Gardening From Alaska
by Jeff Lowenfels
by Jeff Lowenfels


Jeff is the Past President of the Garden Writers of America, a columnist with the Anchorage Daily News, Host Alaska Gardens and Supporter of Plant a Row.

November 10, 2002

For years I’ve written an annual column on feeding birds, in part, because I’ve always thought it was important for gardeners to have birds in their yards and in part because bird feeding doesn’t seem to fall into any other Daily News column writer’s jurisdiction.

Right off the bat, I have to tell you that my reasons for feeding our feathered friends have changed with the advent of Scientific Gardening.

Sure it is important to feed the birds in the winter as an inducement to them stick around in the spring and summer and eat some of the insects that prey on our plants. And if you are having problems finding a place to hang a feeder, that should be some inducement to you to plant a few trees. Both are reason enough for me to write about feeding birds.

However, it turns out that birds also play an extremely important function in the soil foodweb: When a bird touches the ground, they inadvertently leave microscopic protozoa. Similarly, bird guano contains microorganisms that help decay materials and add nutrients to the soils. The protozoa, in particular, eat bacteria and fungi releasing the nutrients they contain in a form that is useable by plants be they trees, shrubs, perennials, grass or annuals. So, if the standard rationale for feeding birds hasn’t caught your attention in the past, perhaps knowing that birds actually serve a positive function in providing nutrients for plants might help.

Something else is different this year. The weather has been so warm that there are still at least half a dozen problem bears wandering around parts of town. While this week is the traditional time to put feeders out, Fish and Game has advised that those living in areas where bears traditionally roam in search of feeders hold off for at least a week or two.

Specifically, if you live in the Kincaid area, the Hillside, East Anchorage or Eagle River do not put your feeders up yet. The good folks (great folks, actually) at Fish and Game will notify me when it is safe and I will pass this information on to you. They assure me that even if we don’t have snow or freezing weather, eventually the dark and lack of food will cause wandering bears to go to their dens for the winter.

I can tell you from personal experience that this is a warning worth following. Bears are not always “gentle” with feeders and can destroy them with nary a thought of how inconsiderate such damage can be. And, once they get a taste of good seed…..well, you already know how addictive sunflower seeds can be.

Actually, most folks who have feeders have discovered that the birds, just like bears, are extremely partial to sunflower seeds. You can buy the cheaper, millet based seed, but if your neighbors are offering sunflower seeds, you probably won’t have too much activity at your feeders. Personally, I recommend you use hull-less sunflower seed. The hulls contain chemicals that kill grass where they fall. At the very least you will want to clean up hulls before the grass greens up again next spring.

Even if you only use one kind of seed, you will attract different kinds of birds by putting more than one feeder up if you put them in different “habitats.” We have one feeder on a pulley system that allows placement in a tree two stories high and get completely different kinds of birds feeding there than we do with those that are closer to the ground. Another is hung under a spruce tree that provides some cover from magpies, owls and hawks that are not interested in eating seed, but rather the small songbirds that do.

Consider, too, different size feeders to attract different size birds. Some have covers that are adjustable so that you can limit the size of the birds that can eat out of them.

In addition to putting out at least one feeder using seed, consider at least one suet feeder and one peanut butter feeder. These attract different kinds of birds that may not come to other foods. Woodpeckers and titmouse in particular are partial to suet and fascinating to watch.

Finally, most binoculars don’t focus up close. Take this into consideration when you place your feeders as you may want to put them just within range of your binoculars capabilities so that you can get a, pardon me, bird’s eye view of them.

Jeff’s Alaska Gardening Calendar for the week



  • New Eden
  • Kids Garden
  • Plant a Row Grow a Row