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Good Natured in St. Charles: Hanging a bird feeder is like throwing a party

If Santa brought you a bird feeder this year, you might be breathing a sigh of relief right about now. They are, after all, pretty simple, right? No indecipherable owners manual; no desperate calls to tech support. Shoot, most don’t even need batteries.

All you have to do is get some seeds or suet – and woo-hoo! Let the party begin.

But is it really that easy?

It’s true – in fact, we’ve said it many times before – hanging a bird feeder is like throwing a party. Keep in mind though, you’ll have no control over the guest list. Despite the colorful cardinals and cheery chickadees that decorate the seed package, you might find your feeding station inundated with house sparrows or other hoggish imports. That succulent suet cake may be just as irresistible to a squirrel or raccoon as it is to the woodpecker for which it’s intended.

The good news is that there are certain things you can do to, if not control, at least influence who comes to feed on your seeds. And you don’t have to hire a feathered bouncer to do it.

The first step you can take actually begins not at the feeder, but at the feed store.

You know how at the butcher shop you can choose between the bargain cuts, all fatty and gristly, and the prime ones? It’s the same with birdseed. Some seed mixes are loaded not with fat and gristle but with “filler” grains that most birds want nothing to do with. Milo, for example, is a bulky seed with little nutritional value. It’s cheap to produce though, and it takes up lots of space, so you’ll find it in quantity in many inexpensive birdseed mixes.

Although some birds, like doves, pheasants and wild turkeys, seem to actually enjoy milo, most songbirds shun it with a kick to the ground. There it sits, attracting the attention of starlings, rodents and other party-poopers. If you don’t like these guys at your feeders, spend a little bit more on your seed; get the tender filet instead of the chewy shoe leather.

One seed you can’t go wrong with is black oil sunflower. A 50-pound bag might set you back $40 or more (less if you find a sale), but you’ll be rewarded with visits from all sorts of delightful guests – chickadees, nuthatches, finches and woodpeckers, to name a few.

It’s true, black oil sunflower seeds are popular not only with birds, but also mammals – particularly squirrels. If you would rather not have squirrels come to your party, try swapping sunflower seeds for safflower. Squirrels don’t care for it, but many songbirds do, as long as it is introduced gradually. Just as you would be suspicious if your favorite restaurant switched menus overnight, so too are birds.

Another common method of deterring squirrels has been to add ground cayenne pepper to the seeds. In a word: Don’t. The powdery hot stuff will indeed turn squirrels away, but it also can irritate the eyes and nasal passages of birds and any other creatures, including pets, that might like to sniff among seeds on the ground. Good party hosts don’t spatter their guests with pepper spray, and neither should you.

Getting back to the bill of fare, another must-have at the birdseed buffet – especially in winter – is suet cakes. Packed with high-calorie fat, these blocks provide the energy birds need to survive winter’s extreme temperatures.

Perhaps the most important aspect of hosting a bird buffet is also the least glamorous; in fact, it’s the bird-feeding equivalent of working the dish room at a banquet hall. But it’s absolutely essential that you sanitize your feeders at least once every two weeks. Use a solution of one part bleach to nine parts hot water, and let the feeders air dry to complete the disinfecting process.

One final tip addresses the timing of your party. The species of birds that come to feeders are diurnal, or active during daylight hours. Yet some of our area’s biggest party crashers – namely raccoons, opossums and deer – drop by in the evening or overnight hours.

So, if you’re finding your feeders are a mess come morning, do the easy thing and take them down at dusk. Place them in a metal box or trash can (which also is great for storing birdseed bought in quantity) and bungee the lid or weigh it down with a brick or two. Ta-da! The problem of midnight feeder marauders is solved.

Just be sure to hang the feeders back up again the next day, so the party can begin once again.

• Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.