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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Keeping Our Feathered Friends Healthy in the Winter


If you feed birds, you’re in good company. Birding is one of North America’s favorite pastimes. A 2006 report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about 55.5 million Americans provide food for wild birds.

Whether you've been doing this for years or are just getting into the habit, here's some info that may come in handy especially during Winter when living isn't easy. 

  In much of North America, winter is a difficult time for birds. Days are often windy and cold; nights are long and even colder. Lush vegetation has withered or been consumed, and most insects have died or become dormant. Finding food can be especially challenging for birds after a heavy snowfall. Setting up a backyard feeder makes their lives easier and ours more enjoyable. To observe birds at a feeder, you don’t need to brave the elements— you can watch from the comfort of your own home.


  Most songbirds eat insects and spiders during Spring and Summer, which are highly nutritious, abundant, and for the most part, easily captured. During fall and winter, nonmigratory songbirds shift their diets to fruits and seeds to survive. This is the time of year when bird feeding enthusiasts roll out the welcome mat and set the table. The question is, what to serve? Most supermarkets and bird feeding stores are stocked with bags, buckets, and cakes of many food types. You may find the task of selecting the best foods daunting. To attract a diversity of birds, provide a variety of food types. But that doesn’t mean you need to purchase one of everything on the shelf. Which seed types should I provide? Black oil sunflower seeds attract the greatest number of species. These seeds have a high meat-to-shell ratio, they are nutritious and high in fat, and their small size and thin shells make them easy for small birds to handle and crack. (Striped sunflower seeds are larger and have a thicker seed coat.) Several studies show that this high energy food is the favorite of most birds that visit feeders. In fact, it is often wasteful to use a standard mix of sunflower,  milo, millet, oats, wheat, flax, and buckwheat seeds, since birds may eat the prized sunflower seeds and leave the rest. Uneaten seeds may foster growth of mold and bacteria.

  Birds’ feeding habits vary based on weather patterns, region, season, and individual taste, so you may find exceptions to these guidelines.  Thistle seed, is a delicacy for small finches such as goldfinches, siskins, and redpolls. Thistle seeds are small and expensive. Offer them in special Thistle feeders, with small mesh or tiny ports that prevent the seeds from spilling out. Some birds, most notably Cardinals, appreciate safflower seeds. Although sunflower seeds are the overall favorite of tree feeding species, most ground feeding birds prefer white millet or red milo to black oil sunflower seed. 



It sounds confusing, but the best way is to experiment. If you have several feeders, place a different kind of seed in each. If you have one, take turns with different kinds noting which the birds in your area like the best. You can always make your own mixture as an alternative to commercial mixtures, which may have a high percentage of “filler seeds''. Pour in one 25 pound bag of black oil sunflower seed, one 10 pound bag of white proso millet, and one 10-pound bag of cracked corn into a clean trash barrel. Mix it with a broomstick and replace the lid tightly. Always store birdseed in tight, waterproof containers. Metal containers prevent rodents from gnawing their way into your food supply.

 Leftovers: For the Birds? 
You don’t have to limit your offerings to commercial birdseed. Some people save the seeds from squash and melons. This is a great way to put the seeds from Halloween pumpkins to good use. Some birds relish these seeds even more than black oil sunflower. Spread them out on trays to air dry before placing them in your feeders or on the ground. If the seeds are sufficiently dry and free of mold, you can save them to use when winter comes. Smaller birds may have a tough time breaking open vegetable seeds, but if you run the seeds through a food processor first, little birds will be able to eat them with ease. Some people throw out scraps of stale bread, cake, or doughnuts for their feathered visitors. 


 Water
Water everywhere unfrozen water can be as hard for birds to find in winter as food. A dependable supply of fresh water will attract many birds to your yard, including species that don’t normally visit feeders. A shallow, easy to clean birdbath is best ~ an upside down garbage can lid or large frying pan works well. An immersion style water heater can keep your birdbath unfrozen in the winter. Clean your birdbath often and keep it filled with fresh water.


Types of Feeders 
The ideal bird feeder is sturdy enough to withstand winter weather, tight enough to keep seeds dry, large enough that you don’t have to refill it constantly, and easy to assemble and keep clean. In general, seed feeders fall into three categories: tray feeders, hopper feeders, and tube feeders. Tray feeders are typically placed close to the ground and attract ground feeding birds such as juncos, sparrows, and towhees. Tray feeders also work well when mounted on deck railings, stumps, or posts. Hopper feeders are often hung from trees or attached to decks or poles. These feeders are especially good for larger species such as cardinals, jays, and grosbeaks. Tube feeders are typically suspended from trees and posts. They are excellent for finches, titmice, and chickadees.



Feeder Placement  
 If possible, place your feeder close to natural shelters such as trees or shrubs. Evergreens are ideal, providing maximum cover from winter winds and predators. Trees and shrubs can also provide good jumping off places for squirrels that may be eyeing the seeds, and hiding places for cats that may be eyeing the birds. A distance of about 10 feet seems to be a happy compromise. You can provide resting and escape cover for ground dwelling birds, such as Song Sparrows, by placing a large, loosely stacked brush pile near your feeders. 



Feeder Maintenance 
Clean your feeders about once every two weeks, and more often during warm weather and times of heavy use. Using a sturdy brush to scrub them with soap and water is usually enough; you may wish to rinse in a weak bleach solution if there is evidence of disease in your yard. Rinse feeders well and allow them to dry thoroughly before refilling them with birdseed. Make sure you also periodically rake up birdseed hulls beneath your feeders. Decomposing hulls may harbor bacteria or mold that could spread diseases to your birds. 


Bird-Feeding Concerns 
Poorly maintained feeders may contribute to the spread of infectious diseases among birds. The feeders themselves can sometimes pose hazards too.

Here are some helpful hints for successful bird feeding: 
• Avoid overcrowding at feeders by placing numerous feeders several feet apart 
• Keep your feeding area and feeders clean. 
• Keep food and food-storage containers dry and free of mold and insects. 
• Check your feeders for safety. 

 If You Build it, Will They Come? 
It may take a while for birds to discover a new feeder. If you are not seeing birds within a few days of setting up your feeder, try sprinkling some seeds on the ground around the feeder to make the new feeding site more obvious. If seed in the feeder is blowing out or getting wet, there is a good chance that your birds are getting the same treatment. Your feeder may simply be too exposed. Moving it to a calmer, more sheltered spot may increase visits. In newly developed housing areas, birds may not feel sufficiently protected because trees and shrubs may be small or few in number. Remember that bird populations fluctuate naturally from year to year. If you notice a scarcity of feeder birds this year, you may be surprised by an abundance of birds in another year or two.

A Pair of Doves settled in our backyard and were having trouble with the types of feeders I had. Ended up making a platform feeder out of my Dad's old bentwood rocker. 
The sign on it reads: "Dovey Diner".
They love it! This will be their 3rd year here :)





Great BackyardBird Count participants provide 
valuable data with a much shorter time commitment—as little as fifteen minutes in mid-February! 


Join Us for the Next Count, February 17-20, 2017


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