Guidelines for bear-free bird feeders

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2001

Are bears still among us? Will they ever go back to sleep?

Is it safe to hang bird feeders again?

Yes. Yes. And maybe. Or at least soon.

As snow levels move down to sea level and back up the mountainside like a yo-yo, many bears are in fact preparing to bed down, even if tentatively, for the winter. But as many residents can testify from first-hand observation, a few bears, both black and brown, are still very much among us.

And bird seed, with its high fat and protein content, remains appealing to bears that need to add weight to see them through the winter. From one-quarter to one-third of the bear calls Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists received this year were related in some way to the presence of a bird feeder.

Furthermore, restless bears may venture outside their den at any time looking for a mid-winter snack.

With all that in mind, Fish and Game biologists offer some guidelines for Southeast's backyard birders eager to return to this popular pastime.

Feed birds only from Dec. 1 to April 1.

Unlike other places in Alaska, Southeast offers exposed vegetation and access to natural foods that allow birds to do fine without seed for most of the time. If your backyard doesn't have natural cover that attracts birds, this could be a good time to plan for landscaping next spring. Information on gardening for wildlife is available through the Alaska Cooperative Extension Office in Juneau or such Web sites as the National Wildlife Federation at http://www.nwf.org.

Hang feeders out of reach so that even if bears are attracted to the smell of the seed, they don't get a reward.

Avoid spreading a lot of seed on the ground, and clean it up if it falls from a feeder. Consider scattering a little birdseed on deck rails every day, so that there are never any leftovers.

Or fill feeders every day, but put out only a quantity that birds will eat before sundown.

If a bear has gained access to one of your bird feeders at some point in the past, don't be surprised by a return visit. Make absolutely certain that the bear gets no additional positive reinforcements for returning.

Watching birds is one of America's most popular pastimes, and it's little wonder we're eager to get back to it here as well.

When planning to stock your feeder, sunflower seeds are the hands-down favorite for local species. Black oil sunflower seeds are best. They have a high meat-to-shell ratio, they're nutritious and high in fat, and their small size and thin shells make them easy for small birds to handle and crack. Striped sunflower seeds are larger and have a thicker seed coat.

To really make a hit with birds, put out shelled sunflower seed. This will also cut down on the empty and uneaten shells that fall on the ground, creating another possible attraction for bears.

Sunflower seeds attract chestnut-backed chickadees, Steller's jays, pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatch and, need we add, red squirrels.

There are a number of feeders designed to foil squirrels; there may be even some that work. For home-made baffles on feeders mounted on a pole, try 4-inch diameter PVC sewer pipe or a garbage can lid.

Standard bird seed, which is mostly millet, attracts juncos, sox and song sparrows, Steller's jays and red squirrels.

Suet, which is pure beef fat, attracts chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers, mostly downy and hairy.

To make your own, chop a chunk of suet into small pieces and melt slowly in large pot. Cool until hard, then re-melt what you need to make suet cakes. One combination is 3 cups of softened suet, 1 1/2 cups each peanut butter and corn meal and 3 to 4 cups wild bird seed. Pack into muffin tins, harden, then offer one at a time. Or press suet into pre-drilled holes of logs or let cool slightly and mold into ball, then hang in mesh bag. Hang only when temperatures are below freezing, because suet will become rancid in warm weather.

For another cold-weather treat you can make with children, smear pine cones with peanut butter mixed with corn meal, then roll in bird seed and hang from tree branches with nylon fish line.

Bird seed needs to stay dry, another good reason for putting out smaller quantities on a daily basis. A simple covered feeder can be made by cutting an opening in the side of a large soft drink or bleach bottle, then hanging the bottle from the neck. Just make sure it's completely free of its original contents before filling with bird seed.

Feeders and bird baths should be kept clean to prevent spread of disease. Scrub with mild bleach solution, 1/4 cup bleach to 2 gallons warm water; rinse well.

There are a number of Web sites with information for armchair birding enthusiasts. Look for information on http://www.birdfeeding.org/. You can even join in Project Feederwatch at http://birds.cornell.edu/pfw.

Juneau Audubon Society meets the second Thursday of each month. Contact members at ckent@alaska.net.



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