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Three Practical Winter Bird Feeding Hacks I Wish I'd Thought of Years Ago

Wednesday, January 24, 2024


 TIP ONE: Don't waste the Zick Dough! (Recipe below).

I had spent part of my morning trying to foil starlings by bringing the lid of a two-part Zick Dough feeder lower and lower, trying to exclude those filthy birds who are not content to gobble all the expensive food; they also crap in my feeders AND heated birdbath.  One starling was managing to wriggle through despite the drastically lowered dome. Arrrghhhh!!

Finally I put a great big deep Plexiglas dome over the whole affair, and I was watching with amusement while the tufted titmice figured it out immediately, and everybody else just dithered. I could probably rank my feeder birds in order by intelligence, and TUTI would be the KING. Tufted titmice were the first birds to cross the field from the woods to take seed from a feeder at this house in the winter of 1992, and they are always the first to try anything new, and master it. The others just watch the titmice.

The Plexi dome proved far too daunting for anyone but the titmice, so I settled for lowering the top of my teeny Zick Dough feeder  even more until only the little birds and the birds that can cling upside down could comfortably land and get inside.

No problema for the clever Carolina wren!

Female hairy woodpecker: Well, how do I work this?

                     She figured it out! So good to see only the birds I want eating the really good stuff: Zick                           dough and dried mealworms! So: Get you a feeder with wingnuts and a top you can lower                                   way down, and feed Zick Dough and dried mealworms in that one. 


I'll share an innovation born of sheer exasperation with the starlings. I was dumping and cleaning and refilling my heated dog dish bird waterer twice a day. Here is the result of ONE DAY of starling use: 

Of course just as much goes into the water, turning it into disgusting disease-spreading fecal soup. UGH I HATE having starlings at the feeders! And cleaning birdbaths in single-digit weather is NOT among my favorite activities! Out here in the sticks, starlings are a huge problem ONLY when snow covers the ground, or the temperature dips into the 20's. As soon as the snow cover melts and the temperatures rise above freezing, starlings leave to make their living honestly, grubbing in the soil for larvae. But these last couple weeks have been tough, with starlings mobbing, gobbling, and pooping on everything.

It suddenly occurred to me as I washed the bird bath yet again that, instead of using solid rocks to protect most of the water's surface, I should use something unstable, lightweight and movable. Something the starlings couldn't stand on while they took their massive dumps into the water and onto the rocks.

I ran to the greenhouse and got a lightweight plastic plant saucer and floated it on the surface of the heated water.
C'est voila!! The saucer floats and moves around, and the starlings don't want to sit in it. They will tip it, and water runs into it, which they drink. The rest of the birds drink around the edges.

I haven't changed the water in two days and there is NO poop in it! Here, a starling and a rare winter brown-headed cowbird drink clean water, for once! It ain't pretty, but it gets the job done.

And a third Most Excellent Dead of Winter Feeding Tip:  

For 30 years, I've toted a big muck bucket full of jars of different feeds from my detached garage, where they're stored, to the feeding station. I do this three times a day in hideously cold weather like what we've been enjoying the last two weeks. Let me admit: it's good for my step count, but it gets old.

Finally it occurred to me that I should store the feed out by the feeders. Duh. I mean, why didn't I think of this 30 years ago?
I took one of my stout galvanized trash cans out to the feeding station area and filled it with peanut and protein powder jars that are themselves full of the jillion different bird foods I offer. 

Like the floating saucer, it ain't pretty, but it do get the job done.
Of course, this tip does not apply anywhere there are bears, and it certainly works best when the coons are sleeping like little angels in their tree cavities.

While I'm at it:

Zick Dough, Improved

Combine dry ingredients: 

2 C chick starter, unmedicated 
2 C quick oats 
3 C flour (Start with 2, and add more if need be)
 1 ½ C yellow cornmeal 

 Melt together in microwave: 

1 C lard 
1 C peanut butter

 Slowly add liquid fats to dry mixture while stirring or mixing on low until dough forms. If it’s too gummy, add a little more flour and cornmeal until it’s soft, dry and crumbly. Serve as a treat in a small dish with a plexi dome to protect from rain. Store at room temperature in jars. Offer only below 55 degrees, as it’s too rich for summer feeding.

Fleecy Pink Wren Bed

Sunday, January 21, 2024


When I get back from six days away there's a certain amount of angst and guilt because I wasn't here tending to everyone's needs every minute. By everyone, I mean the birds I'm feeding through this awful winter. And of course, it would turn beastly cold soon after I left, temperatures in the single digits, and that can mean doom for Carolina wrens, southern insectivores who have pushed farther north only in the last perhaps 50 years, and whose populations are famously vulnerable to bitter cold and snow. 

I asked my beloved neighbor who waters for me to fill the feeders, and she did, but only the couple of times she came to water. I don't expect anyone to run out twice a day and fill them like I do; to fill them a third time at dusk so the birds have something nice to wake up to. Ridiculous! That's my bag.

Of course, being a human and thinking the entire world revolves around me, I figured my wrens were toast without me there to help them three times a day. And when I got back, I only saw one at the roost box I'd lined with pink Polarfleece. I tried not to think of how lonely it would be without its partner/sibling/friend, but I felt terrible. 

So I set up a vigil to watch, and the first night only one came up.


The second night, only one came up to the box, but there was another wren messing about under the roost box way past bedtime. Huh? 

I opened the garage today and there was a wren inside--not trapped, but sheltering, likely successfully hunting spiders. At the same time, a wren was coming to the Zick dough feeder. This was nice. This was good.

This evening, not wanting to miss a thing, I sat down at 4:23 pm to make sure I'd see the first wren to enter the box. It didn't come up until 4:50 pm, but that tracks, because it was so bright and sunny out for once. The brighter it is, the later they go to roost.

The bird went in and didn't come back out. I waited a bit and nobody else came to join it. So I set to preparing dinner and danged if a second bird didn't fly up from stage right and pop into the fleece! 
Here's its tail. 

So as far as I know, I have a pair of Carolinas sleeping in total warmth inside about five layers of Polarfleece in the roost box by my front door.

This makes me very, very happy. The babies I raised last summer slept every night in pink Polarfleece in their nylon tent in the garage. 

I'd love to think maybe one or even both of these are the same birds. A predilection for pink Polarfleece can't be too common in the wild.

One can never know. But they seem completely unperturbed by me watching and photographing them from just inside the foyer window. And I'm going to make sure they make it through the rest of the winter, come hell or high water. The nights have been in the lower teens and single digits for about the last 8 days, and there's 7" of snow on the ground. And they seem to be doing just fine, with a little help from their biggest fan.

Tenacious Z and the Dream Greenhouse

Tuesday, December 19, 2023


  It's been awhile since I updated you. The good news is the plants are all in place and thriving. The not so good news is that I haven't been able to hang out with them, because, well, there are problems. The greenhouse structure was finished at Halloween. Here we are and it’s almost Christmas and it’s taken this long for me to figure out why my ventless gas heater wouldn’t stay on, and also that it was woefully underpowered for this space. It's taken me this long to select and take delivery of the right heater for the job. A few nights in the teens proved that I had to get something bigger. I had to borrow an electric heater from Shila to keep it above 55 in there. Gawrsh. 

This, of course, is primarily because I have to have all four windows cracked a little open to admit enough fresh air in for combustion. The solarium is THAT tight. Tight as a drum. So on cold days and nights there is a constant frigid draft. Between the pervasive gas smell and the draft, I haven't been comfortable spending much leisure time in there. The plants are fine, staying warm enough and growing beautifully. But it’s not yet safe Zick habitat. I keep the sliding glass door to my bedroom shut all the time, unless it's warm enough outdoors to turn the heat off. 

I had a consultation with Wilson Heating. What a relief to have HVAC professionals step into the space and assess it from the perspective of their years of experience. Don and Austin Wilson proposed that I obtain an Empire wall furnace, powered by natural gas, with 35,000 BTU capability. But the single most important thing is that this heater has what’s called a concentric vent. Fresh air flows in from outside, and exhaust goes out in another pipe nestled in the same vent. It’s like a cloaca for the heater. And it’s exactly what I’ve been needing. Oh, to be able to close those dratted windows for once, and have this space heated like any snug room! Oh, to be free of the ridiculous condensation that runs down the glass--a byproduct of  the oxygen-starved ventless heater! And we’re so close!

As my long-awaited wall furnace arrives, Curtis shows exactly how much he is worth as a watchdog in this clip. Which is Nothing. Worthless.

On Friday, when the heater was finally delivered, this huge semi truck came up the driveway bearing the heater which weighs well over 100 lb. And right behind the truck, totally by chance, came Bob McCollister, from American Glass and Metalworks, here on a separate mission to fix a leaky door. What are the chances that two people in huge trucks would arrive at the same moment? 

Then the problem was: How were we going to get that huge heavy heater down to the greenhouse? My dolly would be useless. The driver had an electric forklift but could its tiny iron wheels travel over the gooshy mud of my beat up lawn? We had to try. The driver pulled and I pushed and the forklift hummed. When it got bogged down I pushed harder. And against all odds we got it to the greenhouse door! But it needed to be carried in. Enter Bob. The two men hoisted it inside. I was sooo grateful. My lower back has been in spasm for awhile and too much lifting is why. Two angels got it done. I don’t know what Providence sent them at the same moment but it was so lucky for me. Two Man Lift:

On Saturday, Jeff Cline came over to bore a 9” hole in the beautiful wall he’d built. It was hard to watch, but you’ve got to squeeze some lemons if you’re going to get lemonade! I played assistant, keeping a steady stream of water on the masonry blade to keep the dust down. It was a mess, but not as bad as it could have been. 


The heater came with a template to help Jeff make sure he would be drilling the hole in exactly the right spot. There's no room for error when you're talking rigid pipe, a 130 lb. heating unit, and solid concrete.

We measured five times and cut once. My dad taught me that.

Jeff Drills a Hole

This felt like a scene from The Great Escape, except I think they used spoons and knives to break through the wall.  Breakthrough! 

And now the heater sits, unpacked and ready, in the middle of the space. I so hope it can be up and running for Christmas. I understand that everyone is slammed, especially heating contractors, and it's getting on Christmas. I'm prepared to wait, but I'd love not to have to! My friend Carin L. suggested I go by the nickname "Tenacious Z." I loved that! and oh, how I love Tenacious D, Jack Black's duo with Kyle Gass. It fits. Whatever it takes to get The Greatest Greenhouse in the History of the World, I'll do it! 

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