For many people, winter is a period of inactivity and dormancy. Holed up in our homes, we eagerly look forward to the coming spring to relieve us of our doldrums. The woods and fields are silent as mammals hibernate in warm dens and most birds bask in the warmth of southern climates.
But many songbirds 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.
For birds, finding food and water during the coldest months of the year can be a formidable task. Feeding birds and bird watching are popular hobbies. They are easy to do and one can start at any time.
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. Evergreen trees and shrubs, such as pines, hollies and cedars, provide excellent cover and protection.
Even without commercial feeders, you can lure birds into your yard. Mixed seed and sunflower seed spread on the ground will bring sparrows, cardinals, mourning doves and common flickers. Trees and bushes can be decorated with tasty morsels. Spread peanut butter onto pine cones and sweetgum balls and roll these in a birdseed mixture. Hang the seed-coated balls from tree branches with string. These "outdoor ornaments" will be popular with birds that hang while eating, such as woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees.
Dried fruit can also be hung and is a favorite of some of the larger bird species, such as mockingbirds, woodpeckers, starlings, cedar waxwings, cardinals and blue jays.
Ask for beef suet at meat section in your grocery store. Small pieces of suet or fat placed inside a netted onion bag and hung from the tree will help supplement the diet of a variety of birds. Suet bags attract chickadees, nuthatches, brown creepers, woodpeckers, wrens and cardinals. Suet should be hung high enough so that dogs, cats and other animals cannot reach it. It should also be checked periodically and removed if it begins to spoil. Cage-style suet feeders hold square cakes of "rendered" suet, which is processed to kill bacteria.
By using specific styles of bird feeders and different seed mixtures, you can attract specific bird species to your yard. Mixed bird seed on a simple tray or platform feeder mounted above the ground attracts sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, blue jays, starlings and grackles.
A tube feeder filled with sunflower seed is sure to delight some of the smaller birds like the American goldfinch, black-capped chickadee, Carolina chickadee and tufted titmouse. Thistle seed in a tube feeder is a favorite of goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, chickadees and a variety of sparrows.
Often, squirrels visit bird feeders and, in many cases, can become a nuisance by consuming the majority of seed. Squirrels may also damage feeders by chewing through plastic and wooden parts. One way to curtail this problem is to erect squirrel guards, metal cones placed above hanging feeders and below feeders mounted on poles. Squirrels simply slip off the guards before they can reach the seed. Many people solve this problem by creating a squirrel feeding station away from bird feeding areas. Uncooked corn on the cob is a favorite of squirrels and can be used to lure them away from your bird feeder.
We often forget that wintering birds also require water. Cold winter temperatures may freeze available water sources, making them completely inaccessible to birds. Birdbaths or even a shallow pan or bowl filled with water will satisfy a bird's water requirements.
Like feeders, water sources should be placed off the ground and positioned near trees or bushes. They must be kept ice-free for the birds to benefit from it. This usually means checking the dish daily, removing any ice and refilling it with fresh water. Another solution is to use a bird bath heater, a specialized heater placed in bird baths that prevents ice from forming.
Once birds have become accustomed to your feeding stations, they will continue to return for more food. Do not suddenly cut off the supply of food, especially during periods of severe weather. Continue to feed birds into the spring and summer. Birds need a high energy source during these warmer seasons to help fuel activities such as nest building. In the spring, migratory songbirds begin to fly to northern breeding grounds. They, too, rely on available high energy foods to help them complete their arduous journeys.
Feeding birds is obviously beneficial to them, but people also get a lot of enjoyment too. In fact, the 1996 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation, conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, found that almost 61 million people participated in wildlife watching activities around their homes. This included observing, feeding and photographing wildlife. Fifty two million people reported feeding wild birds, making it the most popular of the wildlife watching activities. Bird feeding is good for the economy. In 1996, Americans reportedly spent more than $2.7 million dollars on bird food and more than $800,000 on feeders, baths, nest boxes and bird houses.
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.