White-breasted nuthatch

In addition to seed feeders, white-breasted nuthatches are attracted to suet and peanut butter. (Courtney Celley / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

It seems that just as we’re beginning to enjoy the autumn season, fiery colors are replaced with grays and browns; dry leaves carpet the landscape. Meanwhile, many birds have flown to warmer climates in the southern United States, Caribbean, Mexico and Central and South America.

But not all birds fly south for the winter. These hardy residents bring a splash of color and hours of entertainment to backyards across the Chesapeake watershed.

Birds are warm-blooded animals and must maintain a constant body temperature as the temperature around them changes. To survive, they must spend much of their time eating so they can generate enough heat. It’s a vicious cycle though; they must eat to keep warm so they can gather more food.

During the warmer months, insects and other invertebrates provide much of their nutrition. Birds that are able to switch from an insect to a seed diet can stay put throughout winter. Finding food and water during the colder months, though, can still be a formidable task. Fortunately for these avian residents, bird-feeding is a popular and relatively easy activity.

Keep in mind that a feeding area should not only provide birds with easy access to food but also offer nearby protective cover from predators. Set up feeding stations near large shrubs, trees or fences. Evergreen trees and shrubs, like pines, hollies and cedars, afford excellent cover and protection, as well as a natural source of food.

By using particular styles of bird feeders and different seed mixtures, you can attract specific bird species to your yard. Mixed birdseed 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 species like the American goldfinch, 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.

Carolina wren

To attract a Carolina wren, hang a caged feeder with a rendered cake suet inside. (Evan Bornholtz / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Cage-style suet feeders hold square cakes of “rendered” suet, which is processed to kill bacteria. Suet attracts chickadees, nuthatches, brown creepers, woodpeckers, wrens and cardinals. Remember to hang suet feeders high enough so that dogs, cats and other animals cannot reach it.

Often, squirrels visit bird feeders and, in many cases, can become a nuisance by consuming the majority of seed. Squirrels can 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.

Many people solve their squirrel 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 squirrels away from a bird feeder.

You don’t need commercial feeders to attract birds. Peanut butter spread on pine cones and sweet gum balls, then rolled in a birdseed mixture and hung from trees will be popular with birds that hang while eating: woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees. Hung dried fruit is a favorite of some larger species: mockingbirds, woodpeckers, starlings, cedar waxwings, cardinals and blue jays.

Fall-fruiting plants — dogwood trees, mountain ash, winterberries — are great food sources for both migratory and resident birds. Of course, nut-producing trees like oak, hickory, chestnut, butternut, walnut and hazelnut, provide meals for a variety of birds, blue jays, woodpeckers and titmice, that feed on broken nuts.

Winter fruits remain on their plants long after they ripen in the fall. Many are not palatable until they freeze and thaw a few times. Examples of these include Virginia creeper, sumacs and American bittersweet.

We often forget that birds also require water. Birdbaths or even just a shallow pan or bowl of water will suffice. Keep in mind that cold temperatures can freeze water sources, making them inaccessible to birds. Keep water sources ice-free.

Like feeders, water sources should be placed off the ground and positioned near trees or bushes.

Once birds become accustomed to your feeding stations, they will continue to return. Do not suddenly cut off the food supply, especially during periods of severe weather.

Birds obviously benefit from feeders, but they also bring a lot of enjoyment to people. The National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, conducted every five years through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Census Bureau, shows just how much Americans love birds. The most recent survey in 2016 found that 81 million people participate in watching, feeding and photographing wildlife and the most popular pastime around the home was feeding birds! A little more than 57 million Americans fed wild birds, spending roughly $4 billion on food alone.

Attracting and feeding birds awakens a lifeless yard, porch or patio. Visiting birds brighten the brief, gray days in autumn and winter. By providing for their needs, we bring sound, color and joy to our lives.

Visit fws.gov//birds/bird-enthusiasts.php for information. Join a citizen science effort like Project Feederwatch or contact a local birding group in your area.

Kathryn Reshetiloff, a Bay Journal columnist, is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

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