A new way to recycle your Christmas tree, and other ways to help backyard animals

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At an edible-ornament workshop at Bowman's Hill Wildlife Preserve, Ani Orphanides helps daughter Luca Wilson, 2, string cranberries while her mother, Barbara Orphanides, works on her own decorations. One key is knowing what attracts birds but keeps pests away.

It'll soon be time to recycle the Christmas tree, and here's a fun, nontraditional way to do that:

Take the tree outside, lean it against a wall or deck or toss it on the ground, and load it up with homemade, edible "ornaments" that birds and possibly other creatures can enjoy.

The idea is known as "trim-a-tree for wildlife," and it "makes for a special family event, especially at this time of year," says Molly Sahner, a Bucks County stay-at-home mother with two children.

With their natural food supply dwindling or hidden under snow, birds and other animals can get hungry in winter. There are benefits for humans, too.

"We focus on giving at the holidays, or try to remember that we should be focused on that," Sahner says, "so I think it's fun to think about giving in different ways, including to the creatures in our backyard."

Sahner's family lives in downtown New Hope, on a 30-foot-by-90-foot lot with a creek. Not a huge property, but big enough to support an interesting biome of birds, salamanders, squirrels, opossums, groundhogs, foxes, and deer.

It's a fine setting for a wildlife tree. So in early December, Sahner and her daughter Katie, 31/2, attended a trim-a-tree workshop at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope.

As dusk descended, the group hurriedly scoured the woods for pine cones to dip in melted suet and roll in black oil sunflower seeds. The Sahners and others also made garlands and wreaths out of Cheerios, cranberries, raisins and grapes, and "icicles" out of peanuts in the shell, using cotton string and a plastic embroidery needle bought at a craft store.

"The colors are very festive," Sahner says.

More importantly, the wreaths, garlands, and "icicles" provide nourishment that's rich in fat and protein, allowing birds, especially, to maintain a high metabolism and normal body temperature in the cold.

Two days after Sahner attached the ornaments to a pine tree in her backyard, the feast began. "When I took our dog out this morning, I discovered that a cranberry wreath and one peanut icicle were already missing," she says.

Virginia Ranly, of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, stresses the importance of offering food for birds in winter. And it's not just that the usual sources - seeds, insects, berries - have disappeared or been eaten up.

There's a larger issue.

"We've changed our landscape in a lot of ways, so that [plant] species that are naturally fruit- and seed-bearing - serviceberries and dogwoods and other native species that would feed birds - have been replaced with ornamentals and invasives that don't offer food," Ranly says. "We definitely need to supplement."

For example, birds can eat Oriental bittersweet, one of the most invasive vines in the country and a common sight in the Philadelphia region's parks and woods. But it doesn't provide as much energy as the native, though far less common, American bittersweet.

"I know they're eating the Oriental," Ranly says, "because in the past few weeks I've seen a lot of chewed-up bittersweet on the ground. Somebody's been hacking at it out there."

As recreation supervisor for Gloucester County Parks and Recreation Department, Terry Dalton has been preaching the "trim-a-tree for wildlife" message for 25 years. "At this time of year, everybody's thinking about shopping," she says. "It's nice to remember our feathered and furry friends. It's cold out, and they appreciate what we give them."

In Dalton's workshops, held in early December, participants dip cones in peanut butter or shortening, roll them in bird seed and hang them from evergreens, dogwoods, lilac bushes, just about anything upright. They also make garlands with plain popcorn, raisins, and cranberries.

"It's kind of neat," Dalton says. "Within minutes, the birds just come. Squirrels, too. The kids are pretty amazed."

Besides telegenic blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers and juncos, recycled and decorated Christmas (or other) trees can also attract squirrels, opossums, raccoons, and mice. So if you want to draw only birds, be sure to tailor your offerings accordingly, says Pam Newitt of Yardley, a naturalist whose company, Nature by the Yard, does wildlife programs for Scout, school, senior groups, garden clubs, and birthday parties.

"If you put things out like Cheerios, probably birds aren't going to eat them. That will be more for raccoons and mice," says Newitt, who thinks the latter are "cute" when they skitter up a backyard Christmas tree.

"I think, certainly, some people might be turned off by that, but to my mind, wildlife is wildlife," Newitt continues. "Obviously, I don't want rats - that's nonnative wildlife, anyway - but I've never had any nuisance wildlife, and I've been doing this for 24 years."

Newitt warns that grapes and raisins can be toxic to dogs, a phenomenon documented at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center in Urbana, Ill. She also suggests mixing peanut butter with corn meal; otherwise, it could clog a bird's breathing tube, under the tongue.

As for hanging orange slices on a tree, Newitt says it sure is pretty, but, "I did it for years, and I've never seen any bird go for them. So I stopped putting them out."

And, finally, she advises that besides offering food in cold weather, homeowners should provide fresh water in a heated bird bath. "That will attract an amazing amount of birds," she says.

For anyone worried about chemical residues on Christmas trees, and their effect on wildlife, environmental author Gretel H. Schueller says not to worry. The chemicals generally break down within weeks, if they're exposed to rain and sunlight.

"The truth is that the residue that may remain, and how dangerous it is, is still unknown," says Schueller, who teaches journalism at the State University of New York in Plattsburg. "But by the time you're buying your cut tree in December, it's likely that it's already been weeks, if not months, since that the tree was sprayed."

And if you decide to go the feeder route, ornithologist Stephen W. Kress says to be aware that feeders can expose birds to disease and collisions with windows, if near the house. Weakened birds are vulnerable to attack by cats.

Best to place several feeders at varying heights, each with a different food, says Kress, vice president for bird conservation at the National Audubon Society. Black oil sunflower, white millet, and cracked corn are all good, as are nyger thistle for finches, suet for woodpeckers, and nuts for woodpeckers, titmice, and chickadees.

As for wildlife trees, Kress thinks "birds are just as happy to take the seed and suet separately from mesh bags hung on trees, but peanut 'icicles' and dried cranberry and raisin necklaces are fun for titmice and other birds to pick at.

"Feeding birds, I believe, does help to engage more people with nature," Kress says, "and this is a good thing."

On that score, how are we doing? Newitt says she used to believe that humans were "on the cusp of learning to coexist with wildlife." Now, she's not so sure.

"People are much more tolerant of birds than other wildlife," she says, "and I'd like to see that tolerance extend out to other wildlife that live here, especially in urban and suburban areas," where coexistence can be difficult.

Molly Sahner says she's trying to raise her daughter, Katie, and son, Sol, now 5, to embrace their back yard ecosystem and all creatures within it. It appears to be working.

Two years ago, she says, Sol came home from preschool and announced, "Mommy, something bothered me at school today." And what was that? his mother asked.

"I don't like the way they treat the ants there," he said.


Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/

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Advice for Bird Feeding

For advice from National Audubon Society ornithologist Stephen W. Kress about backyard bird-feeding in winter, go to http://audubonmagazine.org/backyard/backyard0001.html

Kress has more suggestions for keeping backyard birds safe at: http://audubonmagazine.org/audubonliving/audubonliving0811.html.

He also has written several books, including The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds: Creating Natural Habitats for Properties Large and Small and National Audubon Society North America Birdfeeder Guide, with co-author Robert Burton.

More information on birds and backyard habitats can be found at:

Audubon Pennsylvania: http://pa.audubon.org/

New Jersey Audubon: http://www.njaudubon.org/Home.aspx


Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.