Wildlife Matters with Dell Cullum

Better Than Bird Feeders:

Dell Cullum

No soap box intro. this month folks, just some REALLY GOOD advice for all our wonderful bird lovers here at home. We, here on the east end of Long Island are incredibly fortunate to have a large number of birds, both full time residents and migratory visitors. Songbirds of all sizes and colors could keep a birdwatcher busy, but we also have shorebirds (gulls, plovers, killdeer, sandpipers, willets, dowitchers, oystercatchers, yellowlegs, etc., the list goes on), seabirds (gulls, terns, gannets, cormorants, shearwaters, loons, grebes, eiders, scoters, etc., even an occasional pelican or razorbill), pond birds (herons, egrets, bitterns, rails, coots and more), waterfowl (swan, geese, ducks), game birds (wild turkey, woodcock, pheasant, quail, grouse), pigeons and doves, birds of prey (hawks, falcons, merlins, kestrels, osprey, harriers, vultures, eagles and owls), hummingbirds, crows, goatsuckers and kingfishers,…whew, now that’s some list.

On a quick related side note, here’s a great example of why I always say, “BE CAREFUL WHEN YOU RESEARCH WILDLIFE INFORMATION ON THE INTERNET!!!” In all my years of wildlife experience, the one thing that applies more than anything is that wild animal behavior and characteristics vary depending on location (particular habitat) they are forced to live in. We spoke about this a few months ago when we talked about the raccoons, but ALL animals acclimate to their surroundings which in turns tweaks their routines and behaviors. In short, what you might read about an animal in one location, may not apply to that same animal in YOUR location. That’s why I offer a 24/7 information hotline (844-SAV-WILD, then press 2 for wildlife info.) My number one comment is, “I saw a sick raccoon, looked online and it says it HAS rabies”.

This would certainly send anyone into a panic; however, we do not have rabies in raccoon in Suffolk or Nassau county. There have been isolated claims, but NONE have been substantiated to me, and it would not be in NY state’s best interest to keep that information from me, since I’m in the business full force. And YES, I do inquire with both NYSDEC and NYS Health Department quarterly.
So, why did I go completely off topic for a moment? Because I want to confirm the order number of bird species in the world and I got two answers, neither of which I thought was the answer. One study claims 23, another 29. I always thought 28 orders of living birds with 21 residing north of Mexico, in North America. Either way, it’s agreed that there are 10,000 species. Each one a unique specimen of beauty and song. This is why millions of people, spend millions of dollars on bird houses, feeders and seeds of all shapes, sizes, types and flavors. The problems that accompany this favorite activity of feeding birds is not discussed enough. In fact, most have been forgotten or ignored, which leaves most folks under the impression that all you need to do is keep the feeders full year round and that’s that! Unfortunately, that practice is way more harmful to the birds (and a handful of other animals) than most folks realize, so let me set the record straight and allow me to offer some facts and a few tips that will keep the birds healthy, happy, and your connection with them right and true.

Bird houses ROCK! You can buy them or build them. No design is too odd or outlandish. Anything goes in the world of bird houses. Hang a bird house and you get a resident in no time. Your bird of choice will move in depending on the material used and the accessibility factor, yet location and height of placement is of equal importance. A standard bird house entrance is one inch (1″) circular. It’s important to know that this could also accommodate other animals like squirrels, flying squirrels, rodents, bee and wasps, bats, and even the grasping arm and paw of a hungry raccoon. Some of these animals you cannot compete with, however others you can. Keeping a bird house clean will determine what will call it home. A bird house filled with a bumble bee nest will no longer have room for a bird to create a nursery. Bird houses that have cleaning access doors are preferable. I make all my simple bird houses with a removable roof side panel. Two screws, the piece comes off and I remove, then hose out the debris.

Hanging a bird house means you are welcoming birds to live on your property. This in NO WAY means you HAVE TO have food for them available at all times. Most folks I advise feel that if they stop feeding the birds, they will stop coming around. This couldn’t be more untrue, and I’m going to tell you a little secret shortly. No matter what the time lapse between seasonal feedings, the minute you toss out a handful of bird seed or fill that long empty hanging feeder, the birds will come almost instantly. Once you understand that to be true, you can accept the following information much easier.

A lot of my advice and information is from MY research combined with materials that I’ve studied in length, but ultimately it’s all shadowed, and easily confirmed with simple common sense. In other words, rather than just act on information passed down from age old rumors and tales, take the information I offer you, think about for just a moment and allow the logic to dictate the truth, which should encourage the correct act in response. AT this point, many of you are saying, “Dell, what the hell are you talking about?” And I say onto you, STOP FEEDING THE BIRDS, YEAR ROUND! Stop filling feeders year round, stop feeding the ducks bread and what’s left of your breakfast or expired cereal from your spring kitchen cabinet cleaning, and stop feeding seagulls your trash and leftovers. Let’s look at this closely. All birds do not eat the same thing. Some eat seeds, some eat flying insects, some eat worms, some eat fish and some eat other birds, but they all don’t eat the same thing. What you can count on is that each bird species knows exactly how to find their natural food source and always have, until humans started feeding them their own processed brands and formulas which is nothing short of interfering with the natural behavior (both normal and survival), not to mention diet, which directly affects the health of a bird.

The logic? During the spring, summer and fall when a birds NATURAL foods are available, it is NOT necessary to feed them bird seed, suet, or the like. Agway, bird stores, feed companies might not agree, but again, logic doesn’t always put money in our pockets, but it does dictate the truth. I’m looking out for YOUR best interest, and it’s not costing you one red cent. Allowing a bird to feast on their natural foods is undeniably the best healthy choice FOR THE BIRD. Those who insist on denying birds their natural substances by insisting on overindulging them with processed store bought seeds is clearly another selfish human function that impacts ALL our wildlife. I probably insulted about two thirds of my fans with that statement, but you know I love you all; it’s just a tough love, because I love the wildlife more than anything and I hope that you folks will feel the same. Besides, I wouldn’t drop a bomb like that on you without having a seriously awesome and very doable backup that’ll have your bird visitors coming back time and time again. Just bear with me a moment longer.

Winter is when birds have a much harder time finding good. Of course it all depends on the climate and the severity of the cold season. Certain birds thrive during the colder months, particularly those who feed on rodents and carrion. That supply never ends and is just easier to locate during the leafless months. Other birds food sources completely shut down which forces them to migrate to locations where they can find food. The ospreys fish diet is unreachable when their fishing hole is frozen over, or the water gets too cold for hunting, so they know to go south until their northern nesting locations warm up again in the spring. Young Snowy owls from the Arctic migrate south to locations like eastern Long Island so they don’t have to compete for food with the adults up north during our winter season. As far as our beautiful songbirds, winter is the time that it is okay to fill the feeders. It eases the appetite and work load for hungry birds when their energy levels are at their lowest (during very cold conditions). Yes folks, birds get cold. A cold bird will have its beak tucked into its fluffed out chest feathers or they will literally shiver.

At this point you might ask, “so what’s the downside of filling bird feeders year round?”, and this is where I shine because the answers are many, yet I only have to tell you a few for you to see the light.
First, a full feeder during the warm months is a food beacon to every terrestrial mammal both diurnal and nocturnal. Whether they get to the food or not, they will be drawn into your zone because it’s there, and once they are in your zone, ANYTHING is possible (structural damage to homes, deification in pools or on grounds, digging of soil, burrowing and setting up camp, etc. etc.)

Second, when excessive seed gets wet or moist, even from simple morning condensation, it ferments, grows, or as I like to use the more accurate word, ROTS! Just like feeding ducks molded bread, or stale leftovers to seagulls, it only hurts the animal and although they can’t express their misery to humans visually, it gives these birds severe stomach pain which renders them vulnerable to other threats and illnesses. We don’t understand this because we toss them food and go about our business without concern or care. Let us look at rodenticide use. A one ounce block of poison is 99.95% paraffin wax and BIRD SEED, with just .05% of poison. many folks think this is the proper way to deal with rodent control when actually it’s guaranteed to make it worse. That 1 oz. FOOD block (poison) might kill 3 or 4 mice, but it’s food, so it’s guaranteed to draw in about a dozen mice and anything else that has a sense of smell or consumes BIRD SEED. Ironically, rodenticides not only kill birds that ingest the crumbs left over from an empty poison box, but birds of prey that ingest poisoned mice ALSO get poisoned, and in most cases die from secondary rodenticide poisoning. Which brings me to the bellringer of reasons why you should NOT fill bird feeders during the warmer months of the year, when their natural foods are ALL available, and a much healthier choice.

Third, BIRD SEED DRAWS RODENTS, EVERY TIME! Again, it’ll draw all animals that eat to survive, but allow residual seed to cover your ground after the birds feast and you’ll be inviting one of the biggest, yet peskiest birds to ever scratch the soil, the Wild Turkey. But it’s the night time when the problem really manifests into a nightmare. That’s when the rats come out to eat all the remaining grub carelessly left on the ground. And if you think you can keep these critters away with poisons or traps once they infest a location, think again. I often bring this up around Halloween when folks leave pumpkins out to rot around their homes. You might as well plant a sign in your lawn that reads, RAT BUFFET – ALL RODENTS WELCOME. And the problem isn’t so much when the rats are feasting on ground seed at night, but more so when the seed is gone and they frantically go in search for other nearby food sources which often include your garden, compost pile and even your home if the conditions are accommodating for them to infest.

I usually don’t have to go any further to convince folks to be a bit more conservative with the seed. Just remember logic dictates the truth. Plus I’ve had thirty plus years experience dealing hands-on with wildlife on a daily basis, and I’m only trying to help YOU and the wildlife. Again, your local bird store, like the fine folks at Wild Bird Crossing at Bridgehampton Commons have lots to offer when it comes to attracting and enjoying your favorite birds, and it’s not all about food. In fact I just purchased two awesome items from Wild Bird Crossing that my birds absolutely love!!

I promised to share with you the greatest gift you can give to any bird, including some mammals as well, that will certainly make up for the decrease in food in which I’ve suggested would be of better practice. What is this big secret? I’m talking about a BIRD BATH. Again, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, store bought or hand built, EVERY bird requires water and they ALL enjoy a cool pool of water to bathe, splash and hydrate. It’s much more enjoyable to watch a bird splash about in a shallow bird bath, than it is to watch them redundantly peck at seed. Trust me, they enjoy it much more as well. Put a bird bath on your lawn and you’ll see birds you’ve never seen visiting before. Wild Bird Crossing has several different bird baths on display in Bridgehampton. Stop by and tell them Dell sent you.

Screech owls are a small nocturnal species not often seen; however, put a bird bath out and your chances of seeing one will triple. These birds of prey LOVE bird baths, and will even appear during the day to take a quick splash, but dawn and dusk is more common. Bird baths are easier to keep clean and water is generally less expensive than bird seed. They can even be helpful during the winter, being a source of water even when frozen. And don’t be surprised if you see a squirrel, raccoon or even a deer taking a thirst quenching break at your bird bath. Add a small fountain to the bird bath and even more birds will hear the sounds and come to cool off and hydrate. During the summer months it’s best to keep the bird baths in the shade if you’re not using a circulator or fountain. This will keep the water somewhat cool and not too hot for the birds to bathe in. Surround it with plants or set it up next to a tree where the birds can perch, rest and dry. Just do yourself a favor and stay away from the food habit until late fall / early winter (when the leaves have all reached the ground). You will absolutely thank me in the end.

Summers almost over folks. Hope you enjoyed it. Please continue to remain safe and healthy and be considerate of others during this active pandemic. Be kind to each other and above all remember, WILDLIFE MATTERS.

~ Dell Cullum

Hampton Wildlife
Wildlife Rescue of East Hampton, Inc. – www.WROEH.org
844-SAV-WILD or 631-377-6555