Thursday, January 19, 2012

Winter Bird Feeding

Tree felled by hurricane Irene in August.
We always have so much fun feeding our feathered friends. Our weather this year has been so unusual -- a hurricane shut down Connecticut for a week in early September, then a fluke snowstorm at the end of October put the brakes on fall before the leaves had even thought about changing color.  All this, followed by one of the warmest autumns we have seen in years. The week after the New Year began, we were all gathered around a bonfire for an evening of outside fun -- in sweatshirts!

But, this IS New England, and into every year a little winter must fall. The weatherman was predicting a turn in the weather, so we spent last weekend making sure that all our feeders were well-stocked. And we decided to make some pine cone feeders as a Sunday project.

First step... find some pine cones!
We headed out for a little hike to find the materials for our project before lunch. This was a nice time to talk a little about plant identification, and enjoy a crisp January day.

While I readied my camera (can't leave home without it!) and backpack, the youngest hiking partner headed out to find pine cones. He came back, dejected, to say that all he could find was a little one (which was actually a hemlock cone).

We walked into the woods, and I showed my son a seedling pine (below). Of course, it would have no cones, but what it told us was that there was a mature pine somewhere nearby. So onward we looked.

Many people call all evergreen, needle-bearing trees, "pines."  However, for a pine cone feeder, other large cones simply won't do. So it is important to know what to look for (or just go to Wal-Mart and buy a bag of pine cones -- but what's the fun in that?).

We didn't have to walk very far before we saw...


Pinus strobus,  Eastern White Pine

Pines can be much larger than this tree, but, compared to the rest of the woodlot, this tree was a monster. And it was the only pine as far as the eye could see. So we deduced that all the baby pines we had seen on the forest floor were all the offspring of this tree.
In the forestry industry, in a stand of trees of the same species, there are often giant, very fertile individuals that sometimes tower above the rest of the woodlot. These are referred to as wolf trees, and are often used as seed sources. This pine reminded me of a wolf tree, but it was really the only pine in the stand. We hiked to the base to look for cones, knowing that any cones still on the tree would be very high up, out of reach. 

White Pine cones

We were in luck -- there were hundreds of them. We chose cones that had their scales open (you'll see why when we get to the cooking part).  We inspected the white pine we had found, and talked about how the bald eagles in Maine prefer white pines for nesting, as they tower above the other trees and offer a sturdy set of branches for their huge nests. Have you ever seen a bald eagle's nest? It is truly an immense structure. Put it on your "bucket list."
Pine identification
Do you know how to identify a white pine? It's really quite simple. 

Pines are classified as 2-needle pines, 3-needle pines and 5-needle pines. If you look closely at a pine branch, you will see that the needles grow in clusters, with a brown, papery "sleeve" at the base of the cluster. If you pull the needles close together, they will fit close together, and form a cylindrical "tube", which, long, long ago, was the actual leaf of the pine. Over time, the trees evolved and the leaves split into needles of various configurations, but all held together by that papery sleeve.

White pine needles in 5's
White pines are a 5-needle pine, which means their needles are bundled together in groups of 5. There aren't many native 5-needle pines in the East, so this helps us narrow down the field a bit. What's more, white pine needles are fine and soft, and seem to flow off the branch -- they don't stand out stiffly as some others do.

Here is a photo comparing the hemlocks which vexed our son so, next to a seedling pine. The pine is at the right, center. Hemlock cones are only about 1/2 inch long, so they wouldn't really work for our purposes, but they make cute additions to potpourri (that's for another day...)

We filled our bag with cones, and headed back to let the frost thaw off them while we had a bowl of hot vegetable soup and a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. Then it was on to...
Pine cone bird feeder time!
I hope you cook at home with your kids. There is so much to learn by cooking, you use all your five senses,  you talk to one another, and learn a life skill. AND you can eat what you make (usually). Before you say, "Not this time," I have to tell you that I once ground my own beef fat with dried cranberries, bird seed, peanuts and raisins, to make my own suet cakes. We used a big stainless steel sausage grinder, and my eldest son and I took turns grinding. While I went to get the containers to freeze the suet cakes in, my little one sampled the beef suet!

  • large pine cones
  • peanut butter (smooth or chunky)
  • lard or shortening
  • bird seed
  • string
  • a medium saucepan and wooden spoon
  • a cookie sheet and waxed paper
Scoop peanut butter into the saucepan (we used about 1/2 cup for 6 pine cones). Add about 1/4 cup of lard or vegetable shortening (if your winter isn't below freezing, use lard, as the vegetable shortening will melt from the feeders and be messy). When the peanut butter mixture is melted (be careful not to scorch it), add about 1 cup of bird seed. (We used mixed milo and black oil seed, but any mix will do). Let the mixture cool until the peanut butter is back to spreadable consistency. 

  When the peanut butter mixture is cool, spread it onto the pine cones, pushing the mixture under the scales of the cone (this is why we wanted cones with the scales all the way open). I used my fingers, but my son wasn't fond of the feeling of the peanut butter on his hands, so he used a plastic knife.

Continue spreading until you have filled all your pine cones. If you want, roll the finished cones in additional bird seed to cover (we didn't think about this until after we finished).

Carefully tie string between the scales near the stem end of the cone (don't just tie around the stem, as the string will slide off -- use the last scales as a "hook" for the string).

Place your pine cone feeders on the cookie sheets (lined with waxed paper) to dry a bit.

To make them easier to handle, we placed our cookie sheet on the patio table, so the peanut butter would freeze. My son worried that the birds would eat them -- then we kind of laughed about this, since that was, in fact, the point of it all!

We tied our feeders to the trees, creating little S-hooks out of paper clips, and placing the feeders all around the bottom branches of a tree where we hung our other feeders. 

A Migrating Surprise!

Monday, the weather was unsettled, warming up strangely before a mighty wind rushed in. There was a winter storm brewing for Monday evening, and the wildlife was preparing. About mid-day, I noticed that the cats and dog were lined up, eagerly observing something outside. When I went to see what they were spying on, I saw...


There was about a dozen of them, on the pine cone feeders, on the suet basket, under the feeders... One even flew within a foot of the excited pets, to pick up some dropped seeds right by the sliding door.  They stayed all afternoon, feasting with the chickadees, juncos and titmouses.

The next day, we had three inches of snow. Not much by New England standards, but probably enough for the bluebirds to say, "You know, I think it's time to get moving." By Tuesday, the juncos and chickadees ate without their blue friends.
Follow-up Possibilities
If you haven't checked out our unit on thrushes, Bird Migration: A Study of Robins and Other Thrushes, please do -- it offers the possibility of a year-long study of migration and a host of other topics.

The Handbook of Nature Study website always has timely nature study activities -- Barbara has been posting a lot on winter feeder birds -- check out her website frequently.

We continue to read the Burgess Bird Book for Children -- we downloaded it to the Nook Color, which is very exciting to our tech savvy 8-year-old. You can also read it online, for free, via the Baldwin Project. You can read it from cover to cover, as we are doing, or you can read just the chapters on thrushes: 
We are enjoying exploring our woods, and we have a number of evergreen plants to observe: pines, hemlocks, mountain-laurel, princess pine, partridgeberry, wintergreen, and some really hardy ferns that aren't really evergreen, but try hard to be! We will probably do some reading in the Handbook of Nature Study, on one of our local evergreen plants.

We were sad to hear that our favorite Bird Stack birdwatching site is closing down. We want to continue to take data on our bird feeder friends. Here are some options we might choose from:

  1. Project FeederWatch's tally sheets - great data on weather and birds, even if you are not participating in the study (but DO! -- it's fun)
  2. The Great Backyard Bird Count 2012 - officially February 17-20, but the form could be used any time. If you haven't ever participated, DO!
  3. The Notebooking Treasury has a bundled set of notebooking pages, Nature Study: Birds - Complete Set, with a page for just about any bird study you would want to do on any bird you'd like to study.

Do you have a preschooler or kindergartner at home? Take a look at our web page on Building a Snowman -- a great integrated unit for the classroom teacher, as well.

Stay tuned for our next blog, to see where we take our birdwatching and nature study endeavors...