many people, feeding and watching birds in winter has become a major
pastime, almost an addiction.
Spike Knuth, Contributing Writer
A survey by the United States Fish and Wildlife
Service (USFWS) in 2001 revealed that 46 million people 16 years of age
and older consider themselves bird-watchers. Some 80 percent, or 40
million of them, are backyard birders. In one year alone, birders spent
about $32 billion, generating $85 billion in economic output!
Much of that money is spent on feeding birds in
winter. Winter can be very rough on our bird friends. Normally there is
plenty of natural food for them, but occasionally harsh weather in the
form of heavy snow or sleet may prevent them from getting at it. While the
birds are not really dependent on handouts from us, bird feeders can give
the birds a little “life insurance.” In turn, the birds give us some
enjoyable hours as we watch the colorful procession to and from our
It doesn’t take much to please the birds and keep
them coming back. Most birds will feed off of the ground and expensive
feeders are not a necessity. Many people fashion feeders out of plastic
jugs or bottles. A 2' x 2' board set up on a sawhorse and anchored by
bricks works fine. If you don’t want to build your own, feeders of all
kinds are readily available at farm and garden stores, or specialty stores
“for the birds.” They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from
fancy enclosed structures to simple platforms, or to shelters set on the
Types of Feeders
main types are platform or tray-type, either open or covered; the hopper
type that is gravity fed; the tube types; and suet feeders. The platform
or tray types can be mounted on a post or pole, or there are types that
have short legs and sit close to the ground. Make sure the hopper type has
proper angles on the side panels. Hoppers are gravity fed and if the side
panels are too perpendicular, the seed will not drop and disperse
properly. Tube-type feeders come with either small or large openings to
accommodate different seed types. Place hanging feeders where they can be
seen, but try to avoid hanging them too close to large windows.
Suet feeders, which are plastic-coated wire cages,
can be purchased at many stores. Suet cakes made of melted suet laced with
seeds or bits of fruit can be purchased and fit nicely into the cages. You
can also rig up onion sacks, or other wide-meshed materials to hold suet.
Hang them six to eight feet off of the ground on limbs, tied to branches,
or even nailed to a post. Suet can be purchased from meat counters at the
local market. Make sure you get true suet and not just meat fat. Suet is
the hard, waxy fat from around the kidneys or loins of beef, venison, and
mutton. It holds up better than meat fat, which can turn rancid.
Along with suet, there are three types of seed that
attract the most birds: sunflower seed; niger (thistle) seed; and white
proso millet. The most highly preferred seeds are sunflower seeds,
especially the black-oilseed variety, which is smaller and meatier, with
thinner hulls, and high in fat and protein. The striped variety is
acceptable, but is larger with a thicker hull.
Niger is a tiny wisp of a seed, much like celery
seed. It is imported from Africa and Asia, and is favored by the smaller
finches. This seed is best offered in the hanging, tube-type feeders. The
third main attractant is white proso millet, which is favored by
ground-feeding birds. Other seeds that birds like include safflower,
cracked corn, and red millet. If you have to make one choice, choose the
black-oil seed sunflower.
Visitors to your feeder will not be confined to
seedeaters. Carolina wrens and even yellow-rumped warblers might visit
your feeder to clean up pieces left by seedeaters. Mockingbirds, robins,
waxwings, and bluebirds are primarily fruit eaters in winter. Raisins and
sliced or quartered old apples will get their attention. Of course, scraps
of bread, crackers, and doughnuts that get too old will be welcomed by
many species. Beware, however, of attracting furry nocturnal creatures
with wiggly noses!
Peanut butter has also proven attractive to some
birds at times. It can just be dabbed on and served up in coconut or
walnut shell halves or pine cones. Some people mix seeds with it.
Personally I’ve always considered peanut butter to be too good of a
“people food” to give to the birds! If you like to buy and eat peanuts
or nuts in the shell, save the leftovers and put them out. Little tidbits
of nutmeats often remain lodged in the crevices of the shells, which birds
are very adept at removing.
Habits Change with the Season
Bird-feeding habits are variable not only by species,
but also by season and, in many cases, the region. Some species are
primarily ground feeders around the bases of trees and shrubs. Still
others come mainly to elevated feeders or suet cages.
One thing to remember in winter is that birds feed
heavily before a storm hits. If the weather forecast calls for a snowstorm
or sleet, get the food out ahead of the storm by at least 10 or 12 hours.
Birds will fill up, then find suitable shelter and sit tight to wait out
the storm. They are very hesitant about leaving shelter during a cold wet
storm. Occasionally they’ll disappear just before a storm. They’ll
often move to wooded swamps or coniferous forests that offer protection
from the wind and snow, and where food and water sources remain uncovered
due to the dense stands of timber. Remember, too, to clear a spot on the
ground for birds to get grit, which aids them in digestion.
What species of birds you attract and see is often
dependent on your surroundings; the types of habitat close by. Woodlands,
swamps, fields, and hedgerows, or a pond or stream close by, will provide
more opportunities for variety. Birds need protective cover and will stay
close to it.
Much to be Learned at Lunch
A lot can be learned about individual species of
birds by just observing them at the feeders. Each has its habits,
mannerisms and methods. Cardinals seem to be very “picky and choosy”
about what individual seeds they eat. They begin their visits to the
feeders early, and are usually the last to visit them as night falls. Blue
jays come to the feeder boldly and quickly, pick up a seed, then take it
to a tree branch and crack them open with their bills by means of a
hammering action. Sometimes the jays will gobble up three or four seeds at
a time and carry them to a more private place, regurgitate them and then
hammer them open. Chickadees and titmice also make quick visits, grabbing
a seed and going to a private place to crack it open. Nuthatches will
carry seeds off and stash them in crevices of bark for later use.
Frequently the question is asked, “Will birds
become reliant on my feeding?” According to the Laboratory of
Ornithology, Cornell University, “no evidence exists that birds depend
on bird feeders for their survival. Therefore, don’t worry if you must
stop feeding them for awhile.”
However, during those severe storms we certainly can
make things easier for them.
Try It, You’ll Like It!
If you haven’t tried attracting and feeding birds
in winter, you’re in for a real treat. Keep it simple to start. Just put
out one platform or one hopper-type, hanging feeder, fill it with black
oilseed sunflower seeds, and keep track of what you see. By keeping a log
of what species visit your feeder and when, you’ll build anticipation,
waiting for that “new” bird to visit your feeders. Feeding winter
birds is a pleasant addiction.
Winter Bird Foods
A small, thin-shelled seed that is meatier and rich in fat
and protein than the striped kind. Almost all species will eat it,
including cardinals, grosbeaks, titmice, chickadees, blue jays,
nuthatches, finches, pine siskins, white-throated sparrows,
juncos, song sparrows, red-bellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers,
towhees, doves, and others. Carolina wrens and yellow-rumped
warblers will pick up scraps left by others.
Larger, thicker shells than black oilseed. Cardinals, grosbeaks,
red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, titmice, chickadees,
nuthatches, white-throated sparrows, pine siskin, finches, and
others will eat it.
A small but high-calorie food. Expensive. Absolute best food to
attract goldfinch, but also eaten by other finches at the feeder.
White-throated sparrows, juncos, doves, and song sparrows will
clean up spilled seeds from under the tube feeders.
White Proso Millet: Most
preferred of the millets. Has a hard seed coat, which deters
spoilage, but birds can crack it. Liked especially by the ground
feeders such as cardinals, towhees, white-throated sparrows, song
sparrows, juncos, doves, and others.
kidney fat is the best. Suet cakes mixed with seeds or cut-up
fruits are available in ready-to-use form. Favored by chickadees,
nuthatches, brown creepers, kinglets, Carolina wrens, downy
woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, and yellow-rumped warblers.
Seeds: Easy for
all birds to eat, but is expensive and spoils quickly in wet
spoil quicker in wet weather. Eaten by cardinals, grosbeaks,
doves, titmice, and finches.
Cracked corn: Spoils
quickly when wet, and attracts some species considered undesirable
by many. Eaten by doves, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, and
Whole corn: Eaten
by red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, and doves.
Red Millet: Eaten
by many types of sparrows and juncos.
shelled. Used as filler in birdseed mixes. Eaten by doves, blue
jays and sparrows.
Peanuts (in the
shell): A good source of protein. Used by blue jays, titmice,
nuthatches, and red-bellied woodpeckers.
(unsalted-shelled): Attracts even more species. Eaten by blue
jays, titmice, white-throated sparrows, and others.
Peanut Butter: A
people food but is eaten by nuthatches, titmice, and others.
natural and nutritious high-energy food. Pecans, hickory, walnut
and acorns can all be collected and cracked open for the birds.
Eaten by woodpeckers, blue jays, chickadees, nuthatches, and
titmice. Will attract squirrels and chipmunks.
Melon, Squash and
Pumpkin Seeds: Not available commercially at a reasonable
price. A lot of work to collect and dry but are very attractive to
cardinals and doves in particular.
grapes, currants, sliced apples, etc. Will attract robins,
bluebirds, mockingbirds, brown thrashers, cedar waxwings, Carolina
wrens, house finches, and woodpeckers.
Mealworms, a beetle larvae, and waxworms, a bee moth larvae, can
be purchased at fishing bait shops, pet stores or by mail, and
will attract bluebirds, robins, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice,
Carolina wrens, red-bellied and downy woodpeckers, cardinals and
finches. Can get expensive.
Beware of bags of mixed seeds sold in grocery stores and
discount department stores. While inexpensive they are loaded with
seeds and fillers that birds won’t eat.
throughout the winter will be a plus in attracting birds.
Freeze-proof birdbaths of different types are available at garden
and bird specialty stores.