These tips will make you a first-class bird-watcher
When attempting to attract birds to your garden, it is important to know what species are in your area, as well as their food preferences and feeding habits.
For example, some birds such as mourning doves are ground feeders, while others such as the Illinois state bird -- the cardinal -- visit feeders. Regularly stocking your bird feeders with favorite foods will increase the chances that birds will continually visit your garden.
Safflower seed, sunflower hearts and millet are preferred by many species of birds including cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches. Suet cakes, especially popular in winter, are comprised of seeds, nuts and fat products. They are a high-energy food and very attractive to various species.
Consider using a better quality birdseed in your feeder that does not have filler, such as oats, barley or red millet, that birds choose not to eat and end up on the ground. Try a "no mess" blend in which seeds do not have shells and are more in pieces to reduce waste.
• If possible, provide a source of water for the birds. Placing a water basin in a sunny location will help keep it from freezing, though a heated birdbath is ideal.
Purchase one with an automatic shut-off valve or heat cycling on-off switch, which will prevent damage to the birdbath if it goes dry. It is best to use a grounded, three-pronged outlet.
Avoid birdbaths that have an uncovered heating element, as this could burn the birds' feet if they land on it. Placing a flat piece of shale over the heating element will provide a warm rock for birds to perch on to rest or drink and will prevent any accidental injury.
• It is important to thoroughly clean and dry bird feeders and water basins on a regular basis to prevent the spread of bacteria and keep birds healthy. Use hot soapy water to wash feeders or basins and rinse thoroughly with clean water.
Occasionally, a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water can be used for washing.
When refilling feeders in between these more thorough cleanings, remove any wet clumps of old seed and discard.
• Tim Johnson is director of horticulture at Chicago Botanic Garden, chicagobotanic.org.