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Feeding our feathered friends

by Karen You know how sometimes we parents force our own interests on our children, hoping that they’ll think that hockey or yoga or watching the Food Network instead of Treehouse is just the most awesome thing they’ve ever done?

Well, I did that….  and it has paid off in spades! (this time anyway….)

Let me back up a bit…. I love birds.  Not inside-the-house birds so much, but the out-in-the-wide-world kind of birds.  I love watching them and I love having them near the house.  My love of these feathered friends started when I lived on the Ottanabee River in Peterborough.  I had all kinds of interesting birds coming to my measly feeder.  I learned to use a bird guide to identify them and started to keep a journal of what I saw.  When we moved to Ottawa, I had dreams of birds flocking to my yard, telling their birdie friends about me and my awesome birdfeeders.

I decided to wait until we had kids to undertake my bird-attraction project.  My oldest daughter, Emily, has always shown an interest in the natural world and when, in JK, she asked to get a bird book from the library, I jumped at the chance to woo her to my world of bird feeding.

Putting up birdfeeders is a great project to do with kids.  Choosing the feeders, the seed, deciding where to hang or mount the feeders, putting them up and filling them are all projects that kids can get really involved in.  And when the birds start flocking to your yard?  Well, you are set for some great lessons and entertainment.  We stare out our back window daily and talk about what birds are there, if they are male or female, how other animals are reacting to them (read: curse the darn squirrels and cats).  Emily also loves to browse through our bird guide to try and identify birds.

We’ve learned a few lessons over the last few years of bird feeding through trial, but mostly error.   Follow these few rules and you and your kiddies should be well on the way to some happy feeding and watching:

  1. Start small.  We started with a suet feeder (it looks like a very small cage).  You can get the feeder and the suet (in a variety of flavours!) at Bulk Barn.  They are inexpensive and attract chickadees and woodpeckers.  There is nothing better than living in Central Ottawa (we live in Greenboro – near Bank and Hunt Club) and watching a Downy Woodpecker hanging off your suet feeder.  In the middle of the city!  We also have a nyger seed feeder.  These are also fairly inexpensive (about $20 at Home Hardware) and attract finches, sparrows and chickadees.                             
  2. Beware of squirrels.  Ah, the thorn in every bird feeder’s side.  When we bought our first suet feeder, the girls and I strung it up, literally with string.  Within an hour it was on the ground, the cage was open and the suet dragged off to the delight of some neighbourhood squirrels.  Lesson learned. We bought some small chain and a carabineer (both from Home Hardware) and re-hung it.  This time I tied the cage shut with some string. This was a good lesson in living with (and sometimes battling) nature.  We hung the nyger seed feeder with chain as well.  The holes are much too small for the squirrels so they don’t even try it but their weight would be enough to bring it down should they try.                         
  3. Beware of neighbourhood cats.  I’m still figuring this one out.  The cats seem to think that I’m presenting them with a buffet in my backyard.  I feel like I’m potentially setting up the birds for a very untimely end.   The cats like to sit themselves right under our feeders.  I’m thinking a squirt bottle might be in order.  Right now, I just yell at them.  (Hey, I like me birds and I’m not adverse to pulling out my “mom voice” when necessary.)                                               
  4. Try different styles of feeders when you want to attract new birds.  The girls really wanted to get some cardinals coming to the feeders (okay, so did I).  Neither the suet nor nyger-seed feeder could accommodate cardinals.  So last year for Christmas my dad gave us a totally awesome squirrel-proof birdfeeder by Heritage Farms.   (Lee Valley  is selling a different version that also looks great.)  This is the Cadillac of feeders. This year we put it in the lawn right outside our picture window.  The girls run to the window every morning to see if the cardinals are there.  An added benefit to this feeder is that the seed that is dropped on the ground keeps the squirrels happy enough to leave the feeders alone.                                         
  5. Choose your seed.  I’ve found the best feed for the squirrel-proof feeder is sunflower seeds mixed with some wild bird seed.  This draws in the cardinals and the chickadees and also keeps my personal favourite, the juncos, very happy.  We get all our seed at Bulk Barn.
  6. Get a bird guide and keep it handy.  This is a great way to really get the kids involved in bird identification, teach them to use a reference guide and also learn a lot more about the birds that we see in Ontario and Quebec.

And there you have it.  Those are our lessons in backyard bird feeding.  It has become one of our family’s favourite winter activities.  If you have even a postage stamp of a lawn (like we do), I recommend getting out there and helping our backyard friends through the tough Ottawa winters.  The birds will appreciate it and so will your kids.   And you’ll probably love it as much as they do.

Karen is mother to three great kids - Emily, Hope and newest addition Henry. In her increasingly rare spare time she blogs at Virtually There.