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Decorate a Tree for the Birds

Dear Bird Folks,

In an effort to create a new Christmas Eve tradition, my family is thinking about going outside and decorating a tree with food for the birds. Do you have any suggestions?

– Greg, Marshfield, MA


Nice question, Greg,

It brings back lots of pleasant memories. When my kids were small (and didn’t know any better), we did exactly what you are asking about: we decorated a tree for the birds on Christmas Eve. Back then I wasn’t very creative, so we made the same old strings of cranberries and popcorn that folks have been making for decades. (Yet, it was still fun.) With a big bowl of cranberries and a bigger bowl of popcorn, we’d all sit at the kitchen table stringing away. As you might expect, my wife and I did the majority of the work, while the kids ate the majority of the popcorn. When everything was ready we’d bundle up and hike down to the “climbing tree.” The climbing tree, with its low, kid-friendly climbing branches, was a giant, great-smelling white pine that sat in a wooded lot near our house. We handed the strings to the kids as they climbed high onto the tree. (In reality, they only climbed up a few feet but it seemed high to them…and plenty high to their nervous parents.) Afterwards, we headed home to sit in front of the fire, drink hot chocolate and talk about which wild creatures might find the treats we had just put out. After a while the two sleepyheads would nod off…until the kids woke us up and told us to go to bed.

Should you hang popcorn and cranberries? No. Ditch the cranberries. Oh, sure, they look pretty, but it turns out the birds have no interest in them (and the juice stained our kitchen tablecloth). Plus, some birds, turkeys, for example, totally freak out at the sight of cranberries (or at least cranberry sauce). Popcorn is fine, but you should use the boring and tasteless air-cooked popcorn. Birds don’t need their popcorn covered in cooking oil and they certainly don’t need any added salt. They have enough problems in the winter without having to deal with high blood pressure.

One ingredient birds really like is peanuts – peanuts that are still in their shells. Blue Jays and titmice especially love them, and so do the neighborhood squirrels. (Yes, squirrels…but come on, it’s Christmas.) The one downside of peanuts is trying to string them. You will need a very sharp, heavy-duty needle to get through the tough shell. But be careful. One year we tried peanuts and my fingers still have the scars from the occasional wayward needle. (Maybe all of those red stains on the tablecloth weren’t from the cranberries after all.) One food that we never used, but probably should have, is Cheerios. Even though they are a processed people-food, in limited quantities Cheerios are probably fine for birds. Plus, they are fairly cheap, aren’t too salty and most importantly, have built-in holes, making them way easier to string than peanuts.

Fruit is another good item to add to your tree. Several birds, such as robins, mockingbirds, waxwings and bluebirds, survive the winter by eating fruit. Grapes, either fresh or in raisin form, are a good choice, and so are apple chunks. Apple chunks might not be as festive as cranberries, but they’ll probably get you more birds. And don’t forget the old tried and true pinecone covered in peanut butter and birdseed. Preschoolers have been making these gooey things since pinecones were invented. If you don’t have any pinecones handy, a fun alternative is frozen waffles. First, cut the waffles into decorative shapes, then spread on the yummy peanut butter, sprinkle on some birdseed and finally, hook your creations onto your tree with pipe cleaners. (I think they still make pipe cleaners, right?)

If you don’t mind doing a little cooking, here’s an item that looks like it’s fun to make. In a book entitled Cooking for the Birds, there is a recipe for making “zebra striped suet-sicles.” The book tells us to melt a few cups of suet and then pour a bit of the melted suet into a Popsicle mold (which I’m sure you have in your cabinet, right next to the pipe cleaners). The idea is to alternate layers of seed and suet until you’ve reached the top of the mold. (Small paper cups can also be used, if someone has borrowed your Popsicle mold.) Before the suet hardens place a string or, yes, a pipe cleaner, into the middle of the mold and chill. After they have hardened, hang your suet-sicles on your tree. Then go to bed knowing that your woodpeckers will have a nice surprise waiting for them when they wake up on Christmas morning.

The last step is to decide where to hang all of your newly made delicacies. We decorated the aforementioned climbing tree, but I can’t recommend you do something like that. After all, we didn’t own the climbing tree or the wooded lot it sat on. In other words, every Christmas Eve my family and I would basically trespass and became holiday tree vandals. It’s better if you decorate a tree in your own yard. It’s better because it’s legal, plus you can watch the creatures that come to your fruit, popcorn, waffle ornaments and suet-sicles. With such a delicious assortment of goodies, I’m sure you’ll get plenty of birds, a few squirrels, and possibly the neighbor’s dog, too. I hope you decorate a bird tree on Christmas Eve, Greg. It certainly was a special time for our family. I really enjoyed sitting by the fire and talking about the evening. I kind of miss doing it. Oh, we still sit by the fire, but we don’t talk about it very much. Now we just text each other.