As winter sets in across the North Country, devoted bird-enthusiasts resume feeding overwintering birds. They take both pleasure and pride in helping their feathered friends survive the harsh winter months, by dutifully providing them with food, water, and shelter.
Feeding birds during the winter can be a never-ending source of entertainment and enjoyment. And an easy, rewarding, and sometimes surprising way to connect with nature. No matter where you live, you can invite birds into your yard and help to ensure their survival by simply putting food out for them to find.
Many bird-watchers simply scatter seed on the ground or, more accurately, atop the snow and ice that’s on the ground. And many birds welcome; perhaps even prefer ground-feeding (e.g. juncos, grosbeaks, cardinals, grackles, doves). But ground-feeding can be wasteful. And I find that enough seed spills from my hanging feeders to appease the more-adamant ground-feeders.
Feeders and Feeding Stations
It’s best to use feeders that keep seed dry, and to establish feeding stations in areas that are sheltered and that provide natural cover for birds as they wait for their turn to feed. Tray feeders should be placed near the ground; hopper and tube feeders hung or suspended from tree limbs, shepherd’s hooks, etc. Just be sure that your feeders are placed in locations that you can access easily, even in deep snow, and where discarded seed husks and critter droppings won’t present a problem.
What to Feed
I don’t think there’s a North Country birder that wouldn’t agree that black oil sunflower seeds are, far and away, the preferred choice of chickadees, finches, cardinals, grosbeaks, sparrows, and many others. These seeds have a thin shell that’s easy to crack and a larger, meatier center than other sunflower seeds. They’re extremely nutritious and high in fat content, as well. Folks that put out standard mixes of seeds inevitably find that feeder visiting birds will sort through and discard the many other varieties of seed, which often include millet, oats, buckwheat, and flax, choosing to eat only the favored sunflower seeds.
Many bird watchers put suet out, as well. Suet is a first-rate energy food for birds and another of their favorites. It’s widely available, inexpensive, and the birds, especially the woodpeckers, nuthatches, and jays absolutely love it.
You can even make your own.
1 cup lard
1 cup peanut butter
2 ½ cups oats
2 ½ cups cornmeal
(Optional) raisins, fruit, nuts, and/or birdseed
Melt the lard and the peanut butter.
Stir in the oats and the cornmeal.
Add the optional ingredients.
Pour the mixture into a pan and refrigerate overnight.
Cut into squares and wrap in plastic for easy storage and removal.
Coping with Squirrels
Unfortunately, putting out food for the birds will almost always, sooner or later, attract squirrels to your yard, too. Squirrels frighten birds away. They’re often destructive. And they can empty (or damage) a feeder in no time, often not even eating the seed that they take, but rather storing or ‘squirreling’ it away in the hollow of a tree or in some other location.
Many birders place barriers or baffles over the top of their feeders to prevent squirrels from stealing large caches of seed. Others use exclusion-type bird feeders and / or pole feeders, which are supposed to be squirrel proof.
Then, there are those who add cayenne pepper to birdseed to discourage squirrels and other rodent pests. And while it’s true that squirrels find cayenne pepper difficult to take, while birds can eat cayenne pepper without being affected by the heat, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology warns that the capsaicin in hot peppers can burn birds’ eyes, and that pets that poke around in the fallen seed may suffer similar injury from exposure.
Others have found that combating determined squirrels can become an endless struggle. They choose, instead, to ground-feed corn or put up easy access feeders specifically for the squirrels, and to welcome them and enjoy their presence and their antics, as well.
Feeding Wild Birds Shouldn’t Be a Casual Decision
The birds that come to your yard will be relying on your feeders for their survival. And, according to the National Wildlife Federation, quoting Dr. David J. Horn, a Professor of Biology at Millikin University, in Decatur, Illinois, whose research interests include wild bird feeding, ‘a bird’s diet must fuel a metabolism that can require up to 10,000 calories a day (equivalent to a human consuming 155,000 calories).’ So, you have to keep your feeders full, which means you’ll be spending your hard-earned money on birdseed.
A great way to get involved with winter bird-watching is to sign up for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch; a citizen scientist project that runs annually from early winter through the end of April. People with feeders identify species of birds that are visiting and record the species they observe in an online database. Learn more at feederwatch.org.
Photo at top: Carolina wrens sit atop a snowman’s head. Photo by Michele Black, Cornell Lab of Ornithology