May is Garden for Wildlife Month

Although my plan is to garden with wildlife in mind all year round, I was excited to find out that May is officially designated as “Garden for Wildlife” month.  This means a wealth of tips, tricks, and fresh ideas for making my backyard more wildlife friendly are filling my inbox through places like the Xerces Society and the National Wildlife Federation.  Just in time for spring to fully feel like it is here to stay and my gardening gloves to get dusted off!  The National Wildlife Federation has a great checklist for helping to attract birds to your backyard, mostly focused on ways you can offer the 4 basics (food, water, shelter, and places to raise young).

My current list of wildlife-friendly projects includes:

  • installing a second multi-hook bird feeding station in my side yard
  • installing a native plant rain garden as part of my lawn regrading project
  • adding several hanging baskets full of hummingbird and pollinator attracting plants on my garage and other areas of the yard
  • planting several herbs in my garden that are specifically for the pollinators (in particular, borage)
  • making sure there are several areas of damp, bare ground in my yard to allow native bees to build nests

This year I’m trying to focus more on the pollinators (bees and butterflies) in my plantings, as I think that I’ve got the birds fairly comfortable with my current native beds and feeding stations.  Many people are starting to become aware (and concerned) about the drops in native bee populations.  I always seem to have a great variety and number of bees in my yard, so I’m trying to figure out how I can help make my yard even more appealing.  Although I know that several of my neighbors are annoyed by the Creeping Charlie and dandelions in my yard, I find that the bees seem to enjoy them.  Also, I’m not willing to use the herbicides that would be necessary to even try to get rid of these problem-children, so the neighbors will just have to suffer  🙂

Well, back to my dirt!



Cooking (is) for the Birds

I like to keep a variety of suet cakes and seed cakes around for the birds because (in theory) these compressed food sources last longer than the loose seed in my hopper and tray feeders.  However, these products have a few major drawbacks for me:

  1. They are expensive!  The large seed cakes are regularly above $5 each and the smaller suet cakes are typically between $0.75 and $1.00 apiece.  This adds up quickly when I have several large and several small cage feeders to fill.
  2. It’s nearly impossible to find high-fat suet cakes in most of my stores around here, they mostly stock the no-melt dough suet.  That’s great in the summer, but in the winter I want to offer something with a higher fat content.
  3. They don’t last longer once the squirrels get in on the action.  I’ve had my pack of ravenous furballs eat an entire large sunflower cake in less than 2 days!

So this month I decided to try an experiment.  I made my own seed and suet cakes.  Making them myself let me use lard (which is a high fat content) and hot pepper powder (which is supposed to keep some squirrels away…we’ll see).  Plus it let me match up my crafty side with my bird feeding side.  So, in case you want to try your hand (and stove) at it, here’s the recipes and general process I used.

Seed Cakes

  • 1 cups mixed (high quality) bird seed
  • 1.2 to 1 cup dried fruit (raisins, unsweetened cranberries, etc.)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 packet Knox unflavored gelatin
  • hot pepper powder (no measurement, just enough to make it spicy)

Prepare your molds before making the seed mixture.  These seed blocks are not really made to be cut after set, so make sure you know the size you want before you start.  Many people use cookie cutters placed on a wax-paper liked cookie sheet.  I actually cut rings from an empty 2-liter soda bottle, these were the perfect size for my small suet cages.

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Heat the water and gelatin powder in a saucepan to warm (no need to boil).  Remove from the heat and add gelatin mixture to the birdseed and fruit.  Stir well, making sure to disperse the pepper powder.  Smoosh mix into your chosen molds (some of the gelatin goo with leak out the bottom of the molds, that’s fine) and place in the refrigerator for several hours to set.

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Remove from the molds, wrap the cakes in plastic and store in a plastic bag in the fridge or freezer until you are ready to use them.

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Suet Cakes

  • 32 oz of lard
  • 1 cup mixed (high quality) bird seed
  • 1 cup peanuts (lightly chopped in the blender)
  • 1 cup dried fruit (raisins, unsweetened cranberries, etc.)
  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 1 cup oatmeal
  • 1 cup chunky peanut butter
  • hot pepper powder (no measurement, just enough to make it spicy)

Chop the lard into smaller pieces (or run it though a grinder) to make it easier to melt.  I used my trusty enameled (cast iron) Dutch Oven to melt the fat as it heats nice and even.

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After the lard is melted, carefully add the peanut butter to the hat fat and stir to mix well.  Stir in all of the dry ingredients and allow the mixture to start to cool and solidify.  Make sure that you stir it periodically to keep all the solids from settling to the bottom.

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Pour into your chosen pans and place in the freezer to become solid.

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After the suet is set, use your suet cages as a size guide and cut into the appropriate size slabs.  Be careful if you are doing thinner/smaller blocks for small suet cages, you may want to reduce the solid ingredients a bit.  I used the same recipe for my thicker/bigger blocks and my small ones, and when I went to cut the thinner blocks they crumbled quite a bit.

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Wrap the completed blocks in plastic and place them in the freezer for storage.

These blocks have only been hanging up for a few days at this point, and although I did see one brave squirrel taking a nibble there hasn’t been the massive mammal run I usually see.  But i have seen several woodpeckers and chickadees munching, so I think the birds (at least) approve.

Birdless December

So, I think it’s safe to say that I have been spoiled.  Over the past several months of focusing on building my backyard habitat, I’ve come to expect that I will see several birds at my feeders at any given time.  And especially with the new snow and my heated bird bath, I had come to anticipate looking out the window and seeing my many visitors.  Hearing the call of a Blue Jay and rushing to the window to see them rummage for the heaviest peanut to take into the neighbor’s lilac tree for a snack.  Having to fill my feeders every day (and sometimes twice a day) because the volume of avian visitors was eating me out of house and home in birdseed.

So I became very concerned over these past couple of weeks when my visitors went way down.  And I don’t just mean a few less goldfinches on the sock feeders, I’m talking almost nobody at ANY of my feeders.  Even my tray feeder, usually picked clean between the sparrows, finches, Jays, and cardinals, would have seeds remaining in it when I did my morning check and fill.  What was going on?  Had there been some sort of massive disease outbreak in the neighborhood that killed off all my feathered friends?  Had I misread the ingredients list on my latest birdseed purchase and it was full of undesirable filler?  What had I done to make my yard suddenly songless?

Well, thanks to the vast knowledge available on the internet, I was able to confirm that apparently it’s not just me and it’s not just my area.  December is apparently notorious for being the month with the least number of birds visiting bird feeders pretty much everywhere in the US.  The reasons are not 100% clear and probably are multi-faceted, but the prevailing opinion seems to be a combination of factors that lead to fewer at-feeder sightings…

  • Natural food sources (fruits, seeds, nuts, etc.) are still fairly prevalent in many places in December (in fact, late fall rains can knock more foods onto the ground and INCREASE the natural food availability in many places).  Since birds prefer natural food to what is offered in feeders, they are less inclined to visit.
  • As the weather gets colder, birds are more likely to flock together to roost at night and have their morning feed close to where they roosted.  So where previously birds were more spread out over the landscape, now they are concentrated (and apparently they are not concentrated in my yard).
  • Some people only put out bird seed in the winter, mistakenly believing that birds only eat/need supplemental feeding in the winter or that feeding at other times of the year will keep birds from migrating.  So not only are birds concentrated in limited areas, but there are more feeders (and therefore more competition) for their limited visits.
  • And some of it may just be perception.  The increased number of birds present at feeders in the months before (either traveling through for migration or adding winter ‘insulation’), makes the sudden decline in visitors even more evident.

Whatever the reason, I for one can’t wait for this depressing December dry-spell to end so that I can get back to recording lots of new and interesting visitors to my feeders.  They just look downright lonely out there right now…

Black Friday Feeder Stock-up

So, every year I say I am NOT going to go shopping on Black Friday.  It combines many of the situations I really dislike (crowds, shopping, spending money, cranky people, etc.) and puts them all in one compact package.  But this year I ventured out (after 8 am, so most of the really deal-crazed people were already done with their shopping) because the local Blain’s Farm and Fleet and Menards stores were having deals on bird-feeding supplies and I needed to stock up.  You wouldn’t think it when you start this hobby, but feeding birds (when you also end up feeding all the neighborhood squirrels by default) adds up.  So when they are advertising buy-one-get-one (BOGO) on black-oil sunflower seeds, sometimes you have to go outside your comfort zone…

I didn’t get very adventurous on the bird seed purchases, just stocked up on the staples of high-quality mixed seed, black-oil sunflower seeds, shelled and in-shell peanuts, and some suet blocks.  My biggest splurge was a new ‘squirrel-proof’ hopper-style feeder to replace my aging and squirrel chewed current feeder.  Between the smaller size of my old feeder and the amount of times I saw squirrels hanging off it, I was filling it every morning and having it be bone-dry by afternoon.  This new feeder can hold around 11 pounds of seed if I need it to, and thus far I’ve been spending far less time filling it than I was the other.  Plus, it’s metal.  I’m almost hoping to see a squirrel try to chew on it at this point…

So now my seed storage is stocked for the next month or two, I’ve got a shiny new feeder and my heated bird bath from an earlier purchase, dare I say I’m ready for the snow to fly?  I’ll admit, after seeing how many visitors I got at my feeders during that first snowfall a few weeks ago, I’m actually (almost, sort of…not really) looking forward to winter for the first time in a long while.  And if we’re snowed in, at least I know the birds will eat well.

First snow feeding frenzy

So we got our first accumulated snow of the year overnight, and based on the amount we had to shovel it looks like we got around 5 inches.  So early this morning my husband and I went out to beat the snow off the feeders, top everything off, freshen the birdbaths, and enjoy the show.  And quite the show it was.  As fast as we filled one feeder and moved on, the birds swooped in for breakfast.  They didn’t even feel the need to move when we were within a few feet of them.

We had Goldfinches and Pine Siskins (first time I’ve confirmed them at my feeders this year) on the nyjer sock feeders, probably 10+ at a time.  On the ground we had Juncos, Mourning Doves, and a couple of American Tree Sparrows (in addition to the obligate House Sparrows).  The fresh suet blocks were visited by Downy Woodpeckers, one of whom was about 3 feet away from me munching while I cleaned the birdbath.  Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal were chowing down on the tray feeder while House Finches and other LBJs (little brown jobs, some sparrows that I couldn’t get a clear view of) were all over the hopper feeder.  Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches would come to the peanut feeder and snack.  I haven’t seen or heard my Blue Jay family yet, but I’m assuming at some point they came in for their daily peanut party.  And everyone seemed happy with the fresh, clean, open water at the heated bird bath.

And lest you think that my feeders are the only things that attract the birds, I got the joy of seeing several of my feathered visitors hanging off of the Ironweed, Aster, and Brown-eyed Susan seed heads in my dormant flowerbeds and munching on the seeds.  One little Goldfinch didn’t mind hanging upside down on the slender stalk of the Ironweed for several minutes, gorging on the native plant seeds.  I loved that sight both because it confirmed that my gardens do support native wildlife and because it made me feel less like a bad steward on those days when the feeders get emptied early and/or are not hanging because they need a cleaning.  There’s still plenty in my yard to attract the natives.

At the top of the feasting, I counted around 35 birds that I could see on the ground or feeders, and there were probably several more that were deeper in under the dormant plants.  So, even though I am not a snow fan I have to be grateful for the white covering on my yard this morning for allowing me a robust show of avian action.

It’s a dirty job…

There are a variety of illnesses and infections that can impact birds, according the the USGS National Wildlife Health Center.  Some studies of implicated the increased density of urban development, as well as crowding at bird feeders, with increases in disease and death rates due to these diseases.  But luckily, a few regular maintenance tasks can help minimize the chance of a disease outbreak being associated with your backyard habitat.

Keeping a well-stocked bird feeder is important to attracting and maintaining a feathery presence in your backyard.  But another part of being a good avian steward is making sure that those feeders and the area around them is cleaned regularly to avoid spreading disease to your feathered visitors.

At least once a week, remove all of your bird feeders and give them a good cleaning.  This can be done by soaking them in a 1 part bleach 9 parts warm/tepid water solution for at least 3 minutes and then giving them a good scrub, rinse, and allowing them to dry.  You can also run them through your dishwasher (assuming you have bird feeder materials that are dishwasher safe).  Scrub all of your birdbaths with a bleach solution as well and make sure to rinse them well and allow them to dry.  This all seems fairly easy, but it is also a task frequently overlooked.

The messiest part of your weekly bird feeding cleanup is removing the discarded food and shells that are tossed onto the ground by your beautiful but messy visitors.  There are many birds that will forage on the ground for seeds that have fallen or been tossed from your feeders, but you don’t want to let these seeds pile up indefinitely hoping someone will come along the munch on them.  Molding seed on the ground can spread disease and attract rodents, uneaten seed can sprout, and discarded shells can smother out surrounding plants when they get piled up.  Take gloves, a broom, shovel, and a bucket out with you and scoop up all those discarded hulls and seeds to keep the area clutter free for your ground-feeding visitors.  These hulls can be put into your garden compost pile to help supplement your garden in the spring!

So prepare your back and hands for a weekly scrubbing and scooping project.  But if you need to keep your positive attitude while partaking of this manual labor, just think of how you are helping ensure a healthy snack zone in your private habitat.

Birds Need a Bathtub, Even in Winter


So one of the four cornerstones of maintaining a backyard wildlife habitat is providing a source of water.  This can be fairly easy throughout the majority of the year, even in the wonderfully temperamental northern Midwest climate we find here in Wisconsin.  But at some point in the year (often much sooner than I would like), the weather decides that anything above 32 degrees Fahrenheit just isn’t going to be possible any more.  And so I (and my feathered friends) wake up to a solid chunk of ice where previously there was a refreshing pool for splashing and drinking.  This tends to get me some very disgruntled looks from my resident goldfinches when they arrive for their breakfast nyjer feed.

They may be tiny, but they travel in packs and I don’t want them mad at me so I saved up the funds and this year I invested in a ‘heated’ bird bath.  I splurged during my local Menards 11% rebate sale and picked up this model, which has the heater internally sealed into the birdbath itself.  You can get birdbath de-icers, which are electrical appliances of a sort that you place in your bird baths and they keep the water just above freezing.  The ones that I was seeing were, price-wise, around $15-25.  As none of my current birdbaths were a ‘safe for winter’ material as is, I would have had to purchase a new birdbath AND the de-icer, so I just decided to cut out the middle man and get the all-in-one unit.  Going forward, as I add birdbaths to my gardens I will make sure that I purchase Wisconsin winter-friendly materials so that the independent de-icers are an option.

There are lots of different models of birdbaths and de-icers out there, I’m by no means endorsing this particular model (it just happened to be on sale), especially since I just purchased it a few weeks ago.  I’ll keep an eye on it over the winter, and assuming that my birds continue to use it regularly and the ice chunks are kept to a minimum, I’m happy.  And so is my goldfinch flock, which means I can safely wander my backyard again.

Picking your battles

It’s probably no surprise that I love watching and feeding the birds at my variety of feeding stations, bird baths, and roosting spots.  Even if I don’t have any ‘new’ visitors for a while (sniff, bye bye summer migrants, sniff), the antics of my resident chickadees and goldfinches are still something I enjoy watching from my windows.  With my variety of voracious visitors, it’s pretty standard for me to have to fill several of my feeders on a daily basis.  My husband thought that we just had that many feathered visitors, so I had to set him straight.  The birds eat a lot, true, but the real culprits eating us out of the (bird)house and home are the squirrels!

Anyone who’s walked through the aisle of a backyard store or bird feeding specialty area knows about the variety of ‘squirrel proofing’ equipment available of purchase.  There are baffles that go below the feeders to keep squirrels from climbing poles.  Cones that go over the top of feeders to stop squirrels from hanging onto the tops of the feeders while attempting a nibble.  Hopper feeders that snap shut when they feel too much weight on them.  Even feeders that spin and (supposedly) fling the squirrels off before they can grab a snack.  Admittedly, I have not tried all of these contraptions, maybe a few of them do work.  But I am of the opinion that there is not anything that is truly squirrel-proof, at best things may be a squirrel-delay (and this video seems to back up that belief).  I’m not inclined to spend a ton of physical and emotional effort fighting what is probably a losing battle.

And so, I may sometimes lament the speed at which my feeders empty, or scold the odd squirrel who stands his/her ground when I am heading out to do my daily refill run, but ultimately I just add watching the level of grace, precision, and strength that the squirrels display while they hang upside-down off of my peanut feeder to the visual feast of all my feathered friends.

But maybe I should by stock in a sunflower seed company, just to benefit from being the neighborhood squirrel dine-in restaurant…

My Backyard Almanac

I’ve never understood the attraction to a smooth, manicured lawn.  To me, wildflowers, knarly oak trees, spreading cedars, all of those ‘unkempt’ vagabonds of the rural landscape always held more appeal.  A sea of green grass, never more than a half inch tall, with not a single dandelion, milkweed, or even goldenrod to be seen just seems like a boring and time-consuming fight against the tide.  Needless to say, I’m not joining a home owners association any time soon…

Add to that the fact that pollinators are disappearing, Monarch butterflies are declining, and (it seems) people’s inability to identify even common wildlife anymore, and you have the genesis of my desire to create a wildlife haven in my moderately-size yard in Madison, Wisconsin.

The National Wildlife Federation says that there are 4 things that are needed for an area to be successful habitat for native wildlife.  Wildlife (birds, insects, mammals, reptiles, etc.) need:

  1. Food
  2. Water
  3. Shelter/cover
  4. A place to raise their young

Since a total yard overhaul is outside of my ability and budget to enact in a single year, I’ve been adding a new native plant garden each year for the past 2 years (with a 3rd planned to be installed in May, 2016).  My ultimate goal is to have my ‘mowable’ lawn area decreased by 50% over the 10 years I estimate it will take me to install all of the beds I envision.  I am purchasing native plants (mostly herbaceous at the moment, but I plan to add shrubs and possibly some small trees in the future) and focusing on species that provide at least 1 of the items listed above.  This site is my chance to document this journey and share it with other interested people.  I hope to inspire you to take whatever space you have (whether its a large yard or a window flower box) and enjoy the fruits of giving nature a bit of a leg up.