Bird Feeding – Alaskan Style

Appeared in Bird Watcher’s Digest Nov./Dec. '08


I’ve been feeding birds for 40 years. There isn’t any place I’ve lived, from south Florida beaches to Arizona suburbs and now Alaska, where I haven’t been able to practice my hobby. I did get a surprise, however, when I moved to Alaska. Formerly confident I was a bird-feeding expert, I had no idea that a bird-feeding learning curve awaited me here.

In Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau, Alaska’s largest cities – the songbirds are just as domesticated as any Lower 48 bird. Indeed, many have winter homes in California and Cancun, and they commute back and forth with the weather just like the human residents. However, there are certain considerations in how and when you feed birds in Alaska that aren’t usually an issue in, say, Los Angeles.

Even in the heart of Alaskan cities, you’ll find bears – both black and brown. They raid bird feeders as zealously as any gray squirrel, and like freeloaders everywhere, once they find a handout they go in search of more. Although they can be as determined as any small mammal in getting to what they want, bears don’t usually gnaw into your attic and mess with your wiring. They just push and rip their way into your garage to reach the bag of seed you stashed there.

Because of the difficulty in finding a pleasant response for all involved when an emergency call comes in about a habitual bird-feeder-raiding bear, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game suggests that feeders be hung well above a bear’s reach, taking into account that black bears can climb quite well. If the bears are too persistent, Fish & Game recommends putting out feeders only after November 1, when the bears have packed themselves off to their dens for the winter, and taking them down before mid-March, when the bears wake up.

Urban moose are also a problem in Alaska. When they aren’t grazing on your ornamentals and your vegetable garden, they will happily chow down on your birdseed. Finding a place to hand feeders that is both moose- and bear – proof – yet still easy to access for cleaning and refilling – can be a daunting task.

I live on a remote island in a tiny community of about 20 families. There are no moose or brown bears here – only black bears, but the dogs take care of any curious interlopers that dare to show their noses in the village. Because no one else was putting out seed feeders in the village when I moved here, I figured the local birds would welcome an offering of easy nutrition. I began with a single wooden hopper feeder filled with fresh mixed seed. Having no experience with such substances, however, the birds greeted my offering with instant suspicion. Not even a fox sparrow showed its beak on the feeder. The black-billed magpies, ever the opportunists, wouldn’t look at it sideways. The seed sat and molded.

I tried a more open setting: the top of an empty 55-gallon drum set out by the greenhouse. A couple of crows came and tossed around some seeds unenthusiastically, as if looking for something underneath the pile of grain. They soon lost interest and went off to the beach to peck at blue mussels. The seed on the barrel eventually turned into a hardened pancake and began to sprout.

I tried another tactic: I bought a cedar-wood and horseshoe-nail contraption on which you can attach half and orange or an apple. Perhaps the varied thrushes and the jays – and setting my sights high, maybe even the downy woodpecker I occasionally saw flitting through the trees – would appreciate a bit of fruit. After the season’s berry crop had fallen off the bushes, I hung the fruit from the willow outside the kitchen window and kept watch as I did the dishes to see who would be the first taker. The orange I sacrificed for the cause sat untouched for so long it mummified.

I rendered suet from moose fat and bacon grease, added some sunflower seeds, and poured the concoction into small custard molds and placed them in the freezer to make cakes. When the outside temperatures hit the teens in February and there was 10 feet of snow on the ground, I put out the suet on the horseshoe nail, tossing the hardened remains of the orange over my shoulder into the bushes. I just knew I was going to get some takers. In May it got warm enough for the suet to finally fall off the nail; I think a porcupine might have eaten it.

I gave up on seed feeders when I discovered my best resource for attracting birds was my compost pile. Because of our cool, wet environment and my lackadaisical approach to composting, the food waste doesn’t decompose quickly and the bins are filled with worms, fruit flies, eggshells, fruit and vegetable peelings and fish bones. As soon as I head towards the backyard with my compost pail in hand, the sentinels that perch in advantageous locations throughout the village sound the dinner alarm. The crows start dropping down into the bushes behind me as I leave the latest offerings for them.

An occasional hungry raven uses its larger size to intimidate the crowd, muscling its way in to pick over the choice pieces. Jays and magpies hover on the fringes, peeking from the spruce boughs and the overhanging blueberry bushes, ready to dart out and grab an overlooked morsel. The fox and song sparrows come to look for stray vegetable seeds after the feeding frenzy has calmed.

The most impressive show comes in late winter after we’ve had a successful fishing trip for halibut. After we clean the big fish, we leave the remains in the meadow behind the house. With great screeches and clarion calls, bald eagles come in to take possession of the carcass. Landing with head lowered and wings held high, the huge raptors skip across the snow on yellow legs loaded with daggers, intimidating each other like a pack of wolves, jostling for position. The ravens and crows ring the combatants, pushing each other and ready for some action at the first opening.

We feed the eagles only in late winter, when everyone is having a rough time waiting for spring; birds and bird watchers alike get a boost from the spectacle. If we fed them continually, we would concentrate the local population of birds, which has the potential to spread disease and parasites, and foster dependence on a false food source.

Although the bald eagle is not listed as endangered in Alaska, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service still has ultimate jurisdiction over eagles here. It has deferred to the State of Alaska, however, regarding eagle feeding. The state subsequently decided to allow local governments to make their own judgments.

On the end of the Kenai Peninsula, the city of Homer is home to the renowned “Eagle Lady.” Jean Keene spends considerable money and effort each winter feeding the hordes of raptors and corvids on the Homer Spit – to the delight of tourists and photographers, and the annoyance of the locals who have to put up with the influx of birds and their messes. After a hot debate and lots of letters to the editor in the local newspaper, the Homer City Council reached a compromise and passed a general ordinance against feeding eagles, but it granted a waiver to Ms. Keene to allow her to continue feeding them until April 2010.

The real treat of bird feeding in south-central Alaska occurs in spring. In early May, even before all the snow has melted, rufous hummingbirds arrive like explosions of joy. The north gulf coast of Alaska is the farthest north they are known to nest, and the birds are ravenously hungry after their long flight from Mexico.

The hummingbirds begin to fledge their young in late June, and by July almost everyone in the village will hang two or more feeders to keep up with the growing populations. Sugar is in short supply. I ration the birds’ intake and fill my pair of big glass cylinder feeders only once a day. Every aperture on them is full, with more hummers waiting in line to drink. The territorial males zoom back and forth issuing their squeaky challenges and chasing away all but a few females and young. When August arrives, the activity stops. The hummingbirds disappear as suddenly as they appeared, even before the last of the fireweed blossoms begin to fade from their stalks and begin to release their fluffy seeds.

The hummingbird feeders are cleaned and stored with the gardening trays and potting soil. Fall is announced with the funny whistling call of white-fronted geese high overhead. Leaning on my rake, I look up to see their broad wings sailing across the Sound, each bird lined up behind the other in a crooked V. I return to cleaning up the crow-scattered cabbage leaves, eggshells and onion peels, tossing them back into the compost bin. This winter I think I will try to coax the jays to take food from my hand.