Be tidy, but not too tidy, in your autumn garden if you want to make friends with birds.

Our winged friends have been stocking up on seeds, fallen flower heads, as well as berries, nuts and old fruits. Birds also have been seeking out the bugs that have taken up residence under the fallen foliage. Overwintering birds thrive on these "natural" foods. They also seek out nesting material available in our gardens.

If you have been lucky enough to have a bird population in your garden, you should decide now whether you want to continue to feed them through the winter, particularly if you have lured them there in the first place with bird feeders. Birds that have been depending upon your feeder need it even more during the winter when wild foods such as seeds, fruits, nuts, insects and other invertebrates and small mammals are not available. Food is especially important in winter because birds have only short days to find enough food to keep them warm and alive during long, cold winter nights.

Fall brings the arrival of sparrows, juncos, towhees and thrushes - all birds that feed on or near the ground much of the time. Birds typically forage at more than 10 different sites daily. Once one bird finds your feeder, other birds will observe it feeding and come to see what's on the menu. It is typically less wasteful to provide only one type of food per feeder, rather than mixed birdseed. Birds feeding at feeders with mixed seed discard the seeds they do not want, while selecting their favorites.

The Wild Bird Shop in Cannon Beach has recommended sunflower seed for birds that feed from perches and millet or cracked corn for birds that feed on the ground. Aggressive birds, such as jays, might enjoy a treat, such as peanuts in the shell. Place the nuts on a flat surface, away from the feeder. Jays will be distracted by the peanuts and spend their time choosing the best nuts, while the feeder birds can concentrate on their seeds.

Here are some different kinds of feeds to offer:

• BLACK OIL SUNFLOWER SEED - According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one of the leading wild bird research centers in the country, black oil sunflower seed is the best seed to use to attract a diverse group of birds to your feeder, including chickadees, nuthatches, finches, grosbeaks, sparrows, blackbirds, jays and woodpeckers. Black oil seed is less expensive when purchased in quantity. Other seeds such as millet, rape seed and cracked corn will attract other species. You should store the seed in a tight, waterproof container.

• SUET CAKES - To attract insect eating birds such as woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches, offer suet in the wintertime. Studies have shown that these birds prefer plain, inexpensive beef suet to fancy commercial suet cakes with seed. Wire the suet to trees or place suet in mesh onion bags or wire baskets, or press them into holes in a small log.

• CRACKED CORN - Ground feeding birds like juncos, sparrows, towhees and mourning doves prefer cracked corn, scattered on the ground or placed on an elevated tray.

Some other tips:

• Do not feed birds spoiled leftovers, salty snack foods or sugary cereals.

• In rainy or wet conditions, use a feeder or area protected from the elements so the food stays dry.

• Do not build feeders out of plywood, as chickadees may eat the glue.

• Locate the feeder or food in a sheltered area, out of the prevailing wind, a few feet away from protective cover such as shrubbery. This allows birds to escape from marauding house cats.

Another welcome addition to the winter wild bird menu is water. Ponds, puddles and shorelines may freeze and resident birds might have a hard time finding drinking water, so a birdbath or artificial puddle is welcome. Containers should be shallow - from an inch-and-a-half to three inches deep - preferably with gently sloping sides. The surface of the bath or puddle should be rough so the birds can get sure footing. Cement is ideal.

Many birds are attracted to dripping water. You can hang a bucket full of water with a small hole in the bottom over a birdbath or shallow pan and watch the birds come by. Before you stock your bird feeder, take the time to clean it. Birds can pick up bacterial diseases such as salmonellosis, which can kill them quickly, or aspergillosis, a mold that grows on damp feed and causes an infection to spread into the bird's lungs.

To help prevent such diseases, give birds enough space to feed (this could mean adding another feeder if your garden is popular.) Clean your feeder and the perch area each time you refill it and disinfect the feeder once or twice a month with one part household bleach and nine parts water. Immerse the feeder for two or three minutes.

Cathy Peterson belongs the Clatsop County Master Gardener Association. "In the Garden" runs weekly in Coast Weekend. Please send comments or gardening news to "In the Garden," The Daily Astorian, P.O. Box 210, Astoria, OR 97103 or online to

You too can become a master gardenerIf you feel it's time to turn over a new gardening leaf, or shovelful of dirt, for that matter, you can do so by registering for the 2003 Master Gardener Class.

The class size is limited to the first 30 people to sign up for the sessions, which start Jan. 8 at Clatsop Community College. The classes will take place from 3 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on two Saturdays, through the winter term. The fee is $50, which includes publications, the MG Sustainable Gardening Handbook and class materials. To register, or for more information, call (503) 325-8573.


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