Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

March 3, 2014

PLATEAU GARDENING: Feeding and counting birds    

By C. Rae Hozer
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — A heavy mast crop last fall was one sign that led those who use old-time folk lore to predict conditions to warn that the winter of 2013-'14 would be bad. It was a good call. March blasts of arctic air make seeking out the remaining seeds, berries and nuts a matter of survival for wild birds and animals. Insect-eating creatures find food scarcer due to cold, as well.

During a hard winter like this, bird-feeding stations are a way to supplement the natural food available. I typically keep feeders out until the newly hatched babies fledge in springtime. I just bought a big bag of black-oil sunflower seeds and a large tub of lard for making suet cakes. The Marvel Meal suet recipe I use was created by ornithologist John Terres for various bird species that came to his North Carolina yard. These suet cakes are a favorite of bluebirds, titmice, nuthatches, Carolina wrens and the many woodpeckers that frequent my feeders.

Marvel Meal recipe

Mix 1 cup peanut butter (I use the crunchy style); 1 cup melted vegetable shortening or 1 cup melted beef suet or 1 cup bacon drippings; 4 cups corn meal (yellow is higher in vitamin A; never use the self-rising type); and 1 cup white flour (do not use self-rising flour).

This makes a soft, doughy food. It can be smeared on tree bark or pressed into holes of a suet log. Chill in square or round containers to mold into cakes that can be offered in wire suet holders (remove from the container first!). I use empty margarine tubs with lids. If kept in the freezer, suet stays good for months.

A cautionary word — although some commercially prepared suet blocks have hard-shelled seeds imbedded in them, I don’t recommend adding seeds of that type. All the nutrition is in a seed’s center. Seed-eating birds crack hard coverings by clamping down on them with their beaks. Insect-eaters like titmice and red-headed wood peckers hold one sunflower seed at a time with their toes and peck to open it. A coating of fat can make tough shells too slippery for birds to break open. If they can’t get to the good stuff inside, money spent on seeds is wasted. You could, however, get creative with the recipe by adding softer items like sunflower and peanut hearts, raisins, etc.

Enticing our feathered friends with food and water in winter encourages them to stay around for the summer — a smart gardening strategy because these birds provide natural insect control (though I confess I feed the birds primarily because I enjoy bird watching). Readers who put out bird feeders should remember to scrub with bleach and water to sanitize them before they are stored for the summer.

Modern day natural science research has taken an amazing turn. Internet-based projects have been set up so ordinary people (termed "citizen scientists") can input data which research scientists use to track wildlife numbers and activities. 2014 was the second year the February Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) at gbbc.birdcount.org has been used to gather information world-wide rather than just for the United States and Canada. GBBC is an effort of the Cornell  Lab of Ornithology, Audubon, Bird Studies Canada and eBird.

Bird count checklists are available online at the website. There are links from the checklist of birds commonly seen in your area to details on each species showing pictures and maps of habitat ranges. Tips to distinguish one species from others with similar features help those like me (who are enthusiasts rather than serious birders) get each identification right.

I submitted three count lists with 18 species and learned a lot. The top participant in Cumberland County had 55 species on his lists. Plateau Gardening readers can count birds anytime, anywhere in the world through eBird.org and help scientific research. A free Bird ID app for iOS is now available and another scheduled for release later this spring for Android systems. Try birding. It’s fun.

• • •

Plateau Gardening is written by Master Gardeners for gardeners in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland Region. Contact UT Extension Cumberland County at P.O. Box 483, Crossville, TN 38557 (484-6743) for answers to horticulture questions, free publications and to learn about the Master Gardener program. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae (MGardenerRae@frontiernet.net).