By Steve and Heidi Muma
In 2014 after purchasing a Wild Birds Unlimited store in Hendersonville, we made the vacation home we’ve had since 2009 in Fairview Downs into our permanent residence. Heidi had worked in Wild Birds Unlimited for a number of years, and I worked in the health care industry before joining her as an entrepreneur. Since then we have bought two more stores in Asheville. We love it!
Heidi and I love the spring and summer months up here in Western NC. The birds are busy, the bird babies are coming, the hummingbirds are back and the weather is beautiful. There is no greater pleasure than having our feeders out where we can see them from various windows in the house and observe the bird happiness. We get so many great customers in our stores telling us their bird stories and we love hearing them.
But there is also another story that comes up quite often — “The bears broke my bird feeder!” That story quite often leads to the next comment — “I’m going to take my feeders in for the summer.”
Feed the Birds, not the Bears
Birds hate to see that, since they are busy with babies to feed; they are also molting and experiencing potentially environmental impacts that limit food in nature (such as drought). Although in general, birds find a lot of their food in nature, up to 80 percent, it is still very important for them to have a reliable source of high quality foods throughout the year, foods that contain a healthy mix of protein, fat, and calcium. So how does a bird lover feed the birds and not feed the bears (or raccoons or squirrels for that matter)? It’s important to know thine enemy — in this case, the bear!
Bears are quite interesting and some facts about them help in our bird-feeding dilemma: Did you know that bears need to consume 20,000 calories per day (about 6,000 acorns)? Much of it supplied by nuts such as acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and beechnuts. In what is called a “high mast” year lots of acorns are available, and we like that because the bears stick to a smaller region of wandering and eat acorns instead of setting out to find other foods.
Bears have a tremendous sense of smell and taste; they have nasal mucous membranes 100 times greater than humans (this will become important later). In addition, bears have a great memory (also important for later in the discussion).
Hot Bird Foods
How do we take advantage of some of these bear characteristics to discourage the bear from visiting our bird feeders? Well, we can create a food environment that is distasteful to the bear, and the bear will remember it. Try using “hot” bird foods. These are foods that are very high in capsaicin, the ingredient found in pepper oils such as habañero. Interestingly, we hear quite often from our customers that they tried cayenne pepper on their bird food or around their bird feeder, but it did not discourage the mammal in question. Did you know that habañero pepper has seven times more capsaicin than cayenne? Yes, and that heat is really tasted by the bear — remember that large mucous membrane area we mentioned earlier?
Birds are not mammals and can’t taste the heat. In fact they eat peppers found in nature and it’s good for them. Even better, there are bird foods you can buy that contain habañero, such as: suet cakes, plugs and cylinders, as well as sunflower seeds processed with the oil. If you prefer, buy the hot juice bottled and coat your own seed blend. Although nothing is guaranteed with our bear friends, the point is to create that distasteful eating experience for the bear, so that given its great memory, it might just decide not to revisit your food source.
There are other things to consider as you manage your bird feeding while bears are present. Bears are attracted to food sources that have a scent. Quite often a bear will stumble upon bird feeders while chasing down scents from barbecue grills, pet food, compost and garbage, so keep a tidy yard and tidy bird feeding station; try using a tube type feeder with a tray attached so seed does not fall to the ground, and use sunflower chips or safflower. Fill feeders with as much seed as you think will be eaten by the birds in a single day — don’t over fill. Hang your bird feeders up high on a wire or device that can be lowered and raised; bring your feeders in at night and put them out early the next morning. Use 150-pound test wire and have the bottom of the feeder at about 12’– 13′. See some designs at myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/managed/bear/wildlife-feeders.
Some systems are available to buy if you do not want to engineer them yourself. Also becoming more common is the use of electric fencing around the feeder station, as illustrated at bearsmart.com/docs/ — see MFWP-ElectricFenceGuideBears.pdf. Or if you have a setup like we do, with multiple feeders on a second level deck, you can wrap the deck posts, or trees, with aluminum or stainless steel to stop the bear from climbing.
Feeding the birds is such a fun and therapeutic hobby, so whether you’re an avid bird feeder already or considering taking up the hobby, don’t give up too quickly on summer bird feeding. It’s important for the health of our feathered friends and it is possible to create an environment in your yard where those pesky bears will simply choose another food source because your particular “restaurant route” is really yucky!
Enjoy, and keep feeding those birds.
Steve and Heidi Muma own Wild Birds Unlimited of Asheville and Hendersonville, Asheville.wbu.com, 687-9433