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Feeding birds in winter

January 5, 2011

According to the most recent census reports, bird watching may very well be America's fastest growing national pastime, with more than 65 million Americans of all ages putting bird feeders in their yards, where they can easily appreciate them. In fact, by some survey estimates, bird watching is America's second most popular leisure time activity, with birding buffs spending more than $2.5 billion annually on feeders and seed. Only gardening is more popular.

In summer and fall, most non-migratory songbirds feed primarily on insects and spiders. They supplement their diet with berries, seeds and other vegetation. But in winter, there are no insects, and the edible berries and vegetation that haven't been eaten become buried under the snow and packed in ice. Across the North Country, devoted bird enthusiasts take pleasure and pride in helping their feathered friends survive the harsh winter months, dutifully providing them with food, water and shelter.

No matter where you live, you can put food out, helping to ensure birds' survival. Many bird watchers simply scatter seed on the ground, or more accurately, atop the snow and ice on the ground. And many birds actually prefer ground feeding. But birds feeding on the ground can be easy prey for cats and other predators such as hawks. Besides, ground feeding is a wasteful practice. Large quantities of seed unavoidably become covered with snow. And prolonged exposure to moisture can result in contamination by mold and bacteria as well.

It is 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, etc.

Whether you choose to watch yard birds through a bay window or sliding glass door from the comfort of your living room, or through a kitchen, bathroom or second-story bedroom window, be sure, when you place them, that your feeders are in locations that you can access easily, even in deep snow, and where discarded seed husks and critter droppings will not be a problem.

I don't think that there is 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 is easy to crack and a larger, meatier center than other sunflower seeds. They are extremely nutritious and high in fat content as well. Folks who put out standard mixes of seeds inevitably find that 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 is often available at butcher counters in supermarkets, and it is inexpensive. Or you can make your own. I even know of area birdwatchers who add raisins and other bits of fruit and nuts to their homemade suet. The birds, especially the woodpeckers, absolutely love it. Just remember, when temperatures rise, suet can become rancid.

Unfortunately, putting out food for the birds will almost always, sooner or later, attract squirrels to your yard, too. Squirrels frighten birds away. They are destructive and can empty 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, similar location.

Many birders place barriers over the top of their feeders to prevent squirrels from stealing large caches of seed. Others use only pole feeders, which are supposed to be squirrel-proof. Some add cayenne pepper to their feed as a squirrel repellant.

Then there are those who have found that combating determined squirrels can become an endless struggle. They choose, instead, to put up easy-access corn and seed feeders specifically for the squirrels, and to welcome them and enjoy their presence and their antics as well.

It is a good practice to clean your feeders regularly by washing them with hot soapy water and disinfectant, keeping in mind that wood may become faded or discolored when exposed to bleach. You can wash your feeders by hand using a pail, or if you prefer, you can place them in the dishwasher.

If you put out a feeder and find that no birds come to it, don't be discouraged. It may take time for them to find it. Keep in mind, too, that in times of mild weather, you may see a decrease in activity at your feeder. When there is an abundant supply of available food in the wild, birds will often consume the wild food first. Snowstorms and accumulations of snow will bring them back.

You can take pleasure and pride in helping your feathered friends survive the harsh winter months. But the decision to feed wild birds should not be a casual one. The birds that come to your feeders will become dependent on them as a regular place to eat. They will be relying on you for their survival. So you have to keep them full.

If you find enjoyment in feeding birds, you can go on feeding them year round.



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