Birding is the fastest growing activity in the country, growing more than 200% since 1983. One of the local activities gaining popularity involves bird feeding, said Kansas State University Research and Extension agent Chuck Otte.
According to the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, more than 33% of American adults enjoy at least a mild form of bird watching.
Due to the popularity, hobbyists may encounter struggles with their efforts to get started with the feeding project. Some challenges will need to be dealt with, others can be ignored, said Otte, Geary County agriculture Extension agent.
When birds spend time in a concentrated setting, the potential for transmitting diseases greatly increases. Otte recommends cleaning seasonal feeders at the start and middle of the season, while every three months for year-round feeders.
"This is a critical step," Otte said. "Fortunately, with changing weather some of these problems take care of themselves, yet many times a little cleaning is necessary."
After emptying the feeder, wash with soapy water and rinse to remove all soap residue. Follow up with a disinfectant solution of four ounces of chlorine bleach in one gallon of water. Rinse again. Set the feeder in the sun to dry.
Excessive human activity in the immediate area may make birds uncomfortable, Otte said. Landscaping can provide cover and screening from human activity to help correct the problem. Many bird species will not come to feeders with other natural food sources available. Birds may appear for a few days after a snowstorm and leave once the snow starts to melt.
Sources of open water may be scarce in the winter months. A birdbath, with a birdbath heater, may attract as many birds as feeders.
"Locate the birdbath where it will be convenient to fill and close enough to an electrical outlet to provide current to a heater," Otte said.
Other animals will find the feeders or even the birds themselves attractive. While some wildlife may seem cute, Otte said, they can become destructive.
Squirrels can become domineering at feeders and will spend hours stuffing themselves. Often, an ear of corn or alterative feed will deter them away from the bird food. Ground cayenne pepper, not chili powder, mixed with the feed will literally give the squirrel a hot mouth, Otte said. Birds are unaffected by the pepper due to different taste receptors on their tongues.
Skunks will normally be interested in insects, worms, grubs or small rodents attracted to the spilled seed. Regular cleaning around the feeder will usually solve this problem, he said.
Opossums can be attracted to feed, especially sunflower seeds. While they may not actually consume much feed, their droppings discourage birds from using the feeder, Otte said. The pepper treatment is effective in discouraging them.
Raccoons, which can be destructive, are attracted to a number of food sources. Some hobbyists resort to bringing their feeders indoors every night to protect them. By greasing the support poles to feeders, raccoons will be unable to climb the bar. Pepper products are another alternative.
Other wildlife attracted to feeders include deer and fox, yet these animals will seldom be a problem.
The natural ecosystem requires survival of the fittest, Otte said. Predators keep populations in check. Sharp-shinned Hawks are common around bird feeders. Less common species, but some that could still appear are Red-tailed Hawks, Merlins, Peregrine and Prairie Falcons. Otte encourages hobbyists to observe the birds and enjoy their beauty, strength and flying abilities. Cover in the form of bushes and trees provides protection for songbirds from aerial attackers.
Cats are a common problem for backyard bird watchers. Tame and feral cats kill more than 4 million birds a day, Otte said. Fitting cats with a collar with bells or tags will increase the odds that birds will be able to avoid them. The collar method will reduce a cat's success rate and pose little risk to the cat. Responsible pet ownership is the best hope, Otte said.