Frances HamiltonShorter, cooler days turn birders' thoughts toward feeding neighborhood birds, but with prices zooming and our pockets emptying, we'd be wise to do some planning about the most effective, economical ways to enjoy bird feeding this winter.

Buying cheaper seed is not the answer. Cheap birdseed is seldom a bargain. Low-priced mixes are full of fillers that the birds don't eat, and bargain-basement "straight" seed is usually old and stale. It's more economical in the end to buy fresh, unmixed seed in bulk from a reputable feed store or wild bird store. I like black oilseed, Nyjer (thistle) and medium-cracked corn for winter feeding in appropriately designed feeders, with supplements of suet and/or peanut butter mixed with cornmeal for insect-eating birds. I store the bulk seed in galvanized garbage cans to keep out mice.

Long-term, the best method for attracting birds to our yards is landscaping with native plants that offer topnotch food and shelter. If you aren't already developing a natural landscape, start planning it now, and while you're waiting for the native plants to mature, use a planned scheme of feeders to lure birds.

Plenty of sources exist in books and on the Internet to help us design natural gardens. Your own computer or your public library can open these up to you.

Two stellar examples are provided by the National Wildlife Federation, which promotes Certified Wildlife Habitats, and by eNature.com, with comprehensive lists of desirable native plants and undesirable invasives. You can get much of the information you need without any fee. If you decide to register your habitat with NWF, you can do it for $15 and get even more information.

Start by visiting www.nation-alwildlife.org, scrolling to the bottom of the home page and clicking on the link about the habitats. A comprehensive list of useful native plants for Pennsylvania and other states-plus a list of plants to avoid-is available at www.enature.com/native_invasive.

For the short term, you'll want to use bird feeders, wisely and safely. The feeders don't have to be expensive but they should be sturdy, leak proof and easily cleaned. For your pleasure, feeders should be visible from your windows. And for the birds' safety, shrubbery or brush piles should be nearby so they can dive into shelter when hawks or cats threaten.

Studies by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology show that more than half the birds killed around houses die when they fly into windows, about one-third are killed by predators, mostly housecats, and the rest die of disease. To protect your birds, pay attention to all these threats by keeping feeders clean, trying to keep cats away and-the most difficult challenge-somehow dealing with the window-pane problem.

Birds don't understand glass or mirrors. They fly into window-panes for one of two reasons. Either they see reflections of trees and bushes in the glass and try to flee there for shelter from predators, or they see all the way through the glass-as in a room with windows on opposite walls-to actual trees and bushes on the other side and try to fly to them. Decals of hawks or spider-webs are often sold to scare birds away from glass, but these don't work very well.

At a particular home or business, there are usually one or two windows that are especially deadly to birds, perhaps because the windows are close to feeders or because of the direction they face. Those are the windows that need addressing. Researchers are looking for ways to make glass visible to birds without blocking people's view. Until technical answers are found, we can try several things to lessen the danger:

o Place feeders within three feet of windows so birds aren't flying fast when they strike the glass. You'll enjoy the birds up close, too.

o Stretch netting tightly outside windows-loose nets entangle birds-or hang old screens outside the windows.

o Hang strips of glittery stuff (foil, tinsel, black plastic, etc.) loosely outside the windows, to blow in the breeze and break up the reflections.

o Don't wash the windows. Dirty glass doesn't reflect as well. Which makes me wonder whether it would work to paint designs on the outside of the glass with the white shading compound used on greenhouses! Let's try it, shall weft

If you have suggestions or questions about feeding birds, please send them to me at birdlady@birdlady.com. Birdfeeding is a subject of interest for all of us, all winter.

Calendar

Events below are public, and free unless otherwise noted. Where trip leaders are named, please contact them to confirm arrangements, get directions and let them know you're planning to attend.

Saturday, Sept. 20: Fall at Fair Hill, half-day bird hike sponsored by Cecil Bird Club. Meet at 8 a.m. at Covered Bridge Parking Lot (from Route 273, take Appleton Road north about a mile, turn left on Black Bridge Road and drive about two miles). Parking fee is $3 for Maryland cars, $4 for others. Wear stout shoes. Leader, Ken Drier, kdrier@zoominternet.net.

Oct. 11: Hawk Watching Clinic, class offered 9 a.m. to noon by Delaware Nature Society at Ashland Nature Center, Hockessin. Teacher, Matt Sileo, coordinator for the Ashland hawk watch. Registration limited to 15 people. Cost is $21 ($15 for DNS members). To register, print out the form available at www.delawarenaturesociety.org/programs.html or call 302-239-2334.

Frances Hamilton has written about birds in Chester County since 1968. Contact her at birdlady@birdlady.com.

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