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Bringing in the birds

It was autumn when pure genius struck Tony and he built our bird feeder. Although now on Mark VI, the feeder has given, and continues to give, hours of entertainment. At the risk of sounding like bird nerds (although I fear it is what we have become), the feeder is the best home improvement ever.

The first users of the feeder and the target birds were, of course, tui. We are spoiled with an abundance of tui here, and when the weather started cooling and the trees stopped flowering, we felt a bit sorry for them (tip #1 birds are smart and manipulative! They trick you into thinking they depend on you, but actually if you have a decent forest and natural food supply nearby they are not dependent on supplementary feeding, they just like the convenience of takeaways).

So, up went feeder Mark 1. A simple tray on top of a 1.8 m post, strategically placed between two trees and within view of the kitchen window. Then, using a tip from Wendyl  Nielson’s Home Companion – found ourselves a bright red dish to mimic a flower (rata maybe?) and filled it with sugar water (about 2 cups sugar to 8 cups water).

Since then the bird feeder has been revamped several times, starting with a shelter, ostensibly so that the nectar didn‘t get diluted with rain, but actually because Tony was worried about the birds getting wet (yes, I realise these are wild birds, well used to the weather…but we do want to be seen as responsible hosts). The latest and definitely greatest has slatted flooring for ready cleaning, an array of perches and one very large bowl. The most tui we have ever recorded feeding at one time is about 18, with an additional 20 queued up behind.

Feeding birds is hugely popular overseas, but in NZ we seem to have a different attitude. For some I think the feeling is that these are wild birds and we shouldn’t be interfering with nature. Ironic really since we’ve done our fair share of interfering, with the introduction of pests and virtually every habitat in NZ modified to some degree. I also wonder if it is because we have not had the numbers of birds to even begin to consider feeding them?

Whatever the reason, feeding birds is a wonderful way to engage with nature, to learn about the seasons, and get to know some birds as the individuals they are.

Some simple tips for doing it safely are:

Keep the feeding area up high and safe from predators (including the family cat) Keep the area clean Keep the sugar water fresh (we wash it out daily and do at least two fresh bowls per day)

As well as hoardes of tui, we have bellbirds visiting fairly regularly. Tui are now so common and boisterous that there is some concern that they are excluding bellbird, however from our observations, male bellbirds are much faster than the tui, and get to have their share of sugar water. That said, we haven’t yet seen any females feeding yet.

Our most miraculous visitor though was the male hihi who stayed for around a month. Remembering that hihi are extinct from the mainland, you can understand how truly remarkable this is. This little guy was feisty with big attitude. He had travelled all the way to Khandallah from Zealandia, Wellington’s eco-sanctuary which is located about 10km away as the bird flies.

There are a few secrets to the success of the bird-feeder. Firstly, and most importantly, we don’t have a cat (and I must admit, before she went deaf, actively encouraged our dog to chase cats away). We have now seen both tui and bellbird on the ground on our back yard on more than one occasion – easy prey to any cats. Secondly, we also control rats and mustelids around our garden and the surrounding bush (although they are definitely still present). Thirdly, as I’ve already mentioned, the sugar water needs to be changed regularly and the bowl washed frequently to avoid any avian diseases, and finally, setting the feeder between a couple of leafy trees means that the birds can land safely, scope the situation, and then feel comfortable on the feeder – Tony (aka the bird whisperer) has been within arm’s reach of tui, bellbird and silver eyes with this set up. We feel truly privileged.

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Amber & Tony

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