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If winter cold and snow drive you indoors, open a colorful cold-weather window with hours of bird-watching entertainment. Iowans spend more than $300 million annually watching wildlife, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Much of that comes from feeding birds, especially through our cold weather months. Use these tips to attract the most birds.
Maintain Feeding Routes The best way to attract winter birds is to get on their regular feeding routes before cold and snow eliminate many of their natural choices. A steady food source keeps birds coming. That might be a year-round effort on your part, but it becomes more important in the fall, as migrating birds start showing up in backyards.
“Maintain your feed and water regimes and songbirds will be plentiful all winter and into spring,” insists Pat Schlarbaum, from the DNR’s wildlife diversity program. “A lot of banding studies—amazingly—indicate that once a bird survives its first winter, they will be around for a long time. They bring the great outdoors right into your backyard.”
Top Foods But what to feed them? “Sunflower seeds are good. Maybe a good quality mix—sunflowers, striped and black, nuts, and peanuts,” suggests Dan Waltz from Wildlife Habitat, a Cedar Rapids outdoor store. He puts emphasis on good quality seeds and foods. “Any good mix has to have sunflower seeds. When you get into the millet, milo and the grains, you lose quality.”
Sunflower seeds attract a wide variety of birdwatching favorites— cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees and white-throated sparrows. Even blue jays and hairy woodpeckers are drawn to versatile foods. Black-oil sunflower seeds have a higher oil content and their thinner shells are easier to crack versus striped sunflower seeds.
But, you can’t escape reality. High commodity prices have more producers opting for corn and soybean plantings. With less land available, sunflower seed prices have climbed skyward. Even the high cost of soy oil, used for cooking in the restaurant industry, pushes up demand for sunflowers as a cooking oil substitute.
That makes a good argument for reducing waste, such as ensuring feeders are protected from squirrels and sheltered from the elements so wet snow doesn’t cause spoilage. Choose feeder designs that reduce bird droppings from accumulating near the food supply.
Compare Nutritional Labels Reading nutritional labels allows you to select the best product available. “Fat content is important. The higher the fat content, the more birds benefit,” stresses Waltz. “I’ve seen chickadees sort through feeders. Cheap seed ends up on the ground. You end up spending more in the long run.” Waltz says some seeds have a 38 percent fat content versus cheaper products with 19 percent. Hemp seeds are oil rich, but also pricey. Waltz recommends them more for indoor birds.
Feeder Tips Schlarbaum recommends single-seed feeders and suet feeders to increase bird species variety. “Nyjer thistle for the finches and peanuts for the tufted titmice are also good,” he says. A trip to a full-service birding supply store can fill those needs or offer ideas for increasing the colorful show on white-out winter days.
Place feeders at least 10 feet from branches that could be a springboard for squirrels. Maintain the same distance from cover, which creates hiding places for cats.
Whether you have a single tube feeder or a multi-station feathered playground, you reap the benefits. “It’s the connection people get with something so beautiful. It’s a great way to appreciate nature,” says Schlarbaum. “You have a full palette of desirable songbirds in your own backyard.”
Just Add Water Open water is a draw. Just clip a low-cost weatherproof heater for outdoor use to your birdbath and keep it filled with clean water. Many birdbath heaters use thermostats to save electricity. Placing a network of sticks across the top of the birdbath creates a perch for birds to drink while avoid getting into the water during the cold months. Never add automotive antifreeze to birdbaths as ethylene glycol is toxic. Glycerin is also toxic, causing lethal spikes in blood sugar levels and saturated, matted feathers.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine. Subscribe today or explore more of the magazine on Pinterest.