Feeding Winter Birds

By Susan Littlefield

Winter bird feeding is a wonderful introduction to the world of birds! Observing the colorful parade of birds that visit a feeder in winter and learning to identify who's who is not only fun for kids and adults; it also encourages a sense of environmental stewardship toward these and other wild creatures. Landscaping your yard with plants that provide food and cover for birds is a great way to improve bird habitat. But providing food in well-maintained feeders also helps birds survive through harsh winter weather and makes viewing your feathered visitors easy.

To help you get started, we are happy to offer you 15% off your next Gardening with Kids order, including all bird feeders and bird seed wreaths and ornaments, now through December 31, 2014, with 100% of shop sales supporting school gardens. Just use coupon code WINTER15 at checkout.

Here are some helpful tips to make your bird feeding success this winter.

Hang your bird feeder where it will be easy to watch the birds that come to eat. Place it about 10 feet from plants such as evergreens or dense shrubs that can provide birds with easily accessible cover from predators. But don't place the feeder closer than 10 feet to avoid giving neighborhood cats a hiding place from which they can wait to ambush visiting birds. Also try to choose a spot that is sheltered from winter winds.

Set up feeders either within 3 feet of windows or more than 30 feet away from them. Close placement keeps birds taking off from feeders from gathering enough speed to be harmed if they do crash into a window, while placing feeders at least 30 feet away reduces the likelihood that they'll have a collision. The Window Bird Feeder can be placed directly against a window, allowing for easy observations of birds. With a tray that holds drinking water and a roof overhang to protect seed from the weather, this compact feeder is perfect for attracting small birds like chickadees. To accommodate larger birds like cardinals and blue jays, install a stand-alone feeder like the Copper-Topped Gazebo Bird Feeder, a great addition to any outdoor learning space or backyard.

Sunflower seeds attract the widest variety of birds. Thin-hulled, energy-rich black oil sunflower seeds, like those used in the Sunflower Birdseed Wreath, are easy for most seed-eaters to crack open, and just about all your feeder visitors will relish them. While harder shelled striped sunflower seeds are not as favored (most birds will choose the black oil seeds first if they are available), they are difficult for birds like sparrows and blackbirds to crack. If your feeder is overrun with these birds, switching to striped sunflower seeds can curb their voracious appetites. Many birds love hulled sunflower seeds (also called sunflower hearts) and using them will do away with the litter of hulls beneath feeders, but these unprotected seeds can spoil quickly. Put out only as many as will be eaten within a couple of days.

Attract a variety of birds with natural birdseed ornaments and wreaths like the Holiday Grapevine Wreath made from premium bird seed and accented with sprays of millet, juniper berries, and a pine cone. Birdseed Pinecone Treats and the Fruit and Nut Bell will look lovely hanging from an outdoor tree decorated with hungry birds in mind.

Suet, a hard white fat, is rich in calories and provides valuable energy for winter birds like woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and brown creepers. Place it in specially designed suet feeders that let birds peck away at it. Because raw suet can go rancid when temperatures are above freezing, offer it only in winter. Commercially made, ″heat-resistant″ suet cakes keep better but can still get soft in warm weather, so suet is best offered only during the cold months.

Check feeders frequently to make sure that bird seed is not wet or moldy or soiled with bird droppings. Spoiled or moldy seed can make birds sick. Remove any spoiled seed and replace with a fresh supply. Clean your feeder periodically; every 2-4 weeks is best. Select bird feeders that are easy to clean. Wearing disposable gloves, dump out any seeds remaining in the feeder and clean up any spilled seeds on the ground below the feeder. Wash out the feeder with soap and water and then dip in a solution of one part household bleach to nine parts water. Rinse the feeder in clear water and let dry completely before refilling.

Squirrels think that bird feeders should really be called squirrel feeders! If squirrels are raiding your feeder, try hanging it at least 10 feet from any nearby jumping off point. If your feeder is mounted on a post, place a baffle on the post below the feeder to prevent squirrels and other critters like raccoons from climbing up to reach the seeds. Most baffles are dome or cone shaped, but cylindrical designs are also available.

Get kids engaged in the fun. They can investigate a variety of birds from North America with a Bird Fandex. Get specifics about 46 North American birds including habitat, range, diet, nests and eggs.

Additional resources:

Great Backyard Bird Count

Become citizen scientists and participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), an annual four-day event in February that engages bird watchers in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are. Led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, GBBC welcomes the participation of bird watchers of all ages. Find out more at GBBC.

Project Feeder Watch

To learn what species of birds you're likely to see at your feeders this winter and discover the kinds of foods they like to eat and the kinds of feeders they prefer to visit, check out the online resource Food and Feeder Preferences of Common Feeder Birds from Project FeederWatch.

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