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Blane Klemek column: Feeding birds benefits humans, too

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outdoors Bemidji, 56619
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I've been gone so much from my home over the past month and a half that I sort of forgot about my fine feathered friends.

Poor things; I haven't filled my birdfeeders in such a long time that they've probably left for good. Indeed, it's time to remedy the situation and buy another 50-pound bag of black-oil sunflower seeds. After all, 'tis the season of Thanksgiving!

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Though many people feed wild birds throughout the year, some folks opt out of year-around feeding in exchange of only attracting birds during the long and cold Minnesota winters. And that's okay. Anytime is a good time to feed birds. Feeding birds is a great hobby that quickly becomes a genuine passion for many people.

Backyard bird feeding is a fabulous way to learn about nature. I have discovered that children's interest in the natural world often begins by observing birds and other wildlife gorging themselves on birdseed, suet, sweetened water, jelly, orange slices and other offerings I've placed outside my home. Feeding and watching wild birds is an activity that young children can easily participate in and enjoy.

As well, feeding birds gives people marvelous opportunities to do more than just watch them. Birds perched on feeders and other nearby perches provides unlimited subjects for photography, art, and study. Observing birds is an experience that soothes and warms the soul on the coldest of days.

Truly, the pleasures of observing wildlife and the therapeutic benefits realized has not gone unnoticed by administrators of retirement homes and hospitals, not to mention for school classrooms and places of employment. Feeding and watching birds is an activity anyone can benefit from.

As an industry, bird feeding is big business. And it's local, too. One of the most popular and common birdseeds sold in North America is the black oil sunflower seed, much of which is grown by farmers in and around the Red River valley. Nationally, bird feeding enthusiasts spend more than $2 billion a year on bird feeding expenditures, not including several hundred million dollars per year shelled out for bird feeders and nesting boxes.

In a study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture in 1991, it was estimated that over 75 million pounds of wild birdseed was sold that year to Minnesotans. The figure, though large, was conservative because it did not include un-mixed sunflower seeds or bags of seed weighing less than 10 pounds.

Birdseed companies, store chains, and mom-and-pop shops catering exclusively to bird lovers' demands for bird food and accessories help to pump millions of dollars each year into Minnesota's economy.

Obviously, all of this fuss is intended to attract our wild avian friends to our backyards and windows. And despite Minnesota's snowy months, species of birds and other wildlife that flock to our wintertime feeders are surprisingly numerous.

Downy and hairy woodpeckers are common woodpeckers that visit both seed and suet feeders. Flocks of common redpolls and pine siskins, pine and evening grosbeaks, and red-winged crossbills and white-winged crossbills might be locally abundant in some parts, while ever-present black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches are familiar and reliable visitors to most feeders.

Other wintertime birds that may appear in your backyard include the gray jay, pileated woodpecker, black-billed magpie, blue jay, purple finch and sometimes even the American goldfinch. And, depending on your home's location, squirrels such as gray, fox, red and flying will more than likely find your offerings as well. Other critters that are often drawn to bird feeding stations are birds of prey such as sharp-shinned hawks and owls, in addition to mammalian predators like weasels, fishers and pine martens.

Another thing that I always like to mention to people who feed birds is the fun of feeding suet (animal fat and tallow). Woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and other birds, relish this protein-packed food source. Inexpensive suet cakes of many kinds can be purchased in most stores that sell birdseed. Better yet, use the real stuff from processed livestock or venison. Grocery stores often stock fresh suet in their meat sections.

Wild birds at my house typically get a whole year's supply of suet following every deer-hunting season. I always save venison fat from the butchering process, cut it into manageable chunks and store it in the freezer for later use. Onion sacks and wire mesh suet feeders work wonderfully to contain suet, and it's fun to watch birds hanging upside down as they feed.

Feeding birds is, after all, for the birds. But it's for us, too. From toddlers to seniors, any and all can gain untold hours of contentment by simply filling a bird feeder, sitting back and watching the show as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

And by the way, if any of you are interested in taking part in this year's National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count (CBC), a CBC Circle is nearer to you than you might know. CBC participants will be gathering soon in Bemidji, Itasca State Park and Crookston for fun-filled birding and camaraderie.

For registration information and details, contact Bemidji CBC co-coordinator Kelly Larson at 218-694-6029; Itasca State Park compiler Douglas Johnson at dougjohn@lsnmlaw.org; or Crookston CBC compiler Tom Feiro at 218-281-5515. You can also learn more about the CBC online at http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc .

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Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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