In The Garden: December 2017

By Rhiannon Allen

Dear Santa,

First of all, thank you for last year’s presents! The transplant spade was put to work moving errant perennials and clearing narrow paths between rows of strawberry plants. The new trowel with its beautiful hardwood handle made planting bulbs easy. It seems like my garden shed is now well supplied and ready for years of happy gardening.

Since I’m spending less time in the garden, I am looking for a way to extend some of its joys through the winter. I love to look at my garden from the warmth and dryness of the house. I think that one way of enjoying the garden with indoor comfort is to attract birds to areas viewable from inside.

Unfortunately, all the seed heads in my garden will be stripped bare by the time Christmas rolls around. So, then, we are talking about things that you could put under the tree and place as soon as they are unwrapped.

Many people may not provide for winter birds for a variety of reasons. One reason is that birds are wild creatures that evolved to fend for themselves and that is true. However, we have taken so much of their natural habitat away!

In my neighborhood, the bulldozing of an entire field has removed seeds and berries that would have fed birds through early winter. Other areas of Point Roberts have suffered a similar fate, and I suspect that ground leveling has also reduced the concentration of shallow pools and boggy spots that offered liquid refreshment to seed eaters.

Another reason is that bird food attracts rats, which are a chronic problem here. The rats we see around Point Roberts are not native to the area, but probably arrived many decades ago on ships. They compete with native fauna for food, gnaw electrical wiring and are vectors for fleas and disease. Fortunately, while rats (particularly roof rats) are great climbers, it is easy to block their access to the food and water set out for birds.

So how can I feed the birds without encouraging rodents? (I’m including those pesky, non-native, ravenous and clever eastern gray squirrels in that category.)

Well, clearly, do not give me anything that needs to be placed flat on the ground. Not only would that attract rats and gray squirrels, but would leave the birds vulnerable to my neighbor’s killer cat.

Can we start with a bird bath, please? Seed-eating birds need water to drink, and many love to splash in water despite scientists’ failure to understand why. So I think that a pedestal birdbath would do the trick. Most are designed for safe water depth for small birds yet inaccessible to rats, who cannot scale very slick surfaces.

I’ll let you, Santa, choose the exact design, but I’d prefer a non-ceramic one in case a curious raccoon attempts to use the bath and sends it crashing over. Since the water will need to be changed regularly, and the birdbath cleaned at least weekly, see if you can find me a model that is easy to empty and clean. If you are not sure, please include a very large plant pot saucer that I can place in the bowl of the birdbath; that should make maintenance easy.

And since we are talking about winter, I’d like a device that keeps the
water ice-free.

Unfortunately, battery-operated water wigglers that ripple the water don’t leave enough space for enthusiastic bathers like towhees. Moreover, since we are expecting a very cold winter, a plug-in submersible heater designed for shallow birdbaths would be a better choice.

Now for feeding them; most of our winter birds love a high-fat diet. That means suet, and Nielson’s Building Center always keeps a good supply of suet and hanging suet feeders in stock. I’m sure that just the plain old suet that comes in bulk boxes would be much appreciated, and a small-hanging suet basket would be great.

Now I need a way to keep the suet out of the range of a certain person’s dog, since I have no intention of supplementing the diet of pets. If Nielson’s has those long metal plant hangers, I could hang the suet from the gutter or fascia of an outbuilding that I can see from the house. Again, rats will not be able to get a purchase on smooth metal and the suet will be out of the jumping distance of predator cats and suet-stealing dogs.

I know that it seems like you are buying presents for the birds, but think of how happy it will make me (and our indoor cats) watching all the avian activity
in the garden!

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