fig. 4). At the height of flock density, there were over 200 birds in the feeder area at a time, at peak times double that number. When they all took flight in response to a real or imagined threat, the rush of fluttering wings was heard throughout the house.
Hawks. Yes, they came—a sharp shinned hawk and, first time this year, a goshawk. As predicted, they did not fly into the dead end space, but tried to catch a bird on the fly to or from the feeder station. Birds inside the enclosure often did not see the hawk watching or flying by, and so did not all flee (which would have made them easy prey). For the first few weeks a hawk was seen almost daily, the visits tapering off to no more than one or two a month. Unwilling to enter the enclosed space, it seems hawks gave up trying to capture single birds on the wing. Probably they found easier prey at more open feeders.
Blue jays. Given ample food of their choice, they no longer spilled whole feederloads to the ground to find the seeds to their liking, but went directly to feeders with their preferred food. They had a great system: swallow as many dog food kiblets in a row as possible (the observed record was nine), then fly away with a last beakful. The littler birds still took wing on the arrival of jays, but quickly returned, each comfortable to eat in his corner.
Squirrels. Squirrels also chose the feeders with dog food or big sunflower seeds, and ate frenziedly in a dark corner of the feeder-shelf, usually leaving other feeders to the birds. But, of course, they were still squirrels, so often they spent valuable eating time aggressively chasing every single bird away from the eating area first, then settling in for a long feed. But the birds waited and watched in the nearby trees, returning as soon as the squirrel had settled in. Still, there is a problem with making food available to squirrels: squirrel density increases markedly. True to their nature, they tried to cache some away for leaner times. Some used the small gap in the transformer on the hydro pole—another squirrel-proof device, we were told—as a storage place. Death to squirrel came by electrocution. The first time meant several hours of no heat, no electricity, until we finally figured out what was wrong and the Hydro team answered our summons and reinstated the power. When, three days later, another tried to roast a peanut in the same transformer and suffered the same fate, we removed the peanuts. After the peanuts were removed, squirrel electrocution frequency decreased, but over the season a total of four squirrels shuffled off that mortal coil. Final for the squirrel, costly for Newfoundland Power, and bad for the homeowner: potential frozen pipes and so forth, should there be nobody at home for a few days.
Peanuts. Do not offer them, definitely not in unlimited quantities. Jays and squirrels prefer peanuts over all other food, and stay at the feeders all day long, keeping small birds at a distance. Both “waste” much by hiding them in the snow. And, as we saw, peanuts markedly increase squirrel electrocution.
Summary. The system works well for a wooded area on the Island, providing hours of viewing enjoyment. It may present problems in regions with skunks and raccoons, and may not work in urban areas, where rats are a problem. Where we live, the system is easy to maintain. The big bins provide a buffer for the times we are away, when the smaller feeders go unfilled. Hawks do not bother the birds, yet need not go totally hungry—they just have to work harder to catch prey. Squirrels and jays are not significant deterrents for scores of smaller birds, and the occasional stoat provides an added thrill (Fig. 5). Squirrel electrocution remains a problem. Constructing a squirrel-proof feeder seems unrealistic, and a better transformer guard, specifically designed for our red squirrels, seems like a more likely solution.
We can supply plans for this system in return for a small flask of Cognac, even workmen to custom-build feeders to suit your deck. Work and workmen will cost a few more flasks. Quite a few. Think drums, not flasks.
– Andrus & Maria Voitk