Alibi V.25 No.5 • Feb 4-10, 2016 

Pets

Feed the Monsters

A guide to backyard bird-feeding

bird with seeds
Seeds and a plate are all you really need
J. Grisham
Looking into the empty black eyes of a bird, it's easy to figure out why we're so quick to throw them in jail for the petty crime of being too pretty. They are the alien—the other (the chicken is a distant relative of T-Rex, as my editor is so quick to point out). We live in progressive times, however, and it seems wrong to jail something just because it's foreign. Maybe it's just the pesky remnants of my teenage idealism, but shoving an animal known for flying into a cage seems a little crappy.

But fear not, dear reader. You can have your birds and free them, too. All thanks to the modern-day miracle of bird feeders. Feeding wild birds is not only a better alternative to keeping one locked up, but during the cold season a simple meal can mean the difference between life and death for a nonmigratory flock. Insects and berries disappear during the winter months and food sources become strained for many of the local bird species—like juncos, woodpeckers, sparrows, nuthatches and even the hated dove.

bird with peanut butter pine cone
The classic “peanut butter pine cone” trick
J. Grisham
And if you're worrying over the fact that you won't have a beautiful creature locked away where you can look at it whenever you want, keep in mind that nonmigratory flocks will hang around if they find a nice, safe food supply. I've got an army of sparrows in my backyard right now that just sits in the trees, following me with those cold, dead eyes every time I walk out the door. They chirp like it's the end of the world if I don't have a seed bag with me.

For those with a darker streak, you'll be happy to know that building a bird mecca will also attract those villainous birds of prey. Last year, my backyard became an all-you-can-eat buffet for a pair of great horned owls, who would hang out in a tree right off of my patio, never complaining about the human voyeur. This year, I've spotted a Cooper's hawk prowling around and once even hopping up on the porch bannister while I was playing video games about 10 feet away.

It's a real thrill to see nature so close up, and New Mexico happens to be one of the most happening spots for bird-watching in the nation with hundreds of species to be seen. But if you're still undecided, let me attempt to persuade you on the behalf of science. According to Dr. Emma Greig from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and Project Leader of the FeederWatch program, the Southwest could use more amateur ornithologists.

FeederWatch is a winter-long survey that uses information gathered by at-home bird-watchers to track the routes of migrating birds and record trends of national population distribution. As Dr. Greig told me, “Bird feeders are a great magnifying glass on the birds in an area, and Project FeederWatch provides a standardized method of counting that allows people to contribute to a nearly 30-year-long and running dataset. This means that we can compare observations made in 1989 to observations made in 2015, and this is an incredibly valuable way to track changes in bird populations.” Which means you can tell people that you're helping with the progress of knowledge, even if you're really just drinking beer and watching birds.

bird eating
J. Grisham
So you're convinced. Now what do you do? Getting started is easy and cheap. A suet feeder—a cage about the size of an outstretched hand that's perfect for attracting woodpeckers, bushtits and more—will cost you less than $5. The suet itself, a brick of rendered fat that usually comes embedded with berries and seed, only costs around $2. Another cheapie is the sock feeder, which will attract finches and costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $5. A 5-pound bag of birdseed is about $10 and can last up to a month. Stand feeders can get pricey, ranging from $30-$200.

But if you really want to get down to basics, just throw some seed on the ground or get a setup going like mine: an old plate on a patio chair. We have a ton of ground-feeding birds in the area, like sparrows, finches and thrashers, and they aren't too critical when it comes to feeder setups, meaning all you have to do to make a whole slew of new friends is get over those creepy, soulless eyes. Brrr.