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Taking care of our feathered friends

By Tracey Payton

Oklahoma Extension Horticulturalist

Gardening can make you think of many things: the wide-brimmed hat, the pesky weed pulling, the basket full of tools, the trading of plants among friends, a big bright tomato. But most gardeners also have one more thing in common: caring for the birds.

This is where I come clean; I am not a fan of birds. As most phobias, it stems back to several bad encounters with them. The constant dive bombing of barn swallows at my head at a rental property along with two mean cockatoos have forever clouded my judgment of the poor creatures. As a gardener, I feel it is my duty to feed the birds and all other misunderstood creatures, but why intentionally attract them to my yard?

I have to say I had a moment of clarity. I saw one of my Bradford pears (not a fan of these either, but they came with the house) filled with beautiful birds a few weeks ago. I think they were Cedar Waxwings, but I can't be sure. There were tons of them eagerly pecking away at what fruit they could get off the tree. And I'm sure these pears were probably not their first choice. After looking a little closer at my landscape, I saw blue jays, cardinals and others I couldn't say what they were. Poor little things, what will they eat?

At this point, I caved. I vowed to supplement the diet of my birds during the winter and make an effort to plant native species when possible. First, I purchased two feeders: a suet holder that hangs above the ground and another feeding tray. The benefits of birds greatly outnumber the negative points. By feeding the birds and providing shelter for them in the winter, they are encouraged to set up summer homes as well. Birds are not only pretty to hear and observe, but they are also the predators to many of the pests that eat plants all summer long. This is where native plants come into play in the landscape. Our native bird species have been declining in numbers, some say due to the loss of habitat and native plant species. Why? As gardeners, we like new and different or pest-free plants, which can mean plants introduced from Asia, Africa, Australia, or other countries. These plants are foreign to our local insect friends and may not be recognized or even be usable as food. This can lead to a decline in the number of insects that can feed on this plant, thus limiting a major protein source for the birds. In turn, the birds will tend keep the insect pest in lower numbers without the overuse of insecticides. For more information about native plants, contact the OSU Extension Service at 405-321-4774.

Caring for the birds is especially important during the cold winter months. Food supplies are low when the birds need it most. If you are like me and have already spotted birds in your area, you can select a specific food for the known bird's diet. If birds are nowhere to be seen, a seeds blend will attract a variety of birds.

Birds will feed at different height levels, some up high while others prefer ground level. So place your feeder in a sheltered location from wind and rain. Be wary of bushes or shrubs as cats could lurk and hide for a feathery snack. Squirrels can also feed on bird food, jumping just about anything to land on a feeder. So keep that in mind when placing your feeder.

Birding is an enjoyable hobby. I hear it is addictive to feed the birds, so I'm looking forward to trying to identify all the newcomers to my garden.

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