It's winter and most back-yard plants are dormant or not blooming. How do you attract birds to your yard now, let alone when spring comes?
Palo Alto Adult School Birding instructor Larry Spivak says besides feeders, a source of water and shelter will bring the birds.
"Feeders alone will not attract birds. Feeders properly placed in the yard will bring them in," he said.
"A fountain with water helps, but it must be cleaned every week to prohibit virus transmission from bird to bird."
Besides a feeder filled with homemade nectar, other sources of nectar in flowers will also help keep hummingbirds around. The most important thing is to have shelter near a feeder or a water source, such as trees, where the birds can hide.
In the wintertime, Spivak said, people often worry about preventing bird migration because there is a source of food handy in this area.
"Do not worry," he said. "Nectar to a hummingbird is a source of energy, not food. Their main source of food is insects. The seed eaters have many sources of food. Depending on a single source would be fatal. When their overall diet begins to fail, both natural and manmade, they will leave."
Palo Alto resident Candace Simpson, a master gardener with the UC Extension program, prefers to feed birds by "having plants they can use, rather than feeders."
"Salvias are my go-to plant for this purpose, though I also see (hummingbirds) in the citrus and sasanqua camellia blossoms. For seed eaters, I let flowers like cosmos, grasses, and occasionally veggies like lettuce go to seed."
Simpson's colleague, Sue Van Stee, who is also a master gardener, emphasizes the importance of water. In her front yard near two ponds and a very small stream between the ponds, she has suet dough feeders.
"The crowned sparrows that are here in the fall and winter particularly love the suet dough, but a diversity of birds visits throughout the year, and all of these birds forage on the ground so they are finding food there in addition to the suet dough."
If you opt for a bird feeder, follow Spivak's suggestions.
There are four basic backyard feeders, based on the type of food and the birds that are attracted to it.
The first one, nectar, is a basic hummingbird feeder. The most efficient are the ones that have a dish-like platform with flowers on the dish. The others are easily raided and emptied by squirrels or orioles.
The second type of food is Niger seed, a very small black seed that attracts goldfinches and a few other small birds. There are two types of feeders for this kind of food: one looks like a stocking and one is a mesh columnar tube.
The third type of feeder are straight seed feeders. Basically, the most important seed is a sunflower seed -- unsalted in the shell. They attract a large number of birds, mostly finches and chickadees, but are also the most troubled by squirrels. There is a large assortment of these available at retailers and the customer should have a discussion with a retailer about their particular habitat and desires for these feeders.
The last kind of feeder is "suet" or fat. These attract woodpeckers and many other birds. The basic feeder is a wire cage that encloses the hunk of suet and hangs from a tree.
Most feed can be store-bought, although it's easy to make nectar at home, using 1/3 cup granulated sugar for every 1 cup of water.
Spivak says Niger, seeds and suet should be purchased at a retail store with the following caveats: Don't buy mixed birdseed, only sunflower seeds. The majority of mixed seeds, Spivak said, are "junk" that birds do not eat in this area. The suet should be infused with hot pepper, which birds love but squirrels hate.
Squirrels are the biggest problem backyard feeders have, even with a simple nectar feeder. They are very clever at getting to feeders and can leap great distances from nearby trees. If there are many squirrels in the neighborhood, I would avoid the sock Niger feeder. They do not seem to be able to access the steel mesh feeders.
Once birds stop coming to the feeder, wait one or two weeks, empty it, clean it and wait for spring.
It's important to remember that birdseed is perishable. Store any open product in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight to prevent the seed from drying out and bugs from finding it.