Here's Some Advice on Winter Bird Feeding Basics
Brrrrrrr! When winter temperatures plummet, furnaces are turned on, down parkas and mittens are taken out of storage, and hot cocoa is made on the stove. This how we humans cope with winter, but what do the birds do? Their feathers are their down parkas and their metabolism keeps them warm but they need increased fuel to stoke their furnaces and shelter from wind and cold. Understanding their needs is the first step in setting up your winter bird feeding station.
Where to place feeders
One of the best places to set up feeders in winter is on the south side of a thick stand of evergreens whose branches go from ground level to tree top. This green wall should have as much sunlight hitting it as possible. Not only is it a big solar collector that the birds will love for its warmth, but they can use the dense foliage as protection from predators, shelter from storms, a nightime roost and a place to await their turn at the feeder, or munch a seed recently taken.
If you do not have this ideal set-up, then be inventive and create some of its elements. Put your feeders in protected locations that get lots of sun, create a brush pile nearby for cover, plant evergreens, or stand up your discarded Christmas tree near the feeder.
Pine Siskins, Purple Finch,m.
Winter Chow; Supersize me
Because birds have higher metabolic needs in the winter, they consume more calories than in warmer weather; thus, they need foods that are calorie-rich. Interestingly, one gram of fat provides 11 calories, and one gram of protein or carbohydrate contains only 4 calories.
Here is an interesting list of bird seeds and their protein, fat and carbohydrate content by percentage of weight.
black oil sunflower 16/40/38
Cracked Corn 9/4/2
So for winter feeding in cold areas, the type of food you provide for is important.
Suet cakes contain a high amount of fat so they are a calorie-rich food; so are black oil sunflower, peanuts and thistle. These foods are a good choice for feeder birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, finches and cardinals. Offer these seeds in tube and hopper feeders hung above the ground.
There are other feeder birds, such as Mourning Doves, White-throated Sparrows, White-Crowned Sparrows, and Juncos that normally feed on the ground and whose seed preferences can tend toward carbohydrates. These species will eat seeds such as millet or cracked corn, or mixes containing them. You can offer these birds winter food on platform feeders near the ground, or even sprinkled directly on the ground provided you keep the ground raked clean of any old seed that is not quickly eaten.
Evening Grosbeak, males
In addition to offering food variety to fit the palate of your winter customers, the basic tenet of winter bird feeding is the all-you-can-eat buffet. Basically, keep feeders full so the food is there when they need it. Even though many of your feeder birds will alternate feeding at and then away from your feeders, they especially need supplemental food in severe weather when the wild foods are covered with ice and snow. In these tough times, a good feeder set-up can help their survival. Pay particular attention to filling feeders in mid-afternoon and early morning. This is when birds need to stock up on food and calories to heat their bodies through the cold night and replenish their furnace fuel in the early AM.
Consistency is the key
Once you have the birds coming to you in winter, it is important to be consistent in your feeding program, for they tend to rely in severe weather on the additional supplementation of foods you are offering. So if you go on vacation, see if a friend or neighbor, or hired youngster, will fill your feeders; that is what we do. You may also want to put out larger capacity feeders in winter so they do not have to be filled so often and so there is less chance of them going empty.
Let it Snow
One of the challenges in keeping your winter restaurant open for the birds occurs when there are storms that pile up snow and cover feeders. It is important to keep your feeders free of snow, especially in the portals of tube feeders, ledges of hopper feeders and the tops of platform feeders. We always go out and knock or wipe the snow off feeders several times during a storm. Another good trick is to hang one of those squirrel baffles shaped like a clear plastic umbrella, above the feeder to shield it from the snow. One of the best snow protectors we have seen was done by someone who had made a giant plastic umbrella out of two big plastic window-well covers mounted back to back. This was held up well off the ground by wooden posts and multiple feeders were mounted under it.
Keeping the ground free of snow for ground feeders like White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows, Juncos, Mourning Doves, and even Wild Turkeys, like we have coming to our feeders, takes dedicated shoveling or a snow blower. During one of last winter’s worst storms, we took turns shoveling out a space on the ground under our feeders just about every hour. On our deck we shoveled out spaces under our built in benches and sprinkled seed there for the Blue Jays and Juncos.
Northern Cardinal, f.
In Milder Climates
We are aware that not everyone shivers through winter with snow and cold. Mild climate areas, like California and the southern states, escape the worst weather. In addition to the resident birds, such as Cardinals there, many migrant birds from the North, like Goldfinches, Doves, Catbirds, even an occasional hummingbird, visit feeders there. We have fed birds in Florida in winter for a number of years and it is great fun. While there is not snow, some of the basic practices of bird feeding apply — a diverse menu for both tree-dwelling and ground-dwelling species, providing clean water and good cover, and keeping feeding areas clean. We have even put out oranges in Florida and had catbirds regularly come to them. Maybe they are the same catbirds that breed in our yard in New Hampshire in the summer. We like to think so.
One of the biggest rewards of winter feeding, in addition to knowing you are helping the birds survive, is being entertained by all those wonderful, active creatures while you are house-bound. Colorful Cardinals, perky Chickadees, big-eyed Titmice, maybe even a more rare visitor like a Pine Siskin, will line up for your restaurant where there will be standing room only.
This winter, meet your birds’ needs for the right food and shelter and have your own winter bird festival.