Preliminary information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveals more than 71 million people watched, fed, or photographed wild birds in 2006, the latest figures available. They spent $45 billion pursuing their hobby.

That makes feeding wild birds one of the most popular outdoor activities in the United States, with widespread and evenly-distributed fans among all age groups.

And the popularity is growing. From 2001 to 2006, the number of wildlife watchers increased by 8 percent in the U.S. The most popular activity was feeding wildlife close to home. You don’t need a license or any special skills n just an interest and a commitment to doing it right.

Wildlife professionals with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks offers the following advicde for people who would like to participate in winter bird feeding.

Place feeders where you can watch, enjoy and photograph feeding visitors. If bothered by squirrels at feeders, place your feeder on a pole away from trees. Place feeders near cover to protect feeding birds from weather and predators, such as free-roaming cats.

Move feeders if you notice birds striking windows. Some birds, such as sparrows, juncos, doves and pheasants feed on the ground or on a flat platform. Offer several feeding sites to avoid overcrowding and disease transmission.

If you’re only offering one menu item, black oil sunflower seed appeals to many birds. Ground-feeding birds may prefer corn, milo or millet to sunflower seed. Pine siskins, goldfinches and redpolls prefer niger seed (also called finch or thistle seed), which you can offer in feeders designed for this seed. Suet or peanut butter may attract woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and brown creepers. Offer year-round water by adding a bird bath heater. Avoid offering human “table scraps,” which may attract rodents or raccoons.

Remember to keep feeders and feeding areas clean by regularly raking up seed hulls and cleaning feeders by scrubbing them with soapy water and rinsing in water diluted with a small amount of bleach. Store seed in tight, waterproof containers to prevent mold and to discourage rodents that may be attracted to accessible seed.

Once you begin feeding, try to continue through the winter, but don’t worry about missing a few days, since feeding birds typically visit other feeding stations besides yours. If you notice sick or diseased birds, disinfect your feeders and stop feeding for 10 to 14 days to avoid further spreading diseases.