Every Thanksgiving, I put out my bird feeders and keep them faithfully filled throughout winter.
They usually come down in late March as my seed supplies are running out. By then, nature is greening up again to provide a sufficient plant and insect diet for the neighborhood birds.
Actually, I don’t really approve of feeding wildlife except in dire emergency. But like so many other year-round residents, I violate this sensible principle for a few months each year. I’m too captivated by the pleasure of observing, from my dining table, the spectacle of my avian guests flocking into the garden to enjoy their own dinner.
No blessing, of course, is unmixed. With the rewards of backyard birdwatching go the headaches of protecting our feeders. We’re dealing with two major, distinct types of predation: squirrels and raccoons prey on the birds’ food and cats prey on the birds themselves. Occasional other threats— ―foxes, raptors, wild turkeys, deer, even Norway rats—are relatively minor characters in the scenario.
In my 35 winters on the East End, I’ve had ample experience coping with these predators. Though I’ve hardly found all the solutions, I have learned a few guidelines worth sharing.
First, of overriding importance, is the placement of our feeders. They must be positioned precisely right.
I put out three different feeders. All hang from a big apple tree in my backyard that’s ideal viewing distance from the house.
One all-purpose tube model from Droll Yankees comes with adjustable perch rods, plus an optional seed tray available in two sizes. I fill this with my own custom mix of quality seeds (sunflower kernels, white proso millet, peanut hearts and cracked corn), then hang it under a protective baffle: a large acrylic dome, purchased separately.
A second tube is designed just for goldfinches and their close relatives (chickadees use it often too) and is filled with thistle seed. Its tiny holes, narrow perches and nonexistent seed tray mean that no outside raider can get at the food inside; thus no baffle cover is needed.
My third feeder is a suet cage. I stock up on beef fat trimmings from a local butcher, which cost about a dollar a pound. I cut it into small chunks to store in the freezer and refill the cage as needed. This feeder also benefits from its own baffle, not just to keep predators at bay, but to shelter the woodpeckers and other species partial to a fatty diet.
Moreover, all my airborne guests can find temporary shelter from gusty winds, driving rain or snow in a huge evergreen cedar just behind the apple tree.
Each hanging feeder is attached with a snap hook to a metal chain looped over a sturdy horizontal branch. The tricky part is finding the best predator-proof position. The feeder must be high enough off the ground, beyond the reach of a jumping or browsing mammal. It must hang low enough beneath its own branch, and far enough from another accessible foothold on the tree, to prevent an attacking animal from leaping down or sideways for a precision landing on the food supply.
Achieving an ideal feeder placement is a painstaking exercise. It took me hours of trial and error over several seasons, with some frustrating losses, to settle on the most workable arrangement. Even so, it’s far from foolproof. Every so often a determined, fiendishly gifted marauder challenges my best precautions.
One year an acrobatic squirrel managed a downward dive at just the right angle to leapfrog my baffle barrier and land, whump, right on the seed tray. I replaced the tray with a smaller one but this didn’t deter him either. He simply clung to the narrower seat, curling himself and his bushy tail around the tube base, looking for all the world like one of those fur-neck scarves actresses wore in old 1930s movies.
Finally I had to remove the seed tray entirely. Then, finding the plastic tube too slippery to keep clutching, and the perches too tiny to support his bulk, the squirrel had no other choice but to drop to the ground and graze there to his heart’s content.
The ground, of course, is in the public domain. Any and all are welcome to whatever scattered goodies they can scavenge there. In fact, mourning doves, juncos, certain sparrows and others usually opt to eat off the floor, so to speak. And most birds manage it easily whenever seating space at the feeder is too crowded. Yet I still like to provide a spacious tray on my mixed-seed tube to benefit any bird—from hefty blue jay to diminutive chickadee—that prefers poking through feeder holes from a comfortable seat to pecking around at random below.
Near the end of last winter’s feeding season, I discovered a brand-new threat. One morning I awakened to find the entire feeder lying on the ground, lid fallen open, amid a pile of spilled seed. The same thing happened two or three times again.
I never saw a perpetrator. But he (or she) was obviously nocturnal, as well as strong enough to knock a fully-stocked feeder ―replenished by me at sundown for the benefit of next day’s early birds off its heavy chain mooring.
It had to be a raccoon. What else?
There’s no remedy, alas, beyond spooning the surviving seed back into the tube. The last time, the perp also managed to dislodge the acrylic baffle, which cracked into pieces after hitting the ground. That must have been one huge, furious swipe.
Maybe I’m being anthropomorphic, but I wonder if he was enraged by frustration that he could no longer raid the birds’ suet cage. Omnivorous raccoons dearly love suet.
I learned early on that while a baffle deters diurnal squirrels, it’s useless against our heftier, craftier night raiders. The raccoon simply pulls the entire suet assemblage ―dome cover with feeder attached ―up to his (or her) overhanging branch. He (or she) pries open the feeder, extracts and devours the fatty meal and leaves a clean empty cage to be refilled for tomorrow night’s feast.
The only failsafe response: Every day before dark I must unhook the cage from its hanger, store it in the garage overnight, then re-hang it next morning. It’s a tedious bore ―but it does protect the suet supply for its intended consumers.
As for protecting the bird consumers themselves from predatory cats, that’s actually been pretty easy. In fact, I’m convinced that too many bird lovers have an exaggerated dread of the feline danger to their feathered friends.
In my own neighborhood there happen to be no resident colonies of feral cats, and relatively few pet cats whose owners let them outdoors. I myself always keep two or three of the latter.
Like other well-fed house pets free to explore, my cats hunt purely for sport. And observing more than a dozen little recreational hunters who have lived with me over the decades has persuaded me that birds are not their priority target. Their favorite prey, by far, is rodents.
True, the cats will hang around the apple tree for a while gazing up at the visiting birds on the feeders. Then boredom soon drives them away—unless a squirrel, cavorting up in the tree, holds their rapt attention.
Once years ago, my acrobatic Harry executed a mighty high jump and knocked two lunching chickadees off their seed tray with a single fell swipe. That taught me a priceless lesson on the minimum safe height from the ground a feeder must be hung.
Another time, when high piles of frozen snow made access easier, one of my pets attacked a beautiful red-bellied woodpecker at the suet feeder. I managed to rescue the badly wounded creature and rushed it to my vet’s office. Unfortunately, it couldn’t be saved
But such mishaps have been exceedingly rare. For every downed bird, I must cope with a dozen downed voles, field mice, moles, baby rabbits or chipmunks.
Most trophies are corpses deposited triumphantly just outside my dining area, meant to be admired as I sit down to eat. A few, notably chipmunks, are still alive and struggling not to be toyed with to death, meaning I must drop everything and race to the terrified victim’s rescue.
One rodent is a conspicuous exception. Nothing excites my cats’ predatory zeal more than the sight of a squirrel. Yet never once, in all these years, have I witnessed a successful attack on one.
Susan M. Seidman of East Hampton has written about her pets past and present in “Cat Companions: A Memoir of Loving and Learning.”