Feeding the birds in winter

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

(1/3) Watching birds in the winter is enjoyable and fun to do. During dreary days, we can lift our spirits by watching the little creatures flitting around the feeders and seed heads of perennials, and in and out of evergreen trees and shrubs. Our feeders are located outside our living space and we can watch the activity for quite a long time as the birds visit different feeders. Having a field guide close by helps when wondering what those little birds are Ė identifying them is half the fun.

Many types of birds visit in any given period of time. Red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, chickadees, juncos, white-throated sparrows, house finches, cardinals and tufted titmice grace us with their presence. An assortment of feeders and feed will attract a larger variety of our flying friends.

Supplemental Food: We can supplement the natural food source by providing seed through bird feeders. Many styles of feeders are available, from tubes and platforms to nets and hoppers. The more variety of feeders you provide, the more variety of visitors you will have. Tube feeders typically attract finches, while the platform feeders will attract larger birds like cardinals and blue jays and the netting can be filled with suet for the woodpeckers.

Probably the most versatile feeder is the hopper. At our hopper, we have finches, juncos, titmice and chickadees visiting daily. We keep it full of black oil sunflower seed. Another feeder that we use is a suet feeder. This feeder allows the birds to feed on the underside as the holes are below the suet cake. Mostly woodpeckers hang out at this feeder, literally. Itís really enjoyable to watch them!

We also have a net that we fill with suet or a peanut butter mixture that includes sunflower seeds. This attracts the woodpeckers, but we get flickers and jays flitting around as well. A piece of a wooden post with holes that we spread the peanut butter/sunflower mixture provides cardinals and blue jays as well as finches and titmice a feast to partake. Gold finches love the tube feeders. The gold finches will feed upside down, making this an interesting watch.

Just as there is a variety of feeders, so goes the types of feed. Millet, sunflowers, corn and peanut butter can all be a food source for birds. The most versatile seed is the black oil sunflower seed. This seed can be mixed with peanut butter and put into the suet feeders, and it can be used in hoppers as well as platform feeders for the cardinals, chickadees and titmice.

The least useful type of feed is millet. Typically when buying a bird feed mix, the millet is what the birds will scratch to the ground and discard. Itís mostly just a filler to add weight for the bag. Niger (thistle seed) is used in the tube feeders for the gold, purple and house finches. These are tiny seeds and are typically on the pricier side, but the finches just love it! Peanuts, whether in the shell or shelled, broken or whole, will attract birds like blue jays, chickadees, titmice and woodpeckers.

A Christmas tradition in our family is to smear peanut butter onto pinecones and hang them on the trees. We also use orange and apple slices, string them together and have an outdoor Christmas tree for the birds! Even at 21, our oldest daughter still enjoys this winter tradition.

Feeder Location: When locating the feeders, whatever type you choose, remember one important element: shelter. The birds need to feel protected and have a quick get-away from any potential hunters, like hawks and cats. Be sure to locate the feeders near evergreen trees or near brush or plants that they can quickly fly to when danger is in their midst. Our feeder on our deck has evergreen trees to one side and a dense, deciduous tree to the other. This allows them cover from potential predators.

Water: For best bird activity and bird health, not only should you provide a food source (whether with plants or store-bought bird feed) and shelter, but you should also provide water. A heated birdbath can provide that. There are many types of bird baths and heaters on the market. Small fish ponds, or just a clean dish of shallow water set out each morning can provide this source of water as well.

Plant Life: Take advantage of the winter months to plan for a bird habitat. Research the sizes of shrubs and trees, study the best locations to plant bird attracting shrubs, trees and perennials. Understand and see the beauty of a less than tidy garden, as the dead stems and thick brush are the reason bird activity will happen in any given area. Keep in mind the visibility of the feeders from inside your house so you can properly locate the plants for your view of the bird activity.

When planning for winter visitors, plant things that have seed heads that can remain through the winter months. Common perennials such as black-eyed susans, coneflowers, and asters will provide seeds. Evergreen shrubs and trees, like inkberry holly, American holly and white pines will provide shelter for the birds. Deciduous shrubs like viburnums, winterberry holly and sumac provide berries. Allow old, dead trees to remain standing if safety is not an issue. These will provide nesting holes in the summer, but also the woodpeckers and other birds like blue jays love to use the trees to break open seeds and nuts.

As we watch the birds on our deck, we observe the woodpecker taking a sunflower seed, flying to the deck railing and cracking it open. We watch the bluejays bully the chickadees and snatch up a lot of the food, and see the titmice grab a seed and fly to the nearby tree to eat it.

I remember, not long ago, thinking that bird watching was for old geezers. In the early days of dating my husband, I can remember visiting him in San Francisco. At the time, he was working with the US Dept. of Interior, researching waterfowl in the bay area. As an avid bird watcher at 26, not typical in my box of pictures of birdwatchers, but he was cute and awesome, so what the heck.

What I have come to find out is that birdwatching is for all ages, especially backyard birding. Classes are offered at local community colleges, and folks of all ages attend Ė a clear indication that my box of pictures if far outdated. Many folks, including myself, find this hobby worth the time. Just check out the local supermarkets and box stores and see how much merchandise and space is given to this hobby we call "feeding the birds".

Look into acquiring field guides to help you identify the birds visiting your feeders in the winter. Some guides you may want to look at are Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America and Sibley Guide to Birds. A website to check out is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds (www.allaboutbirds.org) .

My guess is when spring comes, youíll be more aware of the bird activity around you and checking out that guide even more frequently than you have during the winter. Enjoy the quiet of the winter and the flurry of bird activity. When we get "snowed-in" again this winter season, remember to take the time to relax and watch the birds.

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