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Selective Feeding is Better for the Birds and You

Q: When should I stop putting suet in my feeders? I have filled them up all winter and have had lots of wanted visitors; and the squirrels have (mostly) been defeated by a greased pole! But should I still be filling the feeders now that it's getting warmer? The birds are still stopping by. Should I gradually stop? Any advice?"

---Paula in Cinnaminson New Jersey

A. Lots of advice, Paula! Now; suet feeders are metal cages that hold little cakes of rendered fat. Once upon a time, they had to come down when the weather got warm because the suet could melt and get on the bird's feathers. But modern suet cakes (which often have treats like nuts and dried berries mixed in) resist melting and can be left up later in the Spring.

Oh--and there are also suet cakes 'flavored' with hot pepper powder that help keep Evil Squirrels at bay.

And no—that hot pepper won't hurt the birds; just the opposite. They don't experience any burning sensation; and hot peppers are a great food source for birds, especially in the winter, when some experts suspect that it helps them feel warmer. (SIDE NOTE: A generous dose of hot pepper shake in a seed feeder will deter Evil Squirrels from their favorite food source—and supply much needed nutrients for those birds.)

Now, I suspect that Paula is picking up on some of our past conversations, as she pretty much describes my strategic method: Put out lots of suet feeders in the Fall, keep them filled over Winter and then stop in the Spring. Suet attracts the meat-eating birds that are great at controlling insect pests, like the chickadee, titmouse, nuthatch and all kinds of wonderful woodpeckers. The birds choose this food-rich area for their nesting sites over winter and then switch to eating insect pests in the Spring when the suet feeders become empty.

It really works well. We have not put out any kind of food in the Summer for decades and our landscape is a riot of birds—especially this time of year when they're choosing mates and putting on great aerial displays.

And speaking of mating, a very interesting article published a few years back in The Economist reported that Swiss researchers found that supplemental feeding interfered with mating. It made some male birds so "lazy" that they didn't start putting on their mating displays until long after the prime females had already been courted.

And there are fears that supplemental feeding in late Spring/early Summer could interfere with young birds' abilities and instincts to find food in the wild. The Humane Society's website states that (and we paraphrase here to clarify the language) 'birds don't need your help in the summer when they're nesting and rearing their young; their focus is on eating insects. It is also important for young birds to learn how to find naturally occurring foods. So", they continue, "take a break from filling feeders in the summer. Bird feeding is most helpful in late winter and early spring, when natural seed sources are depleted."

And more important to organic gardeners, if you're feeding the birds, they're not eating your insect pests! And those birds can eat a lot of pests; especially when they're nesting and need extra protein to feed their young. (We did a special section on 'beneficial birds' back when I was the Editor of Organic Gardening magazine, and I was surprised to learn that many birds thought of as strictly 'seed eaters' switch to insects when they're rearing their young to get that extra high energy food.)

Ah, but there is something very important that gardeners should do for their birds in the summer, when natural food is abundant, but fresh water can be scarce. I see this illustrated dramatically every year in the stream that runs next to our house. In the Spring it's a miniature raging whitewater, but it's often bone dry in July and August—and that dry time is when birdbaths can really help our winged wonders. (Be sure to put those birdbaths right in the center of the garden so the birds can scan your plants for tasty insects as they fly in and out.)

And here's a new bird-helping suggestion. When I recently spoke in Fayetteville, I stayed with family friends (hello Hanah, Adam and baby Philly!) and spent a lot of time in their backyard (the weather was great!). They had only recently moved into this house and the 'lawn' out back had some bare spots that were dry and dusty. While I'm sitting out there I must have seen four different birds fly down and roll around on these patches to give themselves a little dirt bath to get rid of mites—it was a much better show than they would put on at a feeder!

Oh—and speaking of feeders, when should the suet stop? Essentially now—or even a few weeks ago. When the weather is warm enough that you see insects in the air. That's when the birds can move seamlessly from suet to flying pest.

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