For Bill Gordon, founder of High Adventure Wilderness School in Stanton, Kentucky, decking the halls is more about providing food and shelter for winter’s creatures than impressing the neighbors. Actually, I’m pretty sure there’s more than a country mile between “Wild” Bill and his nearest neighbor.
Today we get a brilliant bird’s eye view into how this lifelong naturalist celebrates the season.
Winter Wilderness Wanderings
by “Wild” Bill Gordon
One of the great joys of owning a rural homestead is being able to watch birds. They provide an endless show right outside your window, and will create a lifelong hobby for you as well as an educational pursuit for all ages. Since Christmas is a time for giving, why not include your feathered friends along with your family loved ones, pets, and friends?
Here are some tips to make the season memorable for your backyard birds, and give your family some meaningful craft and conservation projects in the winter season.
Birds Love “Recycled” Christmas Trees
Start by “planting” some Christmas trees in the area around your bird feeding station. In the week or two after Christmas, take a drive…or walk…around your neighborhood and look for Christmas trees that people set out for disposal. Look for trees where the needles are still firmly attached and have a healthy green color (and depending on specie will still have that wonderful “evergreen” scent).
I collect several each year, besides recycling our own personal Christmas tree. These are arranged in a loose clump around the bird feeding station in a realistic pattern. If you have nearby yard trees, fasten a Christmas tree to the trunk with a bungee cord or twine. You may have to trim out a few branches on one side to allow the Christmas tree to stand upright against the trunk, making it look more natural. The cut trunk end of the Christmas tree will be resting directly on the wet earth, and it will pull enough moisture to stay fresh and green all winter.
If you don’t have any convenient trees nearby, pound a four foot stake into the ground, and fasten the Christmas tree to this stake for upright support. When you get the recycled trees “planted,” take a look from the window you normally watch the birds. The trees should look as if you have nice little evergreens growing right in your yard, natural in setting and not interfering with your view of the feeder. I generally place a couple behind the feeder area, and one or two on each side.
Trimmed Christmas trees are dense and full, providing your birds with ample cover to escape an attack from a local Coopers Hawk when need be, and will also become a favorite night roost for birds like the very attractive Song Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows. Also, because the bottom foot of branches has been trimmed off to accommodate placement in a tree stand, there will be a sheltered feeding space directly under the trees for your ground-feeding birds.
I scatter a couple handfuls of mixed seed under each tree whenever I am filling feeders. Once you have your trees in place just where you want them, the real fun begins…decorating the trees for the birds. Select your favorite one as a Feeder Tree, or decorate them all! I generally do not put out any decorations that are not edible in some way.
Wild Bill’s Edible Decorations
Do you make popcorn or cranberry garlands for your Christmas tree? Save them to put outside on your Feeder Trees. If you don’t, they are easy to make. With a long piece of thread and needle, string up cranberries or unsalted popped popcorn. Make sure to butter, salt, or spice up a separate bowl of popcorn to place on the table, or you’ll eat too much of the garland before it gets outdoors.
In the past I have put out popcorn garlands, only to watch them hang on the tree until spring untouched by the birds. And then I discovered the secret. Get a jar of the cheapest peanut butter you can buy, or a tub of lard from the grocery store. What you want to do is spread some along the popcorn garland. Then roll the garland on a flat tray spread with mixed bird seed or Black Oil Sunflower seeds.
Your kids will love getting their hands messy doing this, while you hold the ends of the garland. Immediately take it to the outside Feeder Tree and arrange by draping along the branches. Cranberry garlands do not need coating. Once the fruit-eaters find them, they will begin pecking at the berries.
Take a piece of 6” – 10” florist wire or other fine wire and make it straight. Bend a hook on one end patterned like the hooks on your indoor ornaments to hang on the tree branches. Push mini marshmallows onto the wire, keeping an inch free at the hook end. When the wire is full down to the bottom inch, bend the wire back over the last couple marshies and twist once. Then follow the same process of coating with lard and seeds. You can vary colors by using different ingredients.
Pine cones come in all shapes and sizes. I like to drill a small pilot hole in the stem end center and fasten in a tiny screw eye for hanging with a loop of string. I think this looks neater. You can also tie a piece of string or yarn to the cone tip, form a loop and tie it off, then hang the loop over the end of a convenient branch tip.
Take your pine cone and spread it with peanut butter or lard as you would ice a cake. Then roll the coated cone in seed mix and hang on the tree. You can also mix seed with peanut butter forming a soft seed-filled dough and spread this on the cones.
Be on the lookout for ornaments on clearance sale after Christmas. They can easily be coated the same way as pine cones. I especially like to find large plastic tree balls, the bigger the better. I use a cordless drill and saber saw to cut three inch holes in two or three places. Hang these on the outdoor Feeder Trees, and pour seed into the holes. Chickadees and Titmice will readily dive into the miniature feeding stations for a meal.
Save a few cans instead of throwing them in the recycling bin. Take a tuna can and punch two holes one half inch apart in the bottom. Loop a string or wire through the holes and attach to the top side of a horizontal branch. The can will make a miniature feeding tray when filled with seed.
A soup or vegetable can makes a neat barrel feeder when you punch two holes in the side, one near the top and one near the bottom. Loop your string through and hang on its side, then put in a handful of seed. Let the kids paint the cans, and make sure they are placed so your children can reach to fill them. Plastic screw-on jar lids will also make nice little tray feeders to fasten onto the branches.
Make a simple cookie dough using half corn meal and half AP flour with some lard, and mix in as much bird seed as you can to make a stiff dough. Pat or roll out 1/ 4” thick onto a piece of waxed paper, and use your holiday cookie cutters to make shapes. Take a knotted six inch loop of string and lay the knotted end over a cookie. Then take a second cookie and place it over the first, gently press them together, with the knotted end of string now buried in the middle of the cookie. Place on a baking sheet and bake at 350 until firm. You can decorate these cookies with a variety of seeds, nuts, raisins, cranberries, or chopped fruit. Be creative and have fun.
I wish you all a very peaceful and joyous Holiday Season. I hope you all get to spend time with family and friends, and to reflect on the real meaning for the season. Take time to be alone, to share, to dream, and to love.