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Winter Bird Feeding Basics

  • 11/27/2017 8:50:00 AM
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There is a growing trend in Iowa and in this country to both appreciate and enjoy watching wildlife, and observing birds at feeders is a favored pastime. For most of us, we enjoy observing the beauty of these colorful feathered creatures, while we also appreciate viewing their various behaviors and antics from the comfort of our homes. Feeding birds allows us to observe birds up close and personal, and during cold winter months observing bird activity right outside our windows brings us special cheer and warms our hearts.

With winter fast approaching, many birds are changing their eating habits, with some that relied on insects now switching to a diet of berries and seeds. Bird behavior changes this time of year, too, and to improve their chances of surviving the winter, many species now join in flocks. A flock of birds allows more eyes to watch for predators and also to look for food sources.

Extreme cold temperatures, along with short days and long nights, make finding high calorie food a necessity for winter survival. This is especially true for many small birds, since they have a high metabolic rate. While most birds supply about 80% of their own food needs away from bird feeders (even when bird feeders are full), providing protein rich, high calorie foods from feeders can help birds survive winter blizzards and help birds be in top condition when spring breeding season arrives.

Different bird species prefer different types of foods, and they typically also prefer different types of feeders. To increase the diversity of bird species, providing a variety of feeder types in a variety of locations (around your home) is advised. An ideal feeder is sturdy and tight so that it stays in place and feed remains dry. It should be easy to assemble and clean. The three main feeder types are hopper or house feeders, tube feeders, and tray or platform feeders.

Feeders should be located in sheltered places, out of the north wind, while still in the open to allow birds to watch for danger. Placing feeders closer to the house can be effective and allows easy viewing from indoors. Place feeders where they have a sunny exposure, when possible. There should be trees and shrubs nearby to provide both shelter and escape routes from predators. Conifers are ideal for this. For ground feeding birds, providing a feeding site near cover with an open view of the surroundings works best. All feeders that are mounted on or attached to poles should include predator guards, so squirrels, raccoons, and cats cannot access them. The same goes for hanging feeders, only this time the predator guard should be located above the feeder. These guards, when located properly, also protect the hanging feeder from rain and snow.

If you offer only one food item to birds, it should be black oil sunflower seed. This seed has a high calorie/ounce ratio because of its high fat and protein content, plus it has a relatively thin shell that makes it easier for small birds to access the sunflower heart. This seed is readily consumed by cardinals, woodpeckers, blue jays, finches, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches. It usually is fed in hopper and platform feeders. While ground-feeding birds, such as juncos and several native sparrows, prefer white millet, they will readily eat sunflower seeds, too.

While finches do eat sunflower seeds, they prefer nyger seed. This seed is best fed from tube feeders.  It is often fed as a “finch mix,” which is a combination of nyger and small bits of sunflower hearts. When fed in a long tube feeder, it is not unusual to have a couple dozen goldfinches, house finches and siskins visiting the feeder at once. This can be a particularly cheerful sight on a cold wintry day!

Peanuts are another favored food and can be mixed with sunflower seed or fed separately. With high levels of both fat and protein, peanuts are especially a favorite of woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, and Carolina wrens. And don’t forget the suet, definitely a cold-weather bird attractant that is eaten by most winter birds. It can be fed from a variety of feeders, ranging from a suet cage to a wooden suet feeder, which is designed so that birds feed from it while hanging upside down beneath it.

Don’t forget to supply water, because birds need water year around. Bird waterers with a heater element are essential, and when all other water sources are frozen solid, birds will be flocking to your yard for the water that you offer them.

Also, it is very important to clean your feeders often – and clean beneath them, too.  During winter warm-up periods it is recommended that a mild bleach solution be used to disinfect feeders. This will help prevent diseases associated with feeders, like Salmonellosis and Aspergillosus.

If you find that birds don’t visit your feeders, then perhaps there is not enough protective habitat existing for them to feel safe. Always plant native shrubs and trees, and include some fruit-bearing varieties for those birds that may not use feeders. Finally – keep cats indoors or on a leash. Three billion birds are killed each year in this country by cats outdoors, and this is the number one human-related cause of death of birds on this continent.

Now that you’ve invested time and effort into food, water, and habitat for our feathered friends, you will reap the benefits of that consideration with the presence of a large variety of birds in your yard throughout the winter. Observing these birds will provide countless hours of entertainment for you and your family, as well as for your friends and neighbors.