I PUT OUT my first bird feeder of the season on Thanksgiving and got the party started. But there’s more to feeding the birds than just filling the feeders, like how to keep them safe in the age of increased disease transmission or how to provide essential water in the coldest months, and of course, much needed tactics for outsmarting the squirrels.
Smart bird feeding and more bird-related wisdom is our topic today with Julie Zickefoose.
Julie is a wildlife rehabilitator and artist and author of various books, including a favorite of mine, “Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay” (affiliate link). She lives and gardens on an 80-acre wildlife sanctuary in Appalachian foothills of Ohio. (Above, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers enjoying suet at her Lifelong Feeder,while a downy waits nearby.)
Plus: Enter to win a copy of “Saving Jemima” by commenting in the box at the bottom of the page.
Read along as you listen to the Dec. 12, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
bird-feeding best practices, with julie zickefoose
Margaret Roach: Hi, Julie, and thanks for being here to guide us this feeder season. I’ve got a lot of customers out there.
Julie Zickefoose: Me too, me too.
Margaret: Yeah. “Saving Jemima” is such a great book. Every time I see a blue jay, I think of you since I read that book.
Julie: Oh, thank you so much, Margaret.
Margaret: Yeah. What was that? Maybe three, four years ago maybe it came out? Yeah.
Julie: It came out in 2018.
Margaret: Oh, so almost five years ago. O.K., good. Also, before we get started on the tips and so forth, I was glad to see that, I think it’s a 43-year-old magazine, “Bird Watcher’s Digest,” that you’ve long contributed to, but that had ceased operation about a year ago, was quickly reincarnated as “BWD.” A great idea for gifts if you know bird watchers. So, tell us about that just quickly.
Julie: Well, it’s been an all-consuming thing in my life to go from being a freelancer to being a sort of de facto editor of a new magazine [laughter] that is so… it’s big and beautiful. It’s a print magazine, as well as online. And it is now full-size format. The “Bird Watcher’s Digest” was always a digest size, very small. And so we have these wonderful new horizons with being able to print photos and have them appear as the photographer intended.
Beautiful layouts by our very talented designer, Lisa Coe. Our editor, Jessica Vaughan, is doing a beautiful job. We have Dawn Hewitt, who edited the old publication, back on board. And so the three of us are of in the traces, Dawn and Jessica and I, getting content and making sure it’s compelling and the finest, finest we can get.
Margaret: Yeah. Lots of great contributors. Absolutely.
Julie: Yes, wonderful contributors, including many people we’ve used before and a bunch of new ones, too, who are intrigued by the new format. I’m in charge of getting the cover art. For 44 years, we are the only magazine that has always featured paintings on the cover.
Julie: Yeah. A lot of people don’t really realize that, but if you think back, it’s all paintings. We don’t want to break that tradition. I am so excited to be in touch with quite a number of artistic contacts who are chomping at the bit to give us beautiful things, and so far our covers have just been jaw-dropping. Yeah, very, very excited about that.
Margaret: So, I’ll give the link with the transcript where people can learn more about BWD, but it’s pretty easy to find if you put “BWD magazine” into a Google search.
So it’s bird-feeding season, and I think in maybe the September-October one of the first new issues, you did a piece about rethinking summer bird feeding. There’s a lot of rethinking going on, not to mention the price of sunflower seeds [laughter].
Julie: May I just give you my heart attack du jour yesterday?
Julie: When I went into the feed store for my usual 50-pound bag of sunflower hearts. Now this is a luxury, I realize that.
Margaret: I just did the same thing. Uh-oh.
Julie: Yeah. I got to know your price there because my price in Ohio was $91, $91 up from $56, and I stood there and I said to the person behind the desk, I said, “You found my limit. I’m not going to do this.”
Margaret: Wow, wow.
Julie: “I can’t do this.” I did a mental checklist of all the birds coming into the sunflower-heart bounty, and I realize that all of them have seed-cracking bills, all of them can handle black oil sunflower, and they’re just going to have to lump it.
Margaret: Right. And it’s about… I’ve read one thing that said it was about 30 percent the weight of the shells. So how much you’re saving by only having edible and not shells, but it still doesn’t make up for the price differential. I bought it in advance this year, which means that you get a early buying discount, but it still was, I want to say, high 70s about.
Julie: Oh yeah.
Margaret: As you said, it had been mid-50s. And anyway, so O.K. But we’re crazy and we’re going to have to then shift down to the regular stuff. And that’s all good.
But it’s more complicated than it used to be on many levels. I don’t know where we want to start, but we’ve read so much about disease transmission and so forth, keeping feeders clean, all kinds of… being a responsible bird feeder. So maybe we talk a little bit,… are you not feeding in summer? I don’t feed in summer because I live in a black bear area and they just come right into the yard and-
Julie: Oh, gotcha. Yeah. The black bears have really solved that problem for a lot of New Englanders and North Carolinians and down the coast, too. Yeah. We don’t have black bears here in Ohio yet, but I have quit summer feeding because I finally made the connection that the hordes of chipmunks and gray squirrels that destroy my garden and eat my hibiscus, etc., etc., were proliferating under my feeding program. And I said, why? And not to mention rabbits, who absolutely love to clean up seed under the feeder.
And I said, why am I doing this? Why am I feeding mass numbers of mammals, and then fighting them all summer in my gardens?
And the other thing that was happening is I had house sparrows coming from a farm about a mile and a half away and gorging on peanuts, and feeding them to brood after brood of young, which they’d then bring to the feeder and eat the woodpecker peanuts. So I was like, wow, I’m having a net negative impact on ecology in my garden. (Above, a squirrel at Margaret’s.)
Margaret: You’re doing rodents and other undesirable, furry little creatures. And you’re also fostering more house sparrows [laughter].
Julie: Right, exactly. And what’s the return? Well, not really that high enough to justify doing those things. So I quit, and it was actually so peaceful. It was not having to go service the feeders. Now, I did keep my bird bath going in my WarblerFall bird fountain, and that was an absolute joy to see birds come in and bathe and drink. But they don’t really need food in the summer. And so I discontinued it.
Margaret: And theoretically, if one has a garden—and you’re in a very rich natural area, like a preserve almost and a sanctuary—and if one has provided with the right plantings and so forth, and as you say, water, and we can talk more about water in a minute.
So the other thing is that whenever we feed, it seems like the issue of sick birds and transmission of disease… and has that figured into atother times of year, even when you are feeding, use of different feeders or different protocols or how are you dealing with it? Tell us about house finch disease and the eye disease and so forth.
Julie: Yeah. I neglected to say that the other reason I stopped feeding in the summer is the diseases proliferate so readily. And when house finches are raising broods of young and bringing them in, they are the major disease factors in my area and elsewhere, because they have low genetic resistance to disease, being genetically inbred from a small introduction in about the 1940s on the East Coast. A release of the birds at JFK airport caused the founder effect in these birds. They all radiated out from maybe a couple hundred birds in that one release. And so we did not have house finches east of the Mississippi before that event. [Below, a male house finch; Wikipedia photo by John Benson.]
Margaret: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Julie: Isn’t that crazy?
Margaret: That is crazy. That’s quick. That was quick.
Julie: They’ve been part of the avifauna for so long. But get this, I grew up in Virginia, and when I went north to school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I saw these little rosy birds singing around town, and I didn’t know the song and I didn’t know what they were and they were not in my “Golden Field Guide.” So I had to ask around and I was told they were house finches and then told the story of how they got there. So they’ve spread like wildfire up and down the East Coast, and then they’ve also spread west to the Mississippi and they’ve actually met the western populations there.
And in about 1991 I believe they contracted a chicken disease called Mycoplasma gallisepticum. And that happened in the DC area. That’s when the first sick goldfinches started showing up. And they then carried that disease all over the place. And now there’s probably 35 species of other wild birds that are susceptible to Mycoplasma, which is house finch disease. It causes conjunctivitis and vast swelling of the eye membrane so that the birds become blinded, and it’s a nasty disease. And most of us who feed have seen these birds huddled on the ground, blinded, unable to see and said, “Oh gosh, poor thing.” But that should be a signal flag to us that we’re introducing that disease into our yards by feeding.
Margaret: Well, and when you think about it, if you think about a feeder, a lot of feeders, what is it? It’s a series of little ports [laughter] that I can perch on and stick my head into just like the previous customer did, and over and over and over again. So if someone with the disease sticks its head into the port and then I come there and do the same thing, well, there we go. Right?
Julie: Yes. House finches take it one better. They are evolving with the disease or evolving resistance to it such that it does not tend to kill them anymore. But they have also developed a behavioral resistance to it, in that they’ve learned to rub their eyes on perches and feeder ports to keep them open…
Margaret: Oh boy.
Julie: …so that they can see. So, the dots that I connected in the winter of 2020 and ’21 were that my tube feeders, which I had broken out after probably a decade of not using them for this reason. I broke out my tube feeders because we had this super-wet winter and I just couldn’t keep the seed dry on the platform feeders. And my tube feeders were actually acting as the disease transmission station.
Margaret: Like the hub. Right, right.
Julie: It was the hub [laughter]. If I could see a radioactive map of the feeders with the germs, I began to look at my feeders that way.
Margaret: So now, instead of tube feeders, are you using domed trays, sort of floating trays with a dome/baffle-y kind of thing over it? Is that what you’re using? [Platform feeder under domeat Julie’s, above, hosting a blue jay.]
Julie: Yes. I’m using a little recycled plastic square maybe the size of a brownie pan. I’ve bought a variety of plastic domes, and I suspend those over all of my feeders. And it’s a bit of a pain because droppings collect amazingly fast on the domes, but that tells me what would be falling into the food, if the domes were not there. So I basically just take the domes down, run them under the faucet with the outdoor hose tap, and put them back. And I’m a believer because I had 19 goldfinches in my hospital last winter, or two winters ago when I was using tube feeders. I switched to trays with plastic domes and also feeders of wire mesh that don’t have ports, but just emit the seed so that the birds can pick it from the tube.
Margaret: Right. It’s like a vertical cylinder that the seed goes in and they pull it out through the little hardware-cloth openings, so to speak.
Julie: Exactly. So, nobody sticks their head in a port. They just take the seed and go. So those are the two types of feeders that I use now. And down from 20 birds in my bird hospital—I’m a wildlife rehabber—last winter in the winter of ’21-22, I had one.
Margaret: That’s great.
Julie: Yeah. It’s admittedly a small sample size, and I can’t say with certainty that it’s the tube feeders, but I have a real strong feeling that there’s a connection there. [Above, a goldfinch at Julie’s “hospital” with Mycoplasma infection.]
Margaret: So another thing that I like to feed in the winter—and we’ve been having really aberrant warm weather. I woke up this morning and it was 55 degrees; it should be 25 or something.
Julie: 60 here.
Margaret: Yeah. So, it’s just madness. So I have not been putting out suet yet, because I usually like to put that out when it’s consistently cold. But that’s just my thing. But I saw on your, I forget where, your website or somewhere, I saw a wonderful tip of a crazy suet feeder that you have that looks like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s not a hanging little square basket thing.
Margaret: How did you discover that?
Julie: It’s absolutely wonderful. This was one of the lovely things that came through the “Bird Watcher’s Digest” office years ago, from a feeder manufacturer called Lifelong located in Ohio [photo, top of page]. Lovely man named Link Llewellyn makes these feeders. If I can describe it, and you’ll have photos.
Margaret: Yes, yes, yes.
Julie: If I can describe it, it’s basically two perforated metal plates that look like they’re just drilled with rows of holes. They look actually exactly like sapsucker holes in the side of a tree. So these two aluminum plates slide into a metal frame and the whole thing is secured and put together with bolts. And you hang this thing up, you put one-inch slices of raw suet in it. You could also put cakes in it if you wanted. And you tighten down the bolts and even raccoons can’t get to the suet.
Julie: So it’s a raccoon-proof suet feeder. They very quickly quit trying. So you don’t have to hang it on a baffle pole or anything like that. And the woodpeckers love it. It’s really a bird-specific feeder because nothing else but something with a sharp pointy beak can access the food.
Margaret: Right, exactly. It’s really well armored, that’s for sure in the pictures.
Julie: Yes, yes.
Margaret: And I think one of the things I think is that you mentioned your WarblerFall, and I’ll give the link to that too, because that’s sort of a little course, kind of like a how-to teaching thing, plus all the information you need to do it yourself, to create this thing that you call the WarblerFall. And it’s kind of a product that you’re selling, not the thing, but the instruction, right?
Margaret: And it’s great. I mean to just watch the birds. But it’s not a winter thing because it’s a little waterfall, as you call it, the WarblerFall, dish water garden kind of thing with stones and all kinds of goodies.
But in the winter, water is essential, and yet it’s harder to provide. How do you provide water in the winter where you are? I have two in-ground water gardens, and for the benefit of the overwintering amphibians in the water, I keep holes in the ice obviously, because otherwise they’d suffocate. So, the birds use that. But what do you do?
Julie: Well, what I do is I went out and bought a heated pet dish at a Tractor Supply the feed store. It’s the kind of thing that people use for their dogs in winter if they keep their dogs outside. And it’s not lovely [laughter], but it holds about a gallon of water. I throw a brick in it, and then I top that with flat stones and the birds can only drink around the edges. And the reason I do that is because mourning doves like to use bird baths as toilets, as we all know. And they will sit on the rim with their tails pointing in and just poop into the bowl all day long. And it’s very annoying. I don’t know why they do it.
Margaret: Not to mention unhealthy for the other birds. So that’s not good.
Julie: Although doves as a rule are pretty clean as far as disease. So I do that. I basically cover all but little cracks around the edges with flat stones. And then if they poop on the stones, no big deal because they’re above the water surface. So that’s what I do, and I plug that into a GFCI-protected outlet. And that gets me through the winter. The birds appreciate it so much. They’re unable to bathe. And that’s a good thing, because bathing in super-cold weather is a bad idea whether they know it or not. So, that’s how I do it. And then as soon as spring comes, I break out my WarblerFall, which is my pride and joy. My little invention.
Margaret: Right, right. But it’s ingenious, because it’s deceptively simple. It’s beautiful, but it’s so simple and you can do it yourself; you can construct it yourself. And you’ve kind of figured out all the engineering details so that it really works, as opposed to improv-ing and have it not be really suited to the birds.
Julie: Right. And if you’re curious, WarblerFall.com has everything you need.
Margaret: O.K., good, good, good. Have you had any kind of wild and crazy birds at your feeders or in your garden either lately, this feeding season, or this past gardening season? Because what I love about the winter is the sort of woodpecker, which is why I love suet. The woodpeckers are just… they’re charismatic birds for me. They’re just characters. They’re real characters. So I enjoy seeing more of them up close. They’re always here, but they’re-
Margaret: Yeah. I love that.
Julie: I love woodpeckers. That’s why I feed peanuts in a cylindrical tube feeder, or a mesh feeder basically, that lets them take the peanuts through the mesh. I have to have my peanuts. I actually drive an hour and a half to a store to get my raw peanut halves.
Julie: Yeah. It’s tough around here. It’s hard to get what you want. And of course you don’t want to ship a 50-pound bag of peanuts.
Julie: So, I’ve had… the combination of having a running water fountain for the birds and feeders is a powerful one, because the feeder birds sort of attract in, you know, other birds say “Something’s going on in that yard.” They hear the trickling water and they’re drawn in a magnet. So I’ve had just an array of… I mean, it was crazy. This fall before I dismantled the WarblerFall in October… I actually dismantled it in mid-November. I had a parade of ruby-crowned kinglets bathing in this thing, which I never knew they bathed.
Margaret: They’re so little.
Julie: I know. And it was fabulous. And then I had golden-crowned kinglets bathing in it. So any bird bath that gets in golden-crowned, ruby-crowned kinglets, is a powerful one. Also, warblers of every stripe, Cape May, Tennessee, bay-breasted, blackpoll, prairie, black-throated blue. So I guess it’s unlocked a world for me of drawing in forest birds that would not normally come right into my window.
Margaret: Normally you’d see them in your binoculars up at the forest edge or when you’re “bird watching” kind of a thing more often than right there in front of you.
Margaret: Yeah. On the deck or whatever.
Julie: That’s the ticket. Yeah, exactly. That’s the ticket. My sister put up a WarblerFall on her deck in Massachusetts, and within days, had a male rose-breasted grosbeak come down and bathe while they were sitting 3 feet away on their chairs. And she was like, “This thing works.” [Laughter.]
Margaret: Yeah. That’s pretty funny. And I was just going to say, one of the oddest things for me, and this is a very common bird, a cardinal. He, we’re not on a first-name basis, but we know each other pretty well by now, he’s beginning his third consecutive season of defending his territory.
And when I say that: All year round, not just in breeding season, he circumnavigates my house. I have big windows all the way around, and he goes from window to window, depending on the light, the reflection at different times of day, and bangs on the windows, because of course he sees “the other male cardinal” who he wants to get rid of. And he also uses the driver’s side rear view mirror. I was going to say reverse mirror, but that’s not what I meant. rear view mirror [laughter]. And it’s hilarious. And it’s like this is… I assume it’s the same individual because the behavior is identical and he does it all year round, which is so odd. [Above, male cardinal; photo from Wikipedia by Rhododendrites.]
Julie: Yes. I’ve had that at my house as well. I had a deranged cardinal. And really, I think of these birds as birds with bad circuitry. They get an idea in their head and nothing will stop them. I have a dear friend, an artist friend, named Larry Barth in western Pennsylvania, who had a female cardinal do that around his house for six consecutive years.
Margaret: Wow. O.K. Well, I’ll tell my guy that the world record he’s shooting for is six years then, because he’s got three more years to go.
Julie: You must be an early riser not to be too disturbed by it. I hate that.
Margaret: Yeah. No, it’s interesting. I just try to go with it and I just try to go with it. I mean, what are you going to do? Cover every window downstairs with cloth? Whatever. I just let it go. Let it go. Let it go.
Julie: No, you can’t.
Margaret: Yeah. Got to be a little zen with some of these things [laughter]. So, any other sightings you want to tell us about in the last minute or so? Any other goodies?
Julie: Let me think about this. Goodies. Well, I have deer eating everything in my yard for the first time in 30 years. So, I’m in a little bit of a gardener’s fetal position right now [laughter].
Margaret: Right, right.
Julie: Yeah. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s all the exotic clearing I’ve done. I’ve taken down all the honeysuckle and I think they’re striking back. So, it’s not a positive thing, but I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to garden next season with that going on. Yeah.
Margaret: I’m a fence believer and obviously it’s hard to have a fence on an 80 acre property, obviously, but creating some kind of a barrier or some kind of a zone that’s your zone. It’s tricky, but they are impossible.
Julie: They’re impossible. Yes, they are. I put out 28 pumpkins that I had grown, little white pumpkins, like big white pumpkins actually. They ate every one of them [laughter]. They were in decorative bundles around my yard on the masonry and everything, and they just kept disappearing. So I put out a game camera and sure enough, it was three dear just eating them all.
Margaret: Yeah. Well, Julie, I’m glad always to speak to you and thanks for some bird feeding advice. And I hope I’ll talk to you soon.
Julie: Thank you so much, Margaret. This has been great fun.
enter to win a copy of ‘saving jemima’
I’LL BUY A COPY of “Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay” by Julie Zickefoose, for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 13th year in March 2022. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Dec. 12, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).