Welcoming Winter’s Birds


If you’ve ever paused beside a window in wintertime, warm coffee cup in hand, and watched a sprightly flock of songbirds flitting among the branches of your backyard, you have been blessed. There is no trove of precious gemstones as spectacular — or as heart-lifting — as ruby-red cardinals, lapis jays and citrine goldfinches. It doesn’t matter how gray the day, even the most weary winter spirits are bound to take wing while watching those bright and busy little bodies.

That’s why feeding them is not just a gesture of goodwill, but also a guiltless pleasure, a lavish indulgence. With the simple act of filling a feeder, we extend an unspoken invitation to these amazingly accessible wild creatures, and their sustenance becomes our privilege.
Although birds are remarkably adept at surviving the harshest winter conditions by foraging in the wild, feeders offer much easier pickings than frozen fields and forests. From dawn till dusk, songbirds are focused on fueling up to fight the cold, eating up to 3/4 of their body weight each day in order to endure long, frigid nights. If you’d like to help your feathered neighbors weather the winter and pamper yourself with the daily delights of backyard bird watching, here are a few ideas to get you started.

Find Your Feeder
Bird feeders come in every size, shape and style under the sun. If you’re looking for something artful to complement your landscape, visit The Birdhouse Chick (www.thebirdhousechick.com) to find feeders crafted from wood, gourds, copper and even stained glass. They’re gorgeous!
But it you’d rather save money and turn a little trash into treasure, you might enjoy building your own bird feeder. Gather up a few clean, dry household containers — milk jugs, coffee cans, pie tins or water bottles — and follow the simple illustrated instructions provided by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources at www.dnr.state.wi.us. (Search “Recycle for the Birds.”)

Fill It Up
Bags of birdseed are easy to come by, but before buying, consider this: According to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, roughly 67 million birds are killed annually from pesticide exposure on U.S. agricultural lands, and that’s likely just the tip of the iceberg. The full extent of bird fatalities due to pesticides is difficult to determine because most deaths go undetected. When we buy commercially grown seeds and grain to feed our backyard buddies, we’re not only exposing them to pesticide-laden products, we’re also supporting an industry that is ultimately harmful to bird species worldwide. Our choices, and the dollars we spend, make a difference.
If you’d like the convenience of buying pre-made seed mixes, Wild Wings Organic Bird Foods (www.wildwingsorganic.com) offers certified organic seeds free of chemical additives and preservatives. But making your own organic bird feed is an easy and inexpensive alternative. Purchase bulk organic seed from your local food co-op or visit Nature’s Choice Essentials (www.organicbirdfood.com) to find over 30 varieties of “Nutcracker Sweets,” organic seeds that can be mixed and matched.
In general, black oil sunflower seeds are preferred by most backyard birds, including cardinals, finches, juncos, nuthatches, grosbeaks, titmice, chickadees, jays, woodpeckers and sparrows. This seed has a high meat-to-shell ratio, is high in fat, and is easy for small birds to handle and crack. Safflower, corn and millet are also crowd-pleasers that make good additions to a seed mixture.
Suet (a “cake” of fat and seed) is another feeding option that provides energy-rich nutrition. Organic suet is available from Naturalgiftcreations.com, or you could make your own. I loved the simple suet idea shared on my Web site chat room. A woman and her grandchildren rolled pinecones in peanut butter and birdseed, and then hung them from bright ribbons on “Christmas trees” outdoors.

Just remember to keep your feeder neat ‘n’ tidy to prevent illness and the spread of disease. If seed or suet starts to go bad, dump it in the compost bin (away from bird access), scrub the feeder, and refill with fresh food.

Watch, Love and Learn
Bird watching is practically guaranteed to inspire an interest in learning about each uniquely feathered friend who visits your feeder. If you have never attempted to identify birds before, this is a fun opportunity to brush up on your observation skills. The experts at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommend keeping a pencil and notebook beside your bird-watching window. When you spot an unfamiliar bird, jot down everything you see, from size and shape to markings and behaviors. With notes in hand, consult “The Common Feeder Birds Poster,” available for free downloading at www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/FreeDownloads.htm, or a field guide such as “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America” by Roger Tory Peterson.

Copyright 2009, MaryJane Butters.
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.