In the Garden:
Goldfinches come to my feeders in winter to snack on nyger seed.
Birds of a Feather
Winter came fast and furious this year, even before it was officially winter, which means that by the time February, the shortest month, rolls around, the meanest season is going to seem longer than ever. Of course, we gardeners have lots of ways to maintain our spirits during these cold, dark days, from simply breathing a sigh of relief and relaxing to catching up on reading that ever-growing stack of books, to poring over gardening catalogs and dreaming of that perfect garden next year. Still, even as eternal optimists, we need something to help us remain upbeat. For me, it is simply the pleasure I receive from watching the birds at the feeders.
Some people might say I need to get a life, but, thank you, I rather enjoy mine, and the multitude of birds at the feeders are a big part of it. Only occasionally do I catch sight of some rare or unusual bird, but, for me, that is not the point. It is the animation, the colors, the perseverance of these little creatures that inspire me. Most of you probably already have some feeders in your yard, but let's take a quick refresher course on what you can do to get the most satisfaction from the birds in your yard this winter.
Nothing But the Best for Your Birds
The songbirds visiting your garden need high-fat, high-carbohydrate food to keep their calorie-burning bodies fueled and to survive the long, cold nights. Plenty of suet is essential. Provide as much of this as you can, hanging suet feeders all around your yard. Use specialized containers for suet or go the cheap route and use the mesh bags that originally contained onions, oranges or lemons. If you have an overabundance of starlings hogging the suet, invest in a feeder from which the birds have to hang upside down to eat. Starlings can't do that.
Of all the seeds and grains that birds might eat, the one that they will enjoy most is black oil sunflower seed. My main feeder, which is also the largest one, is always kept filled with these. And speaking of filling, be sure the feeders have plenty of food in them in mid- to late afternoon so that the birds' tummies are full as night approaches. As to buying and storing black oil sunflower, I purchase it in 50-pound bags and store in large galvanized trash cans in the barn. Usually the raccoons don't bother them there, but, if they do, a concrete block goes on top. I fill a large plastic container from that to keep inside the house to easily fill the feeder.
Chickadees, nuthatches, brown creepers, woodpeckers and even wrens all love peanut pieces. Although these could be added to the sunflower feeder, I prefer to serve then in a special peanut feeder. Bluejays are particularly fond of peanuts in the shell.
Nyger seeds are indispensable for attracting goldfinches to your yard. I always include another feeder with a high-quality seed mix that contains sunflower seeds, cracked corn and millet. I also sprinkle this mixture on the ground for ground-feeding birds.
These are the core essentials for feeding birds, but, in addition, try cereal, bread crumbs, doughnuts, grapes, chopped apples, raisins, and, yes, even peas, which supposedly attract Baltimore orioles. I can't vouch for that, but why not give it a try?
So What's To Drink?
Providing fresh water for birds in the winter is one of the biggest challenges. A good habit to get into is to put out fresh water every morning, as morning and noon are the busy times for a bird's toilette. Perhaps you might try having two birdbaths that can be rotated from day to day. One inside to thaw, the other outside. Or invest in a heater for your birdbath. Whatever your method, readily available fresh water is vital to the health of birds, both for drinking and keeping clean.
Shelter From the Storm
In the best of all possible worlds, we all would have some nice, cozy evergreens about 20 to 30 feet from our favorite window, with the bird feeders positioned just in front of these, providing shelter for the birds as they come and go from the feeders. In my own yard, I have some young pines growing, but for now the birds are making do quite well with the row of deciduous trees and shrubs. In other words, try to place your feeders somewhere near whatever kinds of trees and shrubs you have, but still have them visible from your home. If you're not hidebound to tidiness, a brush pile also makes a great hiding place.
To Share or Not to Share
Squirrels are the bane of many who want to feed birds in winter. Raccoons come in a close second. My solution is to use a very effective baffle on the pole that holds the feeders and provide dried corn-on-the-cob and other treats for the squirrels, at a reasonable distance from the bird feeders.
Other Ways to Enjoy Birds in Winter
Besides the simple pleasure of casually watching the birds at your feeders, consider getting involved with Project Feederwatch at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/, a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Christmas Bird Count at http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count, from the Audubon Society. Also be sure to put some bird books on your Christmas list. And while you're sipping some hot cocoa and watching the birds at your feeders, spend some time this winter planning where you can include more trees and shrubs that will attract even more birds to your garden.
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