Getting Ready for Winter Bird Feeding

Winter Bird Feeding
By: Dave Titterington
The Wild Bird Habitat Store

October! A time of change. Winter will soon be settling in across the Central Great Plains and the signs are everywhere. Shorter daylight hours are changing the leaves from summer greens to autumn’s gold, red, and orange. The sweet aroma of a wood fire drifts from a chimney. And the blackbirds are massing in the tree tops waiting to be escorted south by the first cold front.

Our winter birds, the Red-breasted nuthatch, Dark-eyed Juncos, Harris’s and White-crowned sparrows, and others are beginning to arrive. They are replacing the birds of summer such as orioles, grosbeaks and bluebirds, which are now but warm weather memories. The warblers who have nested to our north are passing through this month, stopping in our yards for a splash in the bird bath and to glean what insects remain before retreating further south ahead of the approaching winter. Yes, autumn is a time of great change.

Autumn is also a time when many folks who didn’t maintain a bird feeder or two during the summer months are providing some supplemental food sources for our backyard birds during the winter. After all, when the snow blows and the temperatures plummet, our resident winter birds are a short thirty six hours from starvation. They only survive the coming frigid nights on what foods they can consume during the day.

Feeding birds in our backyards has become more than just a passing hobby. In fact, birding in the United States has become the fastest growing outdoor recreational activity for families and individuals, with close ties to gardening. The birds entertain us, they educate us, and they provide a natural form of insect control in our yards and gardens. But what does it take to feed birds and attract them to our yards? It’s very simple. Birds find food by sight. You put the food out and they will come.

In the past many people would just scatter the bird seed on the ground, or possibly have a single bird feeder filled with a general wild bird mix and expect all birds to enjoy their fill. However backyard bird feeding has become more specialized, targeting the specific feeding habits of birds to meet their needs. Some birds will only feed at elevated levels like the Chickadees, nuthatches, and goldfinch. Others, such as Juncos, doves, and native sparrows, feed primarily on the ground. Yet other birds like our woodpeckers and Brown Creepers prefer to feed around the tree trunk zone. Then there are the cardinals and Blue Jays, who are just plain opportunistic and will feed where ever the seed is provided.

Two of the most common style of bird feeders for attracting a large variety of birds are hopper feeders, which will attract large and small birds, and seed tube bird feeders designed primarily for smaller birds. Other bird feeders include ground and platform bird feeders which are undoubtedly the most versatile for attracting many bird species. And some specialized feeders, such as thistle tubes and suet cages that target specific groups of birds. These are the six types of bird feeders recommended for a basic backyard bird feeding program. Then there are those bird feeders that are more seasonal and used to attract a specific species of bird. These include hummingbird feeders, oriole and fruit feeders, and bluebird feeders.

Just as the type of bird feeder you select determines which birds you will attract, the bird seed you fill them with is just as important. Birds that feed at elevated hopper and seed tube bird feeders prefer sunflower seed, safflower seed, and other nut based mixes. If you put a general wild bird mix in these feeders, they will sweep through it picking out these products, scattering everything else to the ground.

Thistle feeders are for Nyjer thistle seed and finch mixes. Caution must be taken to assure the thistle seed is fresh or the finch you are trying to attract will reject it. A good finch mix contains only thistle seed and finely ground sunflower chips. Avoid those finch mixes with other so-called filler seeds.

General wild bird mixes have a base of white Proso millet with cracked corn, peanuts, and sunflower seeds added. They are best used on platform and ground feeders where birds can select the seed they want without sweeping through it. However, when purchasing a wild bird mix read the label. Many inexpensive general wild bird mixes contain filler seeds such as Milo, wheat, red millet, and other products that birds do not eat. As much as 40% of a bag of bird seed that contains these filler seeds can end up uneaten and wasted on the ground. There is a variety of no-waste and no-mess wild bird feeds on the market. Although they may cost a little more, it will save you money in the long run.

If squirrels are robbing the seed you intended for the birds to enjoy, you may want to consider adding a squirrel baffle or investing in a squirrel proof bird feeder. Another alternative is to use safflower seed, or the new Nutra-Saff safflower seed, in the bird feeders that squirrels seem determined to get on at all costs. Safflower seed will attract most all your favorite backyard birds, can be used in any type of bird feeder, but squirrels will not eat it.

Water for birds, especially during the winter months, is essential for their survival. Although they do not rely on any one food source, an open source of water in the winter can attract more birds than bird seed alone. There is an assortment of bird bath heaters and heated bird baths on the market that are thermostatically controlled and use less energy than a 60 watt light bulb. Fresh water does more for birds than just meet their fluid intake. Clean feathers provide better insulation during cold nights.

Finally, consider planting some habitat in your yard. All living things on our planet require food, water, and shelter. Hedges and shrubs will not only offer protection from bitter winter winds, but a place for birds to nest and provide a natural food source. Consult with a master gardener at your local nursery or the Nebraska Cooperative Extension Office about planting habitat for wildlife. Follow these tips then sit back and enjoy a backyard filled with your feathered friends.

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