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Holidays for Creatures

Holidays for Creatures
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pictured: Bird Seed Ornaments

BY KITT WALSH

A great way to entertain visiting young grandkids over the holidays (avoiding parking them in front of the TV for 900th showing of Frosty The Snowman) is to enlist their help in creating a Chanukah bush or Christmas/Yule for the wildlife in your yard.

Birds and squirrels may have some trouble finding adequate food now that the snow has begun in parts of the country (and the ground has frozen in the rest), so here are some ideas to help the little critters and teach the kids that the season is less about getting and more about giving:

Using big embroidery needles and a careful eye on the little ones, use heavy-duty thread to string together different kinds of grapes, alternating colors of green, purple and red. Create an even prettier “necklace” by adding cranberries and raisins. Knot several times on the end (or use a small marshmallow as a stopper) and drape over the bushes in your backyard.

Popcorn is a big favorite with the wildlife around your house. String it as well, but make sure you use 100% natural corn with no butter or salt. Cranberries can separate the kernels here, too. Or use salt-free crackers.

Slice thin pieces of apples and oranges and poke a hole in the top of each with an awl or chopstick. Use individual thin ribbons pushed through the holds to tie onto a tree. You can do the same with millet that you get from a feed or seed store (or your garden center if it is still open.) Several red ribbon “ornaments” dress up any tree outside.

You can make bird “wedding” bags. These are just like the type used to hold the rice thrown at weddings. Buy some cheap net material at a fabric store (or cheesecloth will work, too, though it will shred more easily and my look a little like Halloween around your house when the critters tear at it). Add birdseed (small enough to fit through the openings) and some crushed eggshell for calcium and tie with a ribbon. You can use table scraps in a bag, too, but you may attract rats or raccoons!

Pinecones are my personal favorite (but I am a believer in little kids getting messy. If you are more fastidious and its not too freezing outside, you may want to create these masterpieces on a picnic table or newspaper spread on your driveway). Gather some from your yard or buy pinecones at a craft store and stuff each opening with peanut butter (organic is best). Roll in birdseed and/or cheerios or mix the peanut butter with uncooked oatmeal and hang from a ribbon (depending on how messy you want to get, you may want to tie the ribbon on before rolling.)

Take a small rope or twine, dip it in molasses and roll it in birdseed for an edible garland.

Cut shapes out of cardboard (or use toilet paper rolls, a big hit with preschoolers, who are very into potty humor) and cover with honey, molasses, peanut butter or solid shortening and cover in unsalted pumpkin or sunflower seeds, dried corn, breadcrumbs or oatmeal. Or coat the outsides of metal cookie cutters, string some together knotting each one off from another and hang them around a tree.

Don’t forget the critters that don’t fly. Sprinkle breadcrumbs, dried corn and seeds around the base of the trees and bushes.

Save a mesh onion bag and the cooled fat from your morning bacon. Add birdseed, oatmeal, fruit and granola and make a ball. Insert in the bag and hang it up on a tree or bush. You have just created homemade suet—a birdie’s favorite.

One caution: Don’t feed raw peanuts to squirrels. Peanuts are a legume, not a true nut, and when raw they contain a trypsin inhibitor, a substance that inhibits or prevents the pancreas from producing trypsin, which is an enzyme needed for the absorption of protein. Squirrels fed a steady diet of raw peanuts could easily develop severe malnutrition. The same problem occurs with raw sweet potatoes, soybeans and other raw legumes.  Roasting hulled raw peanuts and other legumes for 20-30 minutes at 300 degrees Fahrenheit, stirring them frequently. This destroys the trypsin inhibitor and renders the peanuts or legumes safe to use as feed. Also, remember not to use salted peanuts!

Don’t throw away that Christmas tree or Chanukah bush. Remove all ornaments and lights and leave it in your backyard as a wildlife shelter. Drag in near other brush in your yard and it will help provide storm cover for rabbits and other small creatures through the winter. Such trees and bushes can also be sunk with weights in deep water, helping to improve fishing, creating an artificial reef to support crappie and other pan fish.

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