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Raking Up Empty Shells Under Feeders An Important Spring Cleaning Job


Dear Bird Folks,

Now that the snow has finally melted, I’ve noticed a large pile of sunflower shells under my feeder. Should l just leave them there to help nourish the soil or should I rake them up?

– Carol, Wareham, MA


Our yards are back, Carol,

The snow is gone in my yard, too. My home space has suddenly increased by a thousand percent. It’s like discovering a lost continent. I walked out there today and in addition to the extra space I found a billion broken twigs and tree branches, a birdfeeder that had blown down sometime back in January, a rake that had been left out since last fall and several shingles that had blown off of my neighbor’s roof (at least, I hope they’re his shingles). And just like you, I found a huge mound of sunflower shells on the ground. I’m usually the last guy to suggest that anyone do extra work, but it’s better for the soil, and better for the birds, if those shells are raked up. Sunflower shells aren’t very nourishing. The only things less nourishing are the shingles that blew off of my neighbor’s house (at least, I hope they’re his shingles).

I don’t know much about gardens, except that they are a lot of work, which explains why I don’t have one. But after checking with several people who actually do enjoy gardening, I’ve come to the conclusion that sunflower shells aren’t a garden’s friend. In fact, these shells are actually toxic. I’m not saying they are toxic like Drano or airline food, but the shells contain a substance that prevents other plants from growing. Plant allelopathy (yes, that’s a real thing) is a process in which plants produce chemicals to keep out the competition. The sunflower doesn’t want other plants invading its space, so it drops noxious packets (in the form of its shells and leaves) on the ground below. Most other plants can’t tolerate the resulting soil conditions, so the sunflower has the area to itself, like the guy in the cafeteria eating a sardine and liverwurst sandwich.

Does this mean if you rake up the shells under your feeder your grass will be greener? No, I doubt that will happen. Birdfeeders and grass don’t really get along. Birds will inevitably drop some seeds and the ground crew (doves, sparrows, towhees) will scratch for them, digging up the grass as they go. Just about every feeder I’ve ever seen has a brown patch underneath it. However, you should rake under your feeder anyway and then dispose of the shells in the local dump or in the yard waste corner of your property. But you won’t be raking up the shells for your lawn’s sake, but for the birds’ sake. Piles of old, wet shells will eventually become moldy and mold isn’t good for birds. And when you combine moldy shells with all of those bird droppings that have been falling on them all winter, you have something that is so gross even a vegetarian wouldn’t eat it. While you are out raking up the shells, it might be a good time to bring in your feeders and clean the rotten seed out of them as well. To clean my feeders, I typically fill a large bucket with hot soapy water and let them soak for an hour or so. If I can’t find a bucket or when I’m too lazy to look for one, I’ll soak my feeders right in the kitchen sink (but that’s only when my wife isn’t home).

And don’t forget about your birdhouses. Usually, I tell folks to check their boxes in early March, but the wicked weather of this past March made doing any kind of outdoor work impractical, and sometimes even dangerous. Now that it’s safe to go outside, you should inspect your boxes to make sure the roofs haven’t blown off and that they are still secured to the tree or post. (You’d feel awful if the rusty nail that was holding up your old birdhouse decided to finally let go just as the baby bluebirds were about to hatch.) It is also a good time to clean out any old nests in your boxes. However, since it is so late in the season, you need to make sure that any nests you find are truly old. How can you tell an old nest from a new one? A new nest tends to be cup-shaped and made of fresh, dry material. Last year’s nests are usually flat (squashed down by the baby birds) and damp from months of wet weather. But if you’re not sure what do to, don’t do anything, which is always my favorite option.

In addition to finally seeing the grass once again, it’s nice to see and hear the other changes in our yards. When I walk out to the newspaper box each morning, to fetch the paper for my mother-in-law (yes, I know, I’m a saint), I hear the cardinals and titmice singing for the first time since last summer. I’ve also noticed that the drab male goldfinches are slowly becoming beautiful once again. Speaking of beautiful, two weeks from now (towards the end of April) the little hummingbirds will be returning (the formula for their food is four parts water to one part sugar) and a week after that we’ll be seeing the Baltimore Orioles. That means you probably should start looking for your hummingbird and oriole feeders now, because I guarantee they won’t be where you “swear” you put them last fall. They never are.

To wrap things up: Yes, Carol, you should rake up the shells under your feeder and get rid of them. They won’t improve your lawn or help your garden grow. Then, after you’ve finished raking, swing by my house and get started on my lawn. I might not be home, but I’m sure the rake will be out waiting for you. It’s been out there waiting for someone since last fall.