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Lake Grove store helps LIers feed birds during winter

A morning dove is perched on a tree

A morning dove is perched on a tree in the backyard of St. James resident Chris McHugh. (Feb. 16, 2011) Credit: Kaitlynn Mannino

Melodious birdcalls greet hobbyists and birdwatchers as they enter Wild Bird Center in Lake Grove and pass displays of colorful wind chimes and a bubbling bird bath.

The chirps and whistles remind them that the past few months of unrelenting snow have been hard on even the feathered residents of Long Island.

As Sue Rottman of Nesconset sold a customer a 15-pound bag of Birdwise birdseed, she described the difficulty birds have finding seeds and insects during harsh winter months. Rottman said it is helpful to provide feeders for winged visitors, as well as "water, water, water." And her backyard birds certainly know when they're missing out, she said.

"I have one woodpecker who yells at me whenever the suet feeder is empty," Rottmann said with a chuckle.

The colorful packages of suet on the shelves almost sound tasty, with flavors like "orange orchard," "peanut" and "insect treasure." The bird suet contains seeds, insects or fruits suspended in a fatlike substance, and it is particularly attractive to wrens and woodpeckers.

Chris McHugh, 29, of St. James, said he frequently visits the Wild Bird Center, where he purchases most of his suet and seeds. McHugh has kept feeders for many years, at a cost of $15 to $20 a week during the winter months.

"It adds up, but I enjoy the birds," he said.

His six backyard feeders attract a menagerie of creatures, from tiny brown sparrows and the brilliantly crowned red-bellied woodpecker to mischievous squirrels and the occasional rat.

"The rodents aren't an issue," McHugh said."I've never had a problem with mice."

But they aren't the only critters finding good eats at McHugh's backyard buffet.

"There's been a Cooper's hawk flying around the past couple of days," he said, and pointed to piles of grayish feathers ominously clustered around the feeders.

He guessed the regulars who usually partake of the offerings of black oil sunflower and safflower seeds were hiding until the coast was clear.

"I hear a woodpecker somewhere close," McHugh said, motioning toward the trees. "They'll be back."

Bird experts and conservationists agree that wintertime is particularly difficult for wildlife because of low temperatures and scarce food and water. Long Island's feathered residents had a particularly trying time this season with the frequent snow and freezing temperatures that sometimes froze ponds and puddles where they bathe and drink.

The National Bird-Feeding Society, a group dedicated to improving bird feeding and watching hobbies, declared February National Bird-Feeding Month.

"It's just as simple as putting a shepherd's hook in the ground and hanging a feeder on it," said Judy Davis, president of the Great South Bay chapter of the Audubon Society, a conservation group.

Bird feeding "is a great family activity," Davis said. "Have your children help you fill the feeder, then look up the birds together."

Davis said she did so with her son when he was young, and he now studies biology in college.

"Everybody is so busy," she mused. "The nice thing about backyard feeding is you're already there -- there's no gas or traveling to the park."

A morning dove perches on a tree in the backyard of St. James resident Chris McHugh. (Feb. 16, 2011)

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