Words on Birds
---- — The days are becoming windy and cold, and the nights are getting longer and even colder. There is a feel of winter in the air. In New England, winter can be a difficult time for birds. Most insects — the typical summer diet for songbirds — are dead or are becoming dormant. Most songbirds that stay the winter will shift their diets to fruits and seed, but the fruits of summer and the fall seed crop is being consumed, and will eventually become more scarce.
If you haven’t fed the birds through the summer and fall, this is the time of year to put up those feeders and welcome the birds to your “table” for food. If you have been feeding birds right through the summer and fall, you may have noticed a drop-off of activity at your feeders for the past couple of months. This is natural, as the birds are very opportunist. They take advantage of the abundant supply of natural seed from trees, flowers and weeds while it is available.
As that gets consumed and the natural supply decreases, the birds will remember where your feeders are. With the colder weather, the birds are really fueling up and returning to feeders where they are available. Setting up a bird feeder in the back yard will make their lives easier, and yours more enjoyable. To observe the many birds that spend the winter here, you don’t have to go out into the elements (unless you want to.) You can simply watch them from the warmth and comfort of your home. Studies have shown that feeding birds can have some therapeutic effect for adults and, thus, it can be beneficial to both humans and birds.
Having a backyard feeder will make children more aware of birds and nature which, hopefully, will instill in them the need to conserve resources and protect habitats. If you are feeding the birds for the first time, you may wonder what to serve. Different birds enjoy different types of seed, but black-oil sunflower seems to be the favorite of most feeder birds.
The black-oil seed has a high fat content for energy, and a thin shell that allows the smaller birds to get to the meat of the seed more effortlessly. Striped sunflower is larger, with a harder shell that is easily opened and consumed by cardinals and grosbeaks, but requires a little more work by chickadees and titmice. Sunflower hearts, with no shells, is no work at all for the birds.
Sunflower can be served in a tube feeder for the smaller birds, or in a tray or hopper feeder for cardinals and other larger birds. Nyger, or thistle seed, is a specialty seed that is enjoyed by goldfinches, house finches, redpolls and pine siskins. Thistle is usually served in a tube feeder with very small openings to minimize spillage. You can also use a mesh “sock” or a fine screen feeder that the finches cling to and pull out the tiny thistle seeds. Millet is a small round seed that is often found in seed blends, but it can also be served separately to attract sparrows, juncos, towhees and mourning doves. Mourning doves also enjoy cracked corn, as do blackbirds, blue jays, pheasants and wild turkeys.
Blue jays also enjoy peanuts, as do woodpeckers, nuthatches and tufted titmice. Peanuts can be served on a tray or in a mesh feeder.
Safflower, a white seed a little smaller than black-oil sunflower, is another specialty seed that is especially attractive to cardinals. House finches, mourning doves and even chickadees will eat safflower, but its greatest benefit seems to be that it is less attractive to squirrels, pigeons, grackles and house sparrows.
Peanut butter is a table food which many birds like. Chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers draw high-energy from peanut butter and there is no evidence that they might choke on the sticky substance. You can always mix it with corn meal, oatmeal, or small seeds to eliminate any risk.
Suet is the other high-energy food for birds during the winter. You can put out raw beef suet in the cold weather, or serve more convenient, commercial suet cakes to attract woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, Carolina wrens and any wintering orioles or catbirds. A fun winter project with children is to melt down beef suet and add your own seeds, nuts, peanut butter or corn meal. You can let it cool and cut into blocks, or spread the softened mixture into pine cones to be hung for the birds.
Wintering robins, bluebirds, mockingbirds and catbirds usually eat fruit in the winter. You can offer them raisins or currants, that are first softened and plumped up in warm water, on a tray feeder. Sliced apple or oranges might also attract them and there are a variety of fruit feeders that will allow you to make your offering accessible for the birds. These, and many other birds, will also be ever grateful for a cup of mealworms, if you really want to please them.
Water that is not frozen is often as hard to find as food in the winter for the birds. Birds need water to drink, but also to keep their feathers warm and fluffed for insulation from the cold. A de-icer in any bird bath, or a bird bath with built in heater, is the easiest way to provide open water. A plastic dish that you place on the ground and can empty and refill each day will also serve the purpose. Offering birds food and water in the cold months ahead will help them survive until spring, and will give you warm feelings as you enjoy the company that they provide.
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.