Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

April 8, 2013

Plateau Gardening: Provide food, water for birds

By C. Rae Hozer
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — Don’t rush to take down bird feeders as soon as the calendar suggests spring has arrived. A yearning for spring can sharpen gardeners’ expectations after each cold spell. Spring fever may prompt impatient gardeners to move too quickly. Some rush to buy and put out tender plants while there is still danger of frost. Others mistakenly think bird feeders should come down on March 20. Both of those practices are mistakes.

Those who feed birds in wintertime should continue to provide food and water during nesting season. Natural food sources are not immediately available with spring’s official arrival, and time spent on the nest or tending to new hatchlings leaves fewer hours for Mama and Papa birds to hunt food. Cold can put a damper on spring blossoms which leaves birds and butterflies looking hard and long for nectar and pollen. Most plants have not yet produced a crop of seeds or nuts this season, and freezing nighttime temps can lessen the number of insects available to birds foraging for meals.

Residents who keep bird feeders, bird baths and / or nesting boxes in place while birds raise their spring broods not only help their feathered friends provide for their young, they can also enjoy watching the bird’s comings and goings. 

A few years ago, after my mother came to live with us, we added more feeders near the kitchen and sunroom windows because she enjoys bird watching from those vantage points. We regularly see goldfinches, purple finches, white breasted nuthatches, chickadees, tufted titmice and bluebirds at our feeders during winter months. We also spot red-headed woodpeckers, cardinals, Carolina wrens, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers as well as an occasional crow-sized pileated woodpecker. And as winter melts into spring, a variety of migrating birds come to feed, as well.

We offer black-oil sunflower seeds and suet as well as sugar water for hummingbirds at our bird feeding stations in springtime. Some types of feeders are more suitable to perching birds that can sit on a peg or cling with their feet to a wire cage. Other feeders with trays allow birds like cardinals and robins to stand on a flat surface while eating.

We have tube-type feeders, a clear plastic box-style one that hangs from a window with suction cups, as well as a hopper–type feeder with a catch tray and suet baskets at either end. There are also various wire baskets where we feed home-made suet. You can also purchase commercially made suet. Whether sore-bought or home-made, be aware that seeds with their natural coverings (shells) should not be combined with suet. Birds cannot grip seeds with their bills to crack them open if the seeds are slippery with a covering of fat. Seeds mixed into suet are mostly wasted.

Marvel Meal is a homemade suet invented by ornithologist John Terres. Mix one cup peanut butter (crunchy preferred); one cup melted vegetable shortening or lard; one cup melted beef suet or one cup bacon drippings; four cups corn meal (yellow is higher in vitamin A); and one cup white flour (no self-rising flour or self-rising corn meal). Mix makes a soft doughy food. Offer in hardware cloth cages or smear on tree bark or press into holes of a suet log.

I put the mix into small plastic containers (for example, margarine tubs), cover each with a lid and then store in the freezer. It stays fresh for a couple months when frozen. Marvel Meal cakes can go straight from the freezer into a wire suet basket. 

Another recipe from Plateau Gardener Arlene in Fairfield Glade combines one cup crunchy peanut butter; two cups "quick cook" oats;  two cups yellow cornmeal; one cup lard; one cup white flour; and 1/3 cup sugar. Melt lard and peanut butter. Fold in dry ingredients.

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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 how to become a Master Gardener. Send email comments or yard and garden inquiries to Master Gardener Rae, MGardenerRae@frontiernet.net.