Edible Christmas Tree instructions for the city mouse?
November 24, 2007 9:11 PM   Subscribe

After 10 years of living in NYC, I've fled to a wooded acre in rural New Jersey. I'm a total scrooge who would never be caught dead with a Christmas tree, but I want to edibly decorate an outdoor (living) pine tree to attract animals like deer, birds, squirrels and whoever else. I'm thinking along the lines of stringing popcorn, carrots, dried corn for the deer, peanut butter and birdseed on pinecones for the birds, maybe some apple slices, etc. The problem is, my years in the city have left me devoid of any common sense on how to proceed. I don't care much whether the tree is pretty or not - I'm more interested in having animals in my backyard than flashing lights that sing "Jingle Bell Rocks".

So, with so many animal-caring and conscious, crafty folks here, I thought I'd probe the hive mind for suggestions. Please help me out with tips, tricks, instructions, suggestions to create a SAFE enjoyable edible outdoor tree to get all the animals I possibly can. Assume I know less than a 5th grader who's been to a summer camp craft class - what do I use to string the popcorn so it doesn't end up fatally snagged in a duck's digestive tract? Is there anything tempting to use that's actually dangerous for the type of animals likely to live in the area (ducks, deer, birds, squirrels, beavers, raccoons, etc.)? Are there any pressing safety concerns for the animals to make me wary - I don't want to HURT them of course. As a result of my location, I won't be luring animals to a busy road where they are likely to get hit, or to an area where neighbors would consider them pestilential.

Most appreciated would be fairly quick and easy instructions so I could do this a few times even on a busy schedule - I'd love to be able to refurbish the tree every weekend for the next month or so.
posted by bunnycup to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Inspired by a children's book called Stranger in the Woods, about kids building an edible snowman and enjoying the animals. Already bought it for my baby's first Christmas (2008).
posted by bunnycup at 9:13 PM on November 24, 2007

I guarantee you don't want raccoons at your house. You might think you want raccoons, but trust me, you don't. What is the temp. where you live? Is it frozen outside, would the nuts, berries, etc. freeze solid?

I have a yard with feral cats in it, but even with cats I have found that I get a lot of other animals because I have bowls of water out. Water can be hard to come by for animals and you might find that is a bigger draw for more types of animals than any food source. Birds, raccoons and squirrels all like dry cat food. Cat chow might not show up so well strung on a tree, but cranberries might. pine cones stuffed with peanut butter and rolled in bird seed hung all over your yard will attract birds and squirrels. It sounds like your instincts are good about what to try.

In the spring you might like to try butterfly gardening. Different types of butterflies like nectar of different plants and their eggs usually get laid on one specific plant. I researched for my area and planted native species and now I consistently get over a dozen different types of butterflies in my yard. You can't use any pesticides if you decide to do it, but it is awesome to see 20 butterflies out in the yard at one time. You could start with milkweed seeds and start growing indoors. Scarlet Milkweed is available in seed packets and easy to grow. It is the food source for Monarch butterflies. Don't buy from commercial growers or Home Depot-y type places because they use pesticides on the plants and you get awful franken-fly cocoons that only partially hatch and die. The pesticides cause genetic mutations in vulnerable caterpillars. Anyway, good luck with the critters!
posted by 45moore45 at 9:27 PM on November 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

My parents have a raccoon that visits their yard every night. He has not become a pest - he just eats what they set out for him and leaves. His favorites are:
- Grapes! He love grapes.
- Apples.
- Leftover bread, muffins, etc.
- Raisins

He dislikes squash and pumpkins.

I agree with the above suggestions of pinecones stuffed with peanut butter and rolled in birdseed. That should attract birds, particularly woodpeckers. Squirrels should enjoy it, too.

Cracked corn should attract some birds as well as deer.

I would guess that making some garland of popcorn and cranberries would attract wildlife as well. Use cotton thread, which is biodegradable.

If you can set out a source of water and ensure it doesn't freeze (they do make heaters for this purpose) you should get more animals.

Blue Jays LOVE unsalted, in-the-shell peanuts. If you leave out several peanuts they will pick up each one in their beaks to determine which ones are heaviest. Then they will take it to the nearest tree and shell it.

Possums will eat anything, so you will likely see them, too. They are kind of neat. My yellow lab fetched up a possum once and I thought it was dead. However, after he left it on the deck it was gone within the hour. So I guess it wasn't dead after all.
posted by Ostara at 9:53 PM on November 24, 2007

Suet is cheap and high-energy. Nth-ing on making water available, too.
posted by bonobo at 10:00 PM on November 24, 2007

IANA Wildlife Expert, and I am a bit dubious about the merit of attracting raccoons intentionally, but I am charmed by this idea.

I suspect that one key to keeping the animals from trying to eat the non-edibles (e.g. string) will be making sure that whatever you don't want them to eat is attached to the tree firmly enough so that they can't easily pull it away, whereas the food itself should be easy for them to remove. For each item you want to put out, picture what will happen when an animal gets its teeth/beak clamped onto it and then pulls backwards.

Suet has traditionally been used to bind together bird seed into shaped cakes of high-energy food. If you don't have vegan-type objections to working with suet, you could make or purchase a couple of suet cakes for the birds (and squirrels and raccoons?). I've seen suet in shapes like bells, which would be festive, but square blocks are more common, I think. There are metal cages specifically for hanging the suet blocks; those should be quite safe for the animals.

I wonder whether binding together ornamental globs of popcorn using suet would be a better plan than stringing garlands. I don't really see how a popcorn garland would work out. Either an animal would bite down on some popcorn and try to take the string with it, pulling the whole garland off the tree; or if you had some kind of edible string, the garland would be broken after the first nibble. But maybe animals are better at eating things off strings than I am imagining.

For carrots, apples, etc, if I were doing this I would hang each one individually from a short length of strong twine knotted firmly to a tree branch and attached comparatively less firmly to the fruit/veg. I wouldn't string them around on continuous garlands. Not sure which arrangement you meant by "stringing."

I think that a soda bottle drip bird bath would work at least part of the time in the winter, despite not being heated; even if most of the water freezes, the sun shining through the bottle should melt enough in the middle of the day to keep it running on all but the coldest days, no?
posted by Orinda at 10:39 PM on November 24, 2007

Oh yeah, a safety risk for the animals that I don't think has been mentioned yet: what happens when the generous food source they've become conditioned to over the course of a "month or so" disappears?
posted by Orinda at 10:47 PM on November 24, 2007

In case you hadn't heard, rural NJ kind of has a bear problem. Be careful what you're attracting.
posted by knowles at 10:52 PM on November 24, 2007

One more thing: birds, especially, want cover near their food sources. If you have a choice of where to set up your feeding station, put it two or three yards from an evergreen or some thick brush. This will help make birds feel more secure and therefore more attracted to the goodies, and may protect them from predators.
posted by Orinda at 10:55 PM on November 24, 2007

Knowles, I was going to mention the bears, too. Around here, people have been putting their wildlife food away in the winter (even bird seed) because bears have been wandering into yards. You don't want a bear wandering into your yard, trust me.

Also, deer can be a huge nuisance if they're overpopulated in your area. Deer like to forage in the same place every year - they form habits that are very hard to break.

I'd call your local extension service first before putting out your wildlife feast.
posted by Flakypastry at 2:58 AM on November 25, 2007

Welcome to the neighborhood. I applaud your search for alternative holiday decorations.

Assuming your profile isn't full of misleading information regarding your location, bears shouldn't be a particular concern. They're more of a problem farther north in New Jersey. As you've no doubt noticed driving around your new home, the deer density in central New Jersey exceeds that of just about anywhere else in the country. Feeding the deer may cause them to be more of a nuisance than they already are. If you're not worried about your landscaping or a profusion of deer droppings in your yard, then you may not care, although your neighbors might.

I would suggest sticking to seed-based decorations like the pine cone - peanut butter/crisco - seed combo suggested above. Sticking them above shoulder height should prevent deer from getting to them even if they are interested. Keeping them replenished all winter (or replacing them with one or two "real" feeders) is also a kind idea.

Feel free to email me if any more questions come up. Good Luck.
posted by mollweide at 8:21 AM on November 25, 2007

Cranberries are easy to string, and look nice too.
posted by bink at 8:40 AM on November 25, 2007

The Project Feeder Watch (part of the Cornell Ornithology Lab) has lots of good ideas for attracting birds.

If you're going to do it, it's much better to make it an ongoing project, which needn't be all that expensive or time-consuming.

In addition to the seed/suet combos, you can also use meringue powder (basically dried egg whites) as an adhesive to make molded seed shapes. Grease cookie-cutters and put them on a tray lined with waxed paper, also greased. Mix some powder with enough water to make a loose paste, stir in the seed. (Play around with proportions here.) Shovel the mix into the cutters and press down to fill up the gaps, and stick a straw or chopstick or something in the mixture to create a hole for hanging. Let them dry for a couple of days, unmold, run some yarn through the holes, and hang 'em up.
posted by dogrose at 8:44 AM on November 25, 2007

Water is a great idea. If you want deer, put out a salt lick, available at a feed store. If you feed birds and wild animals, you have to be consistent, as they will come to depend on the food. Raccoons, deer, possums, etc., do pretty well near humans. Birds, however, are losing habitable area, so consider focusing on them. If you have dogs, be careful about letting them out as they sometimes learn to chase deer.
posted by theora55 at 9:26 AM on November 25, 2007

mollewede, last year we had a bear locally in Livingston to walked through West Orange, then wandered down into Maplewood before getting caught, so they aren't that far into Northern NJ.

There's a great place in Riverdale called Mike's Feed Farm that has really nice, knowledgeable people who can help you with food for your critters. I was really impressed with them the last time I was there (they used to have a location in Totowa, but I saw from their website it recently moved to Paterson).

One other word of caution, we thought we were doing the birds a favour by feeding them right up close to the house with all kind of goodies and ended up with a HUGE Mousapolooza instead. We were overun with mice under our kitchen floorboards. So, a few words of caution from the guy that helped us, um, keep the wildlife outside. Keep all animal goodies a good 50 feet from your house unless you want to invite furry friends to join you in your holiday festivities. :)
posted by dancinglamb at 10:38 AM on November 25, 2007

Well, thanks for a lot of kind suggestions. We are indeed where the profile says, and while research suggests we aren't at the HEART of the bear problem, it doesn't seem totally unheard of in our county, so I plan to be wary with the food we choose. We are fairly secluded and wooded, bordered by nature preserves, with running water on the property and only a few hundred yards from a river (also wooded, with water access rather than covered with residential or commercial property). We've been feeding the birds through a couple feeders scattered through our property, using TerraCycle feeders and suet, and it's been a joy to have birds, squirrels and deer so far. Once we get going with the tree, I'll try to come back with a picture and some feedback.

P.S. - I secretly absolutely heart-breakingly adore raccoons, to the point of almost physical pain that I can't have my own pet raccoon grabbing stuff around the house with his cute thumbs and silly face, but yeah....I fear the wrath of my husband if he has to clean up trash cans every morning.
posted by bunnycup at 6:47 PM on November 26, 2007

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