When fall's brilliant foliage fades into winter, often the only color and sound in the backyard come from birds that have the fortitude to endure the season. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned bird lovers may decrease these birds' chances of making it through the winter -- by feeding them.
``Feeding birds may cause more harm than good,'' warns Robert Arbib of the National Audubon Society. ``Winter residents, such as juncos and finches, stay in relatively confined areas, establish food-searching patterns, and need enough food just before nightfall to retain a high rate of body metabolism. If they miss an expected handout which they are accustomed to, they may not survive the cold winter night.''
The Audubon executive warns that an easily accessible artificial food supply can lure many birds from their natural habitat to one that makes them more dependent on humans.
And there's more to feeding birds than merely tossing out a few bread crumbs once or twice a week. Don't start a feeding program in the fall unless you plan to continue daily until winter's end, or whenever cold spells in your area cease to threaten bird survival.
What should you do if you don't plan to be at home for a few days? You can provide for your absence by attaching a well-stocked feeder hopper to your regular feeder station. These hoppers provide a steady stream of seeds and are not easily ransacked by squirrels or more aggressive birds.
But overfeeding can attract undesirable species -- such as sparrows, pigeons, starlings, and grackles -- that show up at the feeder only to crowd out and intimidate the more attractive species.
How can the home gardener and bird lover discriminate by feeding the birds selectively?
``The idea is to attract certain species,'' Mr. Arbib asserts, ``and the way to succeed is to offer specific food at specific times of season. Provide feed in later winter when bird food is usually scarce, and run the feeding into early spring before the plants are budding to encourage birds to build nests. The solution is to select the proper nourishment.''
Suet in a meshed bag hanging from a limb or fixed to a tree trunk attracts chickadees, woodpeckers, catbirds, mockingbirds, and nuthatches, yet discourages sparrows, the society reports.
Starlings and grackles need a perch and may be outwitted by the wire or tree trunk where the suet is suspended or fastened. Cardinals, goldfinches, grosbeaks, and juncos like sunflower seeds. You might also try millet, buckwheat, and finely cracked corn. And fatty, high-energy foods such as beef suet and peanut butter will help songbirds survive. But always add cornmeal or suet to peanut butter to prevent birds from clogging their mandibles. Straight peanut butter can cause birds to starve when they cannot open or use their beaks for continued feeding.
Haphazard scattering of food on the ground only invites mice and squirrels and makes birds vulnerable to cats. A feeder four to five feet above the ground works well. Place your feeder on the south side of the house for protection from winter winds, and try to keep feeders away from fences and trees where predators can easily attack feeding birds. A better place is within 20 feet of protecting shrubbery so birds can find and quickly escape to a refuge in case of attack.
The National Audubon Society further reports that non-migratory birds in the North find many unusual forms of food, especially during a winter residency. Seemingly barren fields and snow- and ice-covered lands offer sumac, hawthorn, and hackberry feed, as well as certain trees such as spruce, oak, mountain ash, aspen, and, in particular, birch -- all of which enticingly offer seeds all winter.
A source of water is another attraction for songbirds. A pedestal-type bath or shallow tray for drinking and bathing is excellent for warblers, thrushes, and finches.
The welfare of any species, of course, depends upon having the right kind of place for birds to live. When a home gardener sets aside a part of the yard as a place for birds by planting trees and shrubs, that location surely becomes a wildlife sanctuary.
``Planting such trees as flowering dogwoods and fruit- and berry-bearing trees will supply some winter food,'' Arbib says.
Also include such bushes as black elderberry, viburnum, cotoneaster, bayberry, inkberry, fake bittersweet, and red or black chokeberry.
The idea is to plant these bushes close together, because birds enjoy darting in and out of the brambles of foliage, gleaning insects and frolicking away the hours among the twigs and leaves. This natural cover and vegetation help birds reproduce and raise their young. The cover you plan should protect them from the weather and predators.
You'll find that bird houses are good substitutes for a lack of tall trees. Those birds preferring holes in trees -- such as woodpeckers, wrens, and swallows -- could be attracted to nesting boxes measuring six to 10 inches and about six inches tall with a round 1-inch entrance hole. Try to place the box about eight to 10 feet off the ground, and make sure you put it up just before the end of winter for bird inspection.
Don't forget that birds can be fussy, too. Many home gardeners try to capture the attention of purple martins because of this swallow's ability to gobble up and keep a yard area clean of mosquitoes. The martin selects those houses with layers of apartment-type dwellings, set in open areas, eight to 12 feet high, and near running water.
Another worthwhile yard dweller is the bluebird. The ``duncan box,'' measuring five by eight inches, has a sloping, hinged roof and holes in the bottom for drainage. To outwit sparrows and discourage other birds, make the entrance hole 1 inches large with no perch.
And just for fun, why not attract a hummingbird? Brightly colored flowers with trumpet petals of deep reds and oranges are the hummer's favorite meal invitation.
To attract these delightful creatures, plant their favorite flowers or provide artificial nectar. Plant Japanese flowering quince and columbine, azaleas, canna, honeysuckle, weigeles, lilacs, petunias, nasturtiums, lilies, delphiniums, irises, scarlet sage, snapdragons, phlox, and morning glories.
To make artificial nectar, add one part honey to three parts boiled water or one part sugar to one part water. Add a little red food coloring to help draw the hummer to the feeder. To keep ants away put a sticky coating around the tube or bottle.
Next, wire the bottle securely to a stake or window sash to make the tube opening stand at an angle. A clothes hanger makes an ideal wire. Now be prepared for hummingbird action in your yard.
With these attractions, flowers, and feeders, you may even get a pair of hummers to build a nest. Simply hang a hollowed-out gourd from a tree branch.
And while you're at it, you can suspend a deep basket high up from the very tip of a tall tree's branch to house a Baltimore oriole for a hummer's company.