Feeding birds in the winter

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Tue., Nov. 26, 2013
- Contributed Photo

At last count, about 40 percent of U.S. households set out seed and suet for the birds. This provides us with a great opportunity to observe the beauty and antics of our feathered visitors and often helps the birds survive the long, cold and snowy winter months.

Another great thing about bird-feeding is that anyone can participate at some level. Set up a small window feeder, a tube feeder off the front porch, or a variety of feeding stations throughout the yard. Any effort, however small, will be amply appreciated by avian friends.

Probably the two biggest challenges to backyard bird-feeding enthusiasts are finding quality birdseed at a good price and keeping squirrels from consuming it all before the birds do. Go into any store – even the supermarket – and there are usually a number of brands of birdseed to choose from. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, black-oil sunflower seeds are clearly a favorite choice of the majority of birds that will visit your feeder. They are smaller than the striped sunflower seeds, making it easier for smaller birds to crack them open and feed on them. Black-oil sunflower seeds also are nutritious and high in fat and have a high meat-to-shell ratio.

In feeding preference tests done at Cornell, other seeds and foods were also eaten. Whole corn was consumed by game birds, jays and doves, while cracked corn was enjoyed by sparrows, finches and blackbirds. White prose millet was preferred over the red variety. Thistle or nijer seed is favored by goldfinches, redpolls and siskins and should be placed in a specially-made feeder as it is so small, it can spill readily. Cardinals also enjoy safflower seeds, which are supposedly not liked as much as sunflower seeds by squirrels and house sparrows. I will say that I bought a sunflower/safflower mix and put it in my window feeder. First the cardinals (and others) ate all the sunflower seed and then they slowly made their way through the safflower seed. The squirrels did not seem very interested in the safflower seeds, at least.

The goal in feeding (at least mine) is to have as little waste as possible. You may have to experiment with different seeds/mixes to see what works best in your yard. Cornell also gives a homemade birdseed recipe which consists of 25 pounds of black-oil sunflower seeds and 10 pounds each of cracked corn and white proso millet. Always store your seed someplace dry and preferably in a rodent-proof metal container. Some folks toss out stale bread or crackers and the like, and while birds do like it, this practice may attract undesirable critters as well, so use your judgment. Also, just as moldy bread is not healthy for humans to eat, it is also not good for birds, so toss it in the compost pile or trash.

Suet, which is beef fat, attracts insect-eating birds like nuthatches, flickers and woodpeckers and also crows. Feeding suet is more appropriate in the winter, as it can quickly turn rancid in warm weather.

Probably more important than food in the winter is a source of fresh water for the birds. Many of us fill bird baths during the warmer weather but bring them in for the winter months. Two ways to provide fresh water are to purchase an electric, immersion heating element which is placed in the bird bath and which will supply enough warmth to keep it from freezing or just put out a bowl of warm water each morning. I have a solar sipper that has a black plastic top on it with a hole in the center. It usually keeps water from freezing for several hours even on really cold days. The one thing that most people do not do regularly is clean their feeders.

When placing your feeder, select an area where cats and other predators cannot conceal themselves. In or near a tree is good, as it would provide some natural shelter and perches. Hang a feeder off the porch or pole, attach one to the outside of your window or consider a windowsill feeder where you can view birds up close and personal. The easier it is for you to get to it, the more likely you are to regularly fill it. Having evergreen trees somewhere in the area gives birds a refuge to tuck into during stormy weather.

One question that arises when feeding birds in the winter is what will happen if I go on vacation and stop feeding them? If you have neighbors that are feeding the birds, they will probably not even notice you are gone. If you are alone in providing food for them, perhaps you could start to taper off a few days before you leave, so they will start searching for alternative sources.

A study done in England suggests that once the snow is gone, we should take down the feeders. In a population of great tits, those that were provided with supplemental food laid fewer eggs and a reduced number of eggs hatched even though they laid their eggs earlier. It is thought that the birds spend more time defending their food source than engaging in breeding behavior. Whether this is true for our native New England birds is not known, but it does make sense, so maybe we can decrease our bird feeding activities as spring arrives.

Enjoy your holidays! Share some food with the birds! Both you and they will be grateful! For questions about birdfeeding or on other indoor or outdoor gardening topics, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center toll-free at 877-486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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