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Create festive holiday decor that's for the birds

This season transform your backyard into a winter wonderland great for bird sighting. Garden designer P. Allen Smith shows you how.
/ Source: Weekend Today

Surprisingly, winter's actually the ideal time to spot our feathered friends. P. Allen Smith visited “Weekend Today” to share ideas on getting your family involved in birding and shows you how to turn your home into a bird's paradise.

Birding is the second most popular outdoor activity in America, second only to my true love and passion, gardening. In my garden I feed the birds year-round but especially in the winter when the landscape is void of color. Attracting birds to the garden fills it with songs that seem to really echo in the winter landscape and a flurry of colors that are best enjoyed against the dull gray backdrop of this season.

Winter is an ideal time to begin feeding the birds. This is because many of their natural food sources are depleted. In fact, since 1994, February has been designated as National Bird Feeding month to draw attention to the plight of wild birds during the leanest time of the year, the winter.

An ideal holiday gift is a starter bird kit, which you can easily put together with a trip to a discount store or pet shop. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A good quality bird feeder: I recommend one made from real cedar as it will be weather resistant and attractive in the landscape. The “hopper” style feeders always catch me eye, these are the kind you can easily raise the roof on and pour in the seed variety of your choice. Additionally some of the larger style hopper feeders come with baskets on the ends for inserting suet or fresh items such as fruit and bread, which the birds might also enjoy.
  • Bird foods: There are almost as many types of bird food as there are birds. Start simply with a seed variety mix that will attract a wide range of birds. The back of the packaging will tell you about the bird varieties that the seed is designed to encourage around your feeder. I recently found a variety called “waste free” that contains no hulls so there is less mess under the feeders after the birds pick through the seeds. I mentioned suet, which is a high-energy food block, if you will, that can be both purchased or made. Click here for my homemade suet recipe for “hard suet” (the kind you place in the wire baskets).
  • Consider feeder placement: Since a major reward for feeding the birds is watching them, I suggest that you locate your feeder close to a high traffic window.  If the feeder is going to be mounted on a wall or fence then you might want to purchase a wall mount hook for the feeder. If the feeder is going to be out in the landscape consider a shepherd’s hook.
  • Squirrel baffle: If the recipient of this starter kit finds squirrels a cute but pesky addition to the garden then you might want to think about including a squirrel baffle in their starter kit.
  • Resources: Lastly, a book on birding is ideal for a person just getting started in this hobby. For instance, I like to give a book with a feeder that will help the person identify the types of birds they are seeing in their garden.

Besides making the garden a more colorful place in winter, I think birding is a fantastic hobby to be shared between the generations. I have fond memories of watching the birds with my grandmother, KeeKee. We would peak out of the kitchen window and try to figure out the varieties of birds at the feeder. Sharing a backyard activity with children makes them more aware of the natural world around them; at least I know that I developed a deep passion for caring for wildlife by participating in activities such as birding with my family.

All Natural Bird Feeding Outdoor Ornaments
During holiday break, here’s a project you might want to try with the kids while they are home from school. It’s a great way to keep little hands busy and also a good way to re-use your live Christmas tree as you can hang these beautiful all-natural bird feeding ornaments onto the tree outside in the garden. If you don’t have a Christmas tree or only use fake one you can substitute with a deciduous tree or shrub (one that looses its leaves).

Elements

  • 24 oranges
  • Rubber bands
  • Pairing knife
  • Grapefruit spoon or other spoon-like item for removing orange segments
  • Raffia ribbon (one package, available at hobby shops)
  • 10 packages of fresh cranberries (available at grocery stores this time of year)
  • 1 loaf Pepperidge farm bread (firm white bread)
  • Assorted cookie cutters
  • Egg whites
  • Basting brush
  • Ice pick
  • 1 bag bird seed with small seed varieties
  • Baking sheet
  • Three or more disposable metal baking pans
  • Large upholstery needle (straight with wide eye)
  • 1 1/2 c. natural peanut butter (no sugar added)
  • 1 1/2 c. shortening
  • 2 cups corn meal or cracked corn
  • 2 1/2 c. wild birdseed mix
  • Low salt or no salt crackers
  • Scissors (for cutting raffia)

Process

Day 1
Step 1:Create bread cutout ornaments using the following:

  • Pre-sliced sandwich bread
  • Egg whites (or peanut butter)
  • Bird seed
  • Twine or raffia
  • Cranberries
  • Cookie cutters in simple shapes
  • Ice pick

You can use any pre-sliced sandwich bread for these ornaments, but I've had the best success with the extra thin slices. Simply place the bread on a flat surface and cut out your shape with a cookie cutter. Depending on the size of your cookie cutter, you will probably be able to make one ornament per slice of bread.Poke a hole through the top of the ornament with a sharp stick or ice pick.Brush one side of the bread with egg whites. This is the “glue” for your birdseeds. Sprinkle the egg white covered bread with birdseeds. I like to use a seed mix because the variety of textures and shapes makes the ornament more interesting. In addition, these mixes tend to attract some of my favorite birds such as chickadees, cardinals, finches, nuthatches and siskins.Place the seed covered ornaments on a baking sheet and bake in a pre-heated 300 degree F oven for about 5 minutes. Just long enough for the egg whites and birdseeds to adhere to the bread.Alternatively, if don't want to bother with the egg whites and baking, you can use peanut butter to act as the glue for the seeds. If you use peanut butter, either toast the bread ornaments first, or allow them to dry over night. This just makes handling the bread easier.Take a piece of raffia or twine and string it through the hole you made at the top of the ornament. Tie a knot to create a loop.

Step 2: Slice 12 oranges to create orange rings (cut orange vertically creating many thin orange slices). Lay orange slices onto a baking sheet and place in oven on a low temperature until oranges begin to dry. Do not allow oranges to burn, just allow moisture to evaporate. An oven at about 150 degrees for several hours, turning if edges start to curl, usually works.  When done, set aside with bread cutouts.

Step 3: Take the remaining 12 oranges create orange baskets by wrapping a rubber band around the center of each orange. Using a pairing knife cut two semicircles leaving about 1/2 inch in the center for a “handle.” Next, create a handle using the pairing knife to cut the skin of the orange. Remove these orange peel wedges and scoop out the insides of the orange with a grapefruit knife or other object. Save the two discarded orange peel wedges to use in decorations as well as the orange baskets themselves. Set all of the orange products aside to dry overnight.

Step 4:Create soft suet using the following:

  • 1 1/2 c. natural peanut butter (no sugar added)
  • 1 1/2 c. shortening
  • 2 cups corn meal or cracked corn
  • 2 1/2 c. wild birdseed mix

Mix all ingredients to a paste. Place into refrigerator until ready to use. Before using suet, set it out for approximately one hour (or until room temperature) to soften the mixture. 

Day 2
As soon as your bread cutouts are dry and your orange slices are dry you can begin the assembly process:

  • Insert a long (two-foot or so) strand of raffia through the upholstery needle. Begin stringing onto the raffia cranberries, bread cutouts, crackers and orange slices to create a natural garland. Use your imagination to determine the pattern your design will follow.  Make each strand about a foot long before tying off each end. Leave about six inches on each after tying the ornament off so that you have raffia ribbon from which to hang the ornament. 
  • You can also create vertical ornaments by mixing crackers, cranberries and orange slices.
  • The orange baskets can be filled with suet and/or cranberries and hung with raffia bows.

Now you’re ready to decorate your old live Christmas tree in its new home out in the garden or pick a deciduous tree or shrub that you can easily view from a window in your home and decorate this plant. Before long the birds will be visiting and feeding on your all-natural ornaments. 

One of the nicest aspects of this project is that every item is natural and usable by the birds, even the raffia which they can use to build nests. 

If you have a bird lover on your holiday gift-giving list who has everything, you can create a wreath that follows the same idea as the all-natural ornaments.

Bird Lovers Wreath

Elements

  • 1 real evergreen wreath or 2 artificial evergreen wreaths
  • If using fake wreaths, you will need a spool of thin wire and wire cutters
  • Clusters of red berries (variety suggestions are: holly, nandina, viburnum, rose hips, bayberry)
  • 4 oranges
  • Rubber bands
  • Pairing knife
  • Grapefruit spoon or other spoon-like item for removing orange segments
  • Raffia ribbon (one package, available at hobby shops)
  • 1 or 2 packages of fresh cranberries (available at grocery stores this time of year, amount depends on the number of cranberries you wish to add to your wreath)
  • 1 loaf Pepperidge farm bread (firm white bread)
  • Assorted cookie cutters
  • Egg whites
  • Basting brush
  • Ice pick
  • 1 bag bird seed with small seed varieties
  • Baking sheet
  • Three or more disposable metal baking pans
  • Large upholstery needle (straight with wide eye)

ProcessFollow the steps in All Natural Bird Feeding Outdoor Ornaments (instructions above) to create orange baskets, orange slices, bread cutouts, etc.

If using fake wreath lay them back to back and wire them together. Real or fake, take the wreath and layer on clusters of red berries. Lay the berries on in the same direction like fish scales, each layer slightly overlapping the one before to create a smooth and full effect. Attach the clusters to the wreath by wrapping the ends of the berries in wire and attach the ends to the wreath. An alternative, especially if working with a limited supply of berries, is to strategically place berry clusters onto wreath as a bright accent against the evergreen.

With your wreath full of beautiful berry clusters you can begin to attach some of the all-natural bird feeding ornaments. Fill the orange baskets with cranberries and use the raffia ribbon to tie to the wreath the orange baskets and the bread cutouts. Let creativity be your guide!

In closing, I hope that you and yours have a safe and happy holiday season and enjoy the beauty of the winter garden with your family.

For more information about birding, check out P. Allen Smith’s article in the December issue of Cottage Living magazine.