October 16, 2018
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As autumn arrives, it’s time to spruce up the feeders

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
Last weekend, there were 12 squirrels in Bob Duchesne's backyard, and another six in the front. Dozens more lined the road. Every time he set a trap for chipmunks, he caught another squirrel.

It’s time to get my birds ready for winter. Alas, I am sad to see summer go, although the way hot weather lingered through the first half of this week, I was beginning to wonder. Maybe there really is something to all this talk about climate change. No matter, I’m reasonably certain that snow will be here by March, and I need to prepare.

I feed birds, although I don’t go crazy about it. I have just a few feeders up: one for sunflower seeds, three for nyjer, one for suet and sometimes a hummingbird feeder. I keep three nyjer feeders up, even though they can sit unvisited for long periods, because when the finches finally do come, they arrive in hordes. One feeder just isn’t enough.

My first chore is to clean the feeders again. I make sure all the seed is emptied out. Then I soak them in a mild solution of soap and water. For tougher jobs, I may substitute a little bleach for the soap.

Cleaning feeders is an urgent chore. Seed can mold in the dog days of summer, especially the nyjer. In fact, I once had a bag of nyjer go rancid in August because it sat too long in a warm garage. That hurt. Nyjer is often called thistle, although it’s an unrelated seed imported from Africa. It’s not cheap.

Feeders may also become unhealthy if covered in too many bird droppings, and this can spread disease. Birds are particularly susceptible to salmonella. If things are too messy, I may even have to rake up the waste on the ground under the feeders, just to keep the site clean.

I deliberately use small hummingbird feeders, because the hummers empty them quickly, and I can wash them more often before refilling. Nectar that sits too long can ferment, and mold can develop. I will leave these feeders up until mid-October, even though our resident birds have already headed for Mexico. Although Maine only has ruby-throated hummingbirds in summer, several western species can wander into the state in late autumn. It’s rare, but it happens somewhere in Maine every year.

Here’s where you know I’m a little weird. While many people have birdhouses in their yards, I have a couple in the woods behind the house. I check them each autumn, and I’ve never yet found a nest in one. I just leave them out there in hopes they might be useful to chickadees, nuthatches and kinglets that need to hunker down in a cavity out of the elements on a cold winter’s night. One of the birdhouses is ceramic, which means the squirrels can’t widen the entrance and take it over. Let them find their own cavities.

Some nature stores even sell roosting pockets. These look like birdhouses, usually in the shape of a gourd or basket. They have openings similar to birdhouses, but they are made out of natural fibers and are not intended for nesting. They exist only to provide a little winter shelter.

I have some brush to clear around the house. This I will pile in the woods in hopes of providing a little more winter shelter, and also a good place to hide. I’ll leave leaf litter where it falls, sheltering bugs and other protein-rich food until the birds can get to it. Also, I’m too lazy to rake.

I’ll get the heated bird bath out of storage in the garage. Then I’ll put it back. Winter birds need a source of drinking water, and sometimes even a chance to bathe. In the right location, a heated bath is irresistible to backyard birds. It doesn’t have to be Jacuzzi warm. It just has to be above freezing. However, birds can also get their water from snowmelt off a roof, or a mushy road churned up by traffic, or even by just breaking off small ice crystals. For whatever reason, birds have ignored my every attempt to treat them to a spa, so I finally quit trying.

Lastly, I’ll shore up my squirrel defenses. This time of year, there is an abundance of natural foods, and squirrels haven’t been paying attention to my artificial seed supply. But they know and I know that the moment the snow covers up that abundance, we’re going to war. My suet is in a metal cage under a large baffle. My sunflower seed is in a spring-loaded, counter-weighted Brome’s Squirrel Buster Plus feeder. I am ready to battle the squirrels. I will lose.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

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