Now that the warm colors of autumn have been replaced with browns, grays and tans of the winter, the landscape seems quieter. Mammals have begun to hunker down in warm dens. Many birds have left the area to spend the season basking in the southern climates of Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

Some birds, though, do not migrate south for the winter. Remaining in neighborhoods all across the Chesapeake Bay watershed, these hardy winter residents bring a splash of color and hours of entertainment to backyards everywhere.

How do they do it? Birds, like mammals, are warm-blooded animals and must maintain a constant body temperature as the temperature around them changes. To do this, they spend much of their time feeding so they can generate enough heat. It’s a vicious cycle though; they must eat to keep warm so they can gather more food. Birds that can switch from an insect diet to a seed diet can stay put throughout the winter.

For birds, finding food and water during the coldest months of the year can be a formidable task. In especially tough winters, birds rely on the kindness of strangers, providing feeders for them. Feeding birds is a popular hobby and easy to do.

A feeding area should provide birds with easy access to food while also providing protective cover from predators. Set up feeding stations near shrubs, trees, brush piles or fences to give birds easy access and protection. Evergreens, like pines, hollies and cedars, provide excellent cover and protection, and are a natural source of food.

By using specific styles of bird feeders and different seed mixtures, one can attract specific birds to a yard. Mixed birdseed on a simple tray or platform feeder mounted above the ground attracts sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and blue jays.

A tube feeder filled with sunflower seed is sure to delight smaller birds such as the American goldfinch, black-capped chickadee, Carolina chickadee and tufted titmouse. Thistle seed in a tube feeder is a favorite of American goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, chickadees and a variety of sparrows.

Dried fruit can also be hung and is a favorite of some of the larger species of birds such as mockingbirds, woodpeckers, starlings, cedar waxwings, cardinals and blue jays. Suet attracts chickadees, nuthatches, brown creepers, woodpeckers, wrens and cardinals. Suet should be hung high enough so that dogs, cats and other animals cannot reach it. Even without commercial feeders, it is easy to lure birds into one’s yard. Mixed seed and sunflower seed spread on the ground will bring sparrows, cardinals, mourning doves and common flickers.

Many birds actually have increased their range due, in part, to winter feeding. The cardinal, noted by its distinctive red color and head crest of cone-shaped feathers, is one bird that has expanded its range north. Males are brilliant red with a black face and throat. Females are gray olive with tinges of orange-red on her wings, crest and tail. Juveniles look like adult females, but young females may not have any red.

You are more likely to sight a cardinal in along the edge of a woodland. In the spring, to attract a mate, cardinals take turns singing to each other, then the male will present the female with a seed. Cardinals often build their nests in thickets using twigs and other materials to make a cup-shaped nest. Cardinals may produce more than one brood per summer. The male often finishes caring for the first brood while the female is incubating the second brood.

Although cardinals will eat fruit and insects, in the winter, their diet is mostly seeds. Sunflower seeds are their favorite food and their extra thick bill helps crack open the seeds. Because they’re very aggressive and territorial, one can attract more cardinals if the seed and feeders are widely scattered.

Attracting and feeding birds awakens a lifeless yard, porch or patio. The brief, gray days of winter are brighter and more tolerable with the addition of song, color and activity. By providing for the needs of these active and delicate visitors, we bring the natural world a little closer to home.

Kathy Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

Bird Feeding Basics

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