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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.

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