Thom Smith: Wait on setting out bird feeders for winter


Q: We have taken down the hummingbird feeder. Is it time to put up the seed feeder? Or are the bears still active?

— Chris, Dalton, Mass.

A: If your soon-to-be-deployed seed feeder will be out of reach of bears, yes it is a good time; birds are making note of winter food sources. Some, like the black-capped chickadee will remember from last year. If your feeder is to be within reach of a bear, wait until wild food supplies dwindle and the bears settle in for a long winter's nap, which in recent years in this area has been mostly after Christmas.

Q: Is it a good idea to leave ornamental grasses until the spring to cut back? I never know!

— Peter K.

A: Leave until spring is the general rule as told me by more than one professional. Another reason is to provide food for hungry birds, and lastly, their ornamental value doesn't cease as they turn shades of gold. In spring, trim back and fertilize.

Q: Should we put out food for wild turkeys?

— A reader in Williamstown, Mass.

A: Mass Wildlife says, "The question of supplemental winter feeding has been debated, often passionately, for many years. While there are no absolute answers, and perhaps rare exceptions, the prevailing opinion now holds that winter feeding of turkeys is an unwise practice."

Vermont Fish and Wildlife says, "Never deliberately feed wild turkeys to attract them to your property or to keep them around. Wild turkeys are very mobile and can survive very well on available natural foods, and become conditioned to being fed and habituated to people are likely to cause other problems or become aggressive toward people. "


"After reading your column on Oct. 24 about the woolly bear caterpillar, I decided to share my folklore with you. The caterpillar has 13 segments or ripples on its body. Each segment represents each week of calendar winter, approximately Dec. 20 to March 20, or so. The black-colored segments mean snow, the orange/brown segments mean no snow. This was passed down from my mother's grandfather and so on. Believe it or not, its 99.99 percent accurate."

— John, Peru, Mass.

We will have to check this out. I personally think that even more interesting is this caterpillar freezes solid during the winter. First its heart stops beating, then its gut freezes, then its blood, followed by the rest of the body. It survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues. In the spring, it thaws out and emerges to either pupate or spend another year as a caterpillar.

Discouraging house sparrows

In our discussion on discouraging the house sparrow, starling and pigeon (Oct. 1), I wrote "By filling the feeder with black-oil sunflower seed or safflower seed, we can discourage all three."

Apparently, I had overlooked the few house sparrows that visited our feeders taking the occasional black-oil seed. Last winter we had very few, although this past summer they took up roosting in thick evergreen shrubs bordering the side of our yard nearest the bird feeders. Within minutes of filling one of my feeders this fall with black oil (sunflower seed) the chickadees found it, and following these prospectors, the flock of house sparrows that began eating the seed I had long assumed they didn't care for.

It has occurred to me there are few seeds that will discourage the house sparrow while attracting other birds. The answer then is not the choice of food, but the choice of a deterrent, and I believe I have found several ideas. Go to: for suggestions and information on a ready-made hoop device or another method easily made at home that may prove to be the answer.

Why discourage house, sometimes called English, sparrows? Besides their numbers, they can be destructive to native birds, competing with bluebirds and tree swallows for nesting sites (hollows in trees or nest boxes). They also are known to kill nesting birds. A few years ago, a house sparrow killed a mother bluebird incubating her eggs in a box on our property, for instance.

They are not related to our native, or true sparrows, but are weaver finches and were brought to this country in the 1850s and are now one of the most widespread birds having populated southern Canada, the continental United States, Mexico, Central America, and the eastern part of South America. We can say they are very adaptable, especially in urban, suburban and agricultural areas, but almost never far from human habitation. They reached their peak when farms were more widespread.

House sparrows have become quite tame in places like parks and outdoor dining spaces, where they sneak beneath picnic tables looking for crumbs or outright pester us enjoying the comfort of a park bench and a snack.

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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