While stringing up outdoor lights this year, think about adding a different kind of holiday decoration. How about choosing some that are not meant to one-up the neighbors in a dazzling display of lights, but instead, those that are meant to disappear and that will serve as a treat for the neighborhood birds.
In winter, food for wild birds becomes scarce. The insects are gone, along with most of the berries and fruits of summer and fall. So stringing up a tree for the birds serves two purposes: getting into the holiday spirit and enabling the native wildlife to survive the elements.
Experts agree that while bird feeding works best as a year-round hobby, local feathered friends come to depend on food supplements during colder weather. Bear in mind that the local squirrels will also want to feast on these treats, as well as outdoor cats and other animals, so be vigilant.
Making bird-friendly treats is a fun activity for kids and grownups, too. Instead of hitting the mall one Sunday afternoon, gather the gang and decorate a tree for the birds.
One of the simplest bird treats to make is a blend of equal parts of peanut butter and cornmeal. Mix them together thoroughly, then spread the mixture right onto a rough-barked tree branch or trunk.
Brendan Dickson, wildlife educator at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge, recommends pinecone treats. Those with cone-bearing evergreens, such as pines or firs, can “shop” in their backyards, or pinecones can be purchased at local garden shops and craft stores.
First attach a hanger to the pinecone, or use a loop of string or fishing line. Green florist’s wire, which is often sold on spools at craft stores and garden shops, can also be used to form a hook or loop.
With a table knife or small spatula, spread peanut butter or vegetable shortening over the pinecone. Roll the coated pinecone in birdseed to cover thoroughly, then hang it on a tree. Melted shortening or suet can also be used but birdseed may not adhere as well.
The peanut butter or shortening in these treats provides needed fat for the birds, who expend a lot of energy to keep warm in cold weather. Keep in mind that pinecone treats aren’t just for the holidays; birds will appreciate them all winter long.
Tonito Valderrama, also a wildlife educator at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge, suggests decorating a tree with garlands of popcorn and cranberries for the birds. Just thread a needle with button thread, carpet thread or fishing line and string the popcorn (unsalted please!) and whole cranberries together.
It’s best to use corn that is popped in an air popper or old-fashioned stove-top metal popper. Don’t use microwave popcorn.
Another idea is to save the empty halves of juiced oranges and turn them into cups. Attach three or four strings to each half and knot them together at the ends to make a hanger. Fill the cup with sunflower seeds or shelled peanuts and hang it up.
Remember to decorate the bird-friendly tree where it can be seen. Watching the comings and goings of avian visitors will certainly brighten up any winter landscape.
The Quogue Wildlife Refuge hosts camps for children to make their own pinecone treats. For more information, visit quoguewildliferefuge.org or call 653-4771.