Bird Feeding Tips For The Urban Yard Bill Thompson, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, visited Melissa Block's urban backyard in Washington, D.C., for a bird-feeding makeover.
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Bird Feeding Tips For The Urban Yard

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Bird Feeding Tips For The Urban Yard

Bird Feeding Tips For The Urban Yard

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GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.


And I'm Melissa Block. Now, a backyard adventure. Mosey on over here.

Mr. BILL THOMPSON (Editor, Bird Watcher's Digest): To the Back 40.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Okay, my urban backyard here in Washington is actually less than one one-hundredth of an acre. And Bill Thompson, the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, came by to make it more bird friendly.

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, that was a red-bellied woodpecker way over on the other side of the street there, I think.

BLOCK: That cheep, cheep, cheep, cheep?


BLOCK: He's got a new book out with all kinds of suggestions titled "Identifying and Feeding Birds."

Mr. THOMPSON: It's the time of year most folks start feeding actively because we get a lot of the northern birds come down for the winter, to our - what they feel is our milder climate. So it's a great time to ramp up your feeder operation, which I think we need to do here in your backyard.

BLOCK: Now we have one birdfeeder out back, a tube feeder mounted on a pole. And Bill Thompson notices a dark coating of black gunk at the bottom.

Mr. THOMPSON: You wouldn't want to eat something out there, right?

BLOCK: Well, no, I really wouldn't.

Mr. THOMPSON: And we often forget that, really, bird feeding, we're doing it for us. We're not responsible for the birds' utter survival. I mean, we like to think that we are, but it's really an entertaining thing for us to do. So we need to do it the right way, and the right way is to really give your feeders a regular cleaning.

BLOCK: Which means a good scrubbing every few weeks to get rid of mold and dirt. You don't want to make the birds sick.

Is there a hawk back there?

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, yeah, look at that. It's a red-tailed hawk.

BLOCK: Actually two of them, circling up high.

Mr. THOMPSON: He's just cruising around the neighborhood, might be looking for a squirrel.

BLOCK: And they should have easy pickings: This is prime squirrel country.

Mr. THOMPSON: It's really hard to squirrel-proof a bird feeder because squirrels are like The Flying Wallendas of the mammal kingdom.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: We do have a baffle on our feeder pole to keep the squirrels away. We've got gray ones; black ones; hungry, aggressive, urban ones.

Mr. THOMPSON: And the squirrels, I mean, literally, I've seen them practically giving each other boosts up. And one will knock the feeder and flip some seed out at the guy on the bottom, and then they'll switch places.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: All right, we're going to fill this up.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, we're going to fill it up.

So while we've been talking here, I've heard a few more birds. I've heard goldfinches going over. I just heard a white-throated sparrow somewhere back in the thick stuff back there. There's blue jays calling. Do you hear those?

BLOCK: I do hear the blue jays.

Mr. THOMPSON: We've got a crow. There goes a 737.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: And I did hear a cardinal chirping, I think over in that magnolia tree over there.

BLOCK: Bill pours in the seed. It's mostly black oil sunflower seed. It has a thin shell with lots of nutmeat inside.

Mr. THOMPSON: That's like the hamburger of the bird realm.

BLOCK: And he's brought a smorgasbord of other bird treats. That smells really good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: The peanuts.

BLOCK: The peanuts go into a wire mesh tube feeder.

Mr. THOMPSON: Woodpeckers and chickadees and titmice can pick at the peanuts in there and pull out little bits. Peanuts are a great high-energy, high-fat food for the winter.

BLOCK: And if they don't want them, the squirrel over here would like some.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, yeah, he's going to love these peanuts, although I don't think he's going to be able to get at them because this is pretty hard metal.

BLOCK: Oh, just wait. Bill Thompson has also brought a mix of tiny thistle and Nyjer seeds, which he pours into a long mesh sock.

Mr. THOMPSON: This will be the favorite food and feeder for the gold finches and pine siskins that you're going to be getting to your yard. It's a huge year for pine siskins. We've had 20 at our feeders already. They're very rowdy and noisy at the feeders. So if you see a bird that's, you know, like the disruptive kid in class at the feeders, that's going to be a pine siskin.

BLOCK: Now up on the railing of our deck, Bill sprinkles a crumbly concoction he's mixed up: suet dough made from lard, peanut butter, corn meal, flour and quick oats. And yes, we'll post the recipe at

Mr. THOMPSON: This is a super high-energy food for birds in the winter. They love it.

BLOCK: Here are a couple more bird-friendly suggestions from Thompson. First, don't over-tidy your yard.

Mr. THOMPSON: Really what you want is a nice kind of mess. What you have here is really nice because you've got a lot of different habitat. You've got a very bird-friendly tree, some shrubs, some, you know, ground cover, all, you know, varying levels of vegetation that the birds will work their way through.

BLOCK: And he says ditch the lawn-care company if you're trying to protect birds.

Mr. THOMPSON: They're down in your beautifully dew-covered and also chemically-treated lawn, you know, grabbing an insect and taking it back to the featherless nestlings to feed them. Sometimes those chemicals can transfer right to the young, and it can be - they can't handle it. It can be pretty toxic.

BLOCK: One last thing: keep Fluffy indoors.

Mr. THOMPSON: Cats kill millions, if not billions, of birds every year. You know, cats are this super-predator we've put in artificially into our backyards. And they roam around and really create havoc.

BLOCK: And we don't want havoc, we want birds.

Mr. THOMPSON: Lots of jays going over, and while we were talking before, a cardinal flew across. So, I don't know, they might be tuning in to our activity here. They might be going around the neighborhood, saying: Melissa's finally filling the feeders.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: It's still dirty, but...

Mr. THOMPSON: Party time.

BLOCK: Okay, the sad truth is that it took less than two hours for the squirrels to rip the thistle feeder out of the tree and gnaw a hole in the sack. It took two days for them to knock the peanut feeder off its hook. They chewed the green plastic base beyond recognition. But we have had a steady flurry of bird visitors: chickadees, juncos, titmice, cardinals, song sparrows, and my favorite, Carolina wrens.

I'm still waiting for the pine siskins that Bill Thompson promised.

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