Feeding our feathered friends
People like birds. Whether it's feeding birds, studying birds, preparing wild birdseed mixtures or participating in the annual Audubon Christmas bird count, area residents have birds on their minds.
And during winter, it's especially important to remember that once you start feeding birds, they will grow accustomed to using your feeders. To continue attracting birds, continue to feed them.
In a report by several weekly newspapers with The World Company, we look at why people feed birds; we offer some advice on how best to attract birds; and we introduce you to some interesting area residents.
Here's our report.
No clothes hanging on this line
From her front windows, Dorothy Tolman keeps track of 13 bird feeders - and the birds that frequent them.
Her bird feeders aren't scattered about the yard. A string of them hangs on a sort of clothesline her son rigged up.
Tolman, who is 76, got the idea from her brother and his wife, who live in Arkansas. They had a similar bird-feeding operation going.
Last year, Tolman used three bird feeders, two in the front and one in the back. But after seeing her brother's set up, she decided it was time for a change.
Tolman's feeders are various shapes and sizes. And the feed they're fashioned for varies, as well.
There's the thistle feed to attract finches, several different mixtures of wild bird seed, suet, thistle seeds and black sunflower seeds.
"The redbirds love them," Tolman said.
Tolman moved from Kansas City, Kan., to rural Tonganoxie about two years ago. She lives in the country adjacent to her daughter, Debbie Laundy, and family. From Tolman's house on a hill, she has a spectacular view of the countryside, as well as of her own front yard.
Tolman keeps a list of the feathered species that visit her feeders. When a new type of bird comes on scene she's ready with her binoculars and her bird book.
The feeding stations aren't just popular with Tolman and the birds. Her cats, Little Fella, a 22-pound gray-and-black striped cat, and Little Guy, a smaller long-haired black cat, spend much of the day perched on the back of her couch, watching the birds through the window.
To protect her feathered friends though, Tolman only lets the cats out before sunrise and after sunset during the months when she's feeding birds.
About once a week she'll make a trip to the store to replenish her seed supply. And every other day or so she refills the feeders.
It's a lot of work, especially considering she's terrified of birds.
"I'm scared of them," Tolman said. "But I like to watch them and love to hear them sing."
Just like dad
When Myrtle Coker looks out the window of her De Soto home, she sees birds feeding at three different feeders in her yard. It takes her back to her youth.
"I've been watching birds all my life," she said. "My father used to feed the birds."
Coker grew up on a farm at Prairie Center, a small town south of De Soto that was razed to make way for the opening of the Sunflower Ordnance Plant near the start of World War II.
She appreciates the color the goldfinches flash outside her window, the playfulness of the juncos or chickadees, and she and her husband, Leon, even delight in the big black crow that recently appeared in the yard. But Coker likes best to watch the doves that come to the feeders and birdbath.
"I love to watch the doves," she said. "They're so peaceful. When a car goes by, all the other birds will fly away. They just sit there."
Once again, childhood memories play a part in Coker's attraction.
"The doves remind me of meadowlarks," she said. "The meadowlarks would sing from the tops of posts when we were walking to school. We thought they were saying, 'good morning.' We had good imaginations."
A pair of binoculars sits near the windows that open onto the bird feeders. Coker said she didn't need them to watch the birds there because of her good eyesight.
But bird watching from the window isn't limited to those birds at the feeder. The window opens onto a view of the Kansas River some three to four blocks to the north and that means geese, ducks and - this time of year - birds that might alarm the peaceful doves.
"We see bald eagles over the river," she said. "We see them a lot in the winter."
Finding the right mix
Birds love Lucy's.
Lucy's Wholesale Bird Seed that is.
And bird lovers think it is pretty great as well.
Basehor residents Peggy and Don Cochran took over the birdseed business in 2004, when a friend was ready to sell it.
"I was looking for a source of income mainly for my daughter, Melissa," Peggy said. "We purchased it so we could work on it together."
The aroma of aniseed and berries, a favorite of birds everywhere, fills the Cochran's garage as they hand blend and mix the different seeds they sell to individuals and small businesses. The high quality ingredients, vitamin fortified formulas and varieties of blends are what forms Lucy's loyal customer base.
"They were designed by some bird growers about 25 years ago in North Kansas City," Peggy said about the special birdseed blends. "We have patented the recipes and are getting them out on the market."
Lucy's Web site says, "Birds are just like us : different birds have different food preferences." The company offers several innovative varieties, so even the pickiest of birds will find something they enjoy. The backyard blend will suit wild bird enthusiasts, and large pieces of fruit and nuts in some of the other mixes give macaws and parrots something to sink their beaks into.
The Cochran's own parakeets, Tweety and Petey, might be the luckiest birds in the world because they get to try out the patented blends and experimental mixes.
Lucy's birdseed can be found at several stores around the Kansas City area, including Waggin' Tails Pet Store in Lawrence, Pet Stop in Shawnee, Horse Country in Leavenworth and Aquariums Wholesale at the Great Mall of the Great Plains in Olathe. Lucy's can also be spotted at bird fairs.
"We go to bird shows in the four-state area and set up a booth to advertise for Lucy's," Peggy said. "We run into all kinds of interesting bird lovers."
While the business is still in its fledgling stage, Peggy said it was starting to grow rapidly and the family was enjoying working together.
"It's been a wonderful thing," she said. "We've learned so many new things about birds we didn't know and it's been fun."
Bird-feeding enthusiasts gain more from filling tubes, houses and other assorted feeders than the birds do. Enjoy it, but don't think the birds are being saved by the effort.
"Feeding birds can be very enjoyable and entertaining," said Roger Boyd, a longtime biology professor at Baker University and a well-traveled bird watcher and expert. "Intuitively, it would seem that birds can become dependent on bird feeders for survival. However, several studies have shown that bird feeding does not significantly improve the survivorship of our feathered friends."
Boyd, who is president of the Baldwin City Bird Club and most recently spent time in China studying birds, offers suggestions on how best to feed birds.
"If you want to feed birds with a wide variety of species you should consider using a variety of feeding arrangements - hanging, on the tree trunk, and even on the ground," said Boyd. "And be sure to consider different types of seed. Having some type of cover, even a temporary Christmas tree will tend to attract more birds to your feeding station, and especially in a dry year like this year, it is important to provide open water.
"If you feed birds for awhile and go away for a week, the birds won't die from starvation, but they may not return immediately," he said. "So, one of the rules of having a lot of birds is to be consistent."
Many ardent bird feeders, and even those who only have a feeder or two, often are troubled by a common occurrence that seems hurtful to the birds.
"If you have trouble with birds hitting your windows it is because of the reflection they see that appears to have an open space to fly to," said Boyd. "To reduce this, consider something that will break up that image. You might hang a net over the outside of the window or even stand a branch in front of the window on a seasonal basis.
"Putting anything on the inside will not modify their behavior because the reflection they see is on the outside of the window," he said.
Boyd also offered his opinion on the best and worst feeders.
"I would say that the best feeder for sunflower seed is a Yankee Droll feeder," he said. "It is a cylinder with metal collars around each opening. They are strong and durable - squirrels can eat from them but they won't tear them up. The worst feeder is an empty one. Anything will work as long as you put something in it."
As for what's best to feed, Boyd has several suggestions.
"Black oil sunflower seeds are the best all around food to put out," he said. "Virtually everything will come to that. If you add beef suet or the commercial suet blocks and peanuts, you will attract more woodpeckers and nuthatches.
"The most common birds - house finch, goldfinch, purple finch, chickadees, titmice and cardinals all eat black oil sunflower seeds," said Boyd. "It is cheaper than thistle seed and is less likely to spoil in storage. Water will often bring in birds that don't easily come to feeders, such as robins, bluebirds, and waxwings."
He also has suggestions regarding birds that many people may not want.
"House sparrows are most readily attracted by cracked corn, milo and millet," said Boyd. " So if you don't want house sparrows, either don't put out the cheap 'wild bird food mix' or put it out away from the rest of the feeders and it will draw the sparrows away from the other feeders."
Bluebirds get her hooked
Until a few years ago, Dawn Bayless didn't consider herself to be all that interested in nature.
"I was never, never into wildlife, never into birds," she said.
But when Bayless moved to the more country-like setting of far western Shawnee in 2000, she began noticing the noises and activity of wildlife in her backyard. She finally identified one noise she often heard as that of a chickadee song.
"It was one of my first birds," Bayless said. "And one of my first birds that I fell in love with was the bluebird, and that changed me forever."
Bayless noticed something blue streaking across her backyard and discovered a pair of bluebirds had nested in a telephone pole nearby. After doing a little research, she realized that when she tore down an old fence on her property after she moved in, she had also torn down a bluebird box.
"That must have been theirs that I took down; I had no idea," she said. "So I put up two more, and they came and nested in one of the boxes the next year."
Now Bayless is enthralled with all the birds she can see with from her own window. To attract more birds, she has installed several bird feeders in her backyard, including a goldfinch tube feeder, a "dinner bell" feeder, suet feeders and mealworm feeders, among others.
She now also has about 10 books that help her identify the birds she sees. A stay-at-home mother of three, she can easily arrange her schedule to find time for birdwatching. During the past few years she has kept journals of the birds she's seen.
Bayless said she's moved beyond simply watching and identifying the birds to observing and documenting their behavior.
Located only a quarter-mile from the river, Bayless said her feeders have attracted a lot of migrant birds.
"I've seen my fair share of a lot of unique birds, especially some from the arctic - that was very exciting," Bayless said. "They are faithful to me every winter, and they are pretty neat."
Inside and out
Harold Morley doesn't have to look farther than his window for entertainment.
The Eudora Nursing Center resident has a passion for bird watching. He keeps tabs on two sparrows in particular these days Peewee and Angel.
Each week his wife, Lela, brings him seed to put in a feeder outside his room.
She often finds her husband watching the birds from his bed and listening to country western music, Lela said.
"It passes the time," Harold said.
He always loved animals but shared a passion for birds with his wife.
The couple filled their house with birds for more than 35 years, she said.
Lela currently has two pet parakeets and one canary. In addition to the animals kept in an airy greenhouse she filled her house with images and sculptures of birds.
"I just like to hear them. I just like birds," Lela said.
She named her canary Sunshine. Harold calls the two parakeets Petey and Tweety.
"I just like hearing the canary sing. It wakes me up in the morning," Lela said.
In the past, Harold and Lela didn't limit themselves to one species of bird.
The couple cared for lovebirds, finches and at one time a parrot named "Polly," Lela said.
"We liked the parrots because they talked," Lela said.
In addition to their pets, the couple kept a close watch on the local cardinals and blue birds outside their house, Lela said.
Now, for Harold, new stars steal the show.
"He was having about 20 of them feed at a time. I was buying a sack all the time," Lela said. "It emptied in about two days."
One, two, three, four :
Backyard birdwatchers may see quite a few birds each winter, but John Schukman has seen thousands over the years.
As the organizer of a Lansing area group that participates in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, Schukman, along with his fellow trackers, spends an eight-hour day counting as many birds as he can in several different areas around Leavenworth County. And though it's much more rigorous than backyard birdwatching, it's not only a pleasure for Schukman, it's a service.
"For some it's just tradition, for some it's just a newfound interest," said Schukman, who lives south of Lansing. "I not only enjoy it but I feel a sense of service to contribute to the database to help keep track of the wildlife populations."
It is the 107th year for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which deploys a network of enthusiasts and scientists across the nation to track and compile numbers of birds and bird species spotted. Schukman, a former high school biology teacher, has been participating in the group since 1989, which will take to the outdoors this year on Dec. 30.
In return for their time and service, group members see many more birds in a day than some might see in several years.
"It'll vary from several thousands to tens of thousands if the geese are migrating down the Missouri Valley," Schukman said.
On average, Schukman said, the group identifies about 60 species of bird during the eight-hour count. And witnessing the majesty of some of the less common birds has kept the counts exciting over the years, despite the winter cold. Some years, the group will even cross paths with birds truly unusual in this part of the country.
"If you go down to the Missouri River and watch for a while it doesn't take too long for a bald eagle to fly by this time of year," Schukman said. "On one count we had a snowy owl, which only comes down from the Canadian provinces maybe once every 10 years to this area."
Schukman said the day can be a great way for novice birdwatchers to glean some wisdom from the more experienced, but advised that anyone interested in participating be prepared for a challenging day's work. The rewards can be great, but group members must commit to staying on for the full eight-hour day.
"There's hundreds of people who do the backyard bird watching with the bird feeders; there's not that many that want to go out into the field and chase them, so to speak."
Those interested in participating in the local Audubon Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 30 should call John Schukman at (913) 727-5141.