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Can millions of backyard naturalists be wrong?

Yes, when it comes to bird feeding.

"The most common myth we hear these days is: We've got to stop feeding hummingbirds now, or they won't migrate," says Beaver Meadow naturalist Bill Michalek.

"Wrong. If anything, we tell them to keep the hummingbird feeders out until October, at least, so the birds coming from further north have something to eat on their way to South America."

The tiny ruby-throated hummingbird not only travels 2,000 to 3,000 miles to wintering grounds, it can fly as much as 500 miles non-stop, the naturalist said.

"Amazing -- for a bird that weighs about the same as a penny."

Backyard feeding, which is enjoyed by more Americans than any other nature-related activity, suffers from misconceptions, says Marilyn O'Connell, proprietor of the Wild Birds Unlimited franchise near McKinley Mall.

"The idea that you have to stop feeding birds in the fall or even in the summer because they'll be dependent on you and won't migrate is wrong. I wish it was that easy!" the avid birder said. But start feeding birds in the fall (as most folks do) and you must continue through the winter.

"Birds only get about 25 percent of their food from feeders," Michalek said. "But they do put your feeder on their route, and in very bad weather they may depend greatly on the feeders in their territory."

Except for Niger/thistle seed, which has seen three price increases since May, the world-wide cycle of bad weather should not affect seed prices yet, Mrs. O'Connell believes, although she bets "some seed companies will use that to raise prices." Corn will go up, but sunflower seed comes from the Dakotas and Nebraska, where they did not have a drought.

Which brings us to what to feed to attract various species.

Audubon has a list available in its gift shop where manager (and birding expert) Joyce Souter can help. It boils down to four major ingredients: Sunflower seed, white millet, peanuts (and peanut butter) and suet.

Black oil sunflower seed produces the most body heat, and attracts cardinals, blue jays, tufted titmouse, nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, goldfinches and house sparrows. White millet attracts juncos, white crowned sparrows and white throated sparrows (all of which will also eat cracked corn). These birds also allegedly clean up the hulls from oil seeds left by other birds. Peanuts attract many birds, especially woodpeckers, as does suet, and delight squirrels, too.

"I tell the beginner to start with a hopper feeder with a tray and a perch. It has room for both large and small birds," Mrs. O'Connell says. "But the average backyard feeder pretty soon has at least three or four feeders: A tube feeder, a suet feeder and a thistle feeder. Finches love that Niger seed."

Here are some tips I've gained from personal experience:

Don't buy cheap mixes. Either get quality mixes heavy in sunflower, millet and thistle or buy straight seed. Quality is cheaper in the long run because there is less waste.

If you don't want black seed hulls rotting your lawn after the snow melt, buy hulled sunflowers. These are striped sunflower, not black oil, but all birds seem to love them. Sunflower hearts or chips cost twice what whole seeds do, but are 100 percent food, so actually cheaper. Do the math: The shell makes up 60 percent of a sunflower's weight.

Provide water, especially in times of hard freeze. This requires a small immersion heater in the bird bath and adds pennies to the power bill. Birding supply stores have them.

Clean feeders regularly with a 10 percent solution of household bleach. Dirty feeders cause a variety of avian diseases, including some that blind birds, and the dust from dirty feeders can transmit pulmonary diseases to humans.

"Some people say to clean feeders weekly," says Mrs. O'Connell, an admitted slacker about this. "If folks did it monthly, or at least at the four seasons I'd be happy."

A giant bottle brush, a large, clean garbage can, a hose, household bleach and elbow grease, followed by careful rinsing and air-drying is all that's needed.

If you feed year-round, as many now do, look for seed sales and buy in bulk. I think I ran through 75 pounds of peanuts, 100 pounds of Niger/thistle seed and about 400 pounds of sunflower hearts since last October.

The payoff?

An ever-changing stream of interesting visitors outside my window as I read the Sunday paper.

Backyard feeding is the cheapest, most consistent way I know to bring nature close to home.

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