by Esther Lutz, East Central Illinois Master Naturalist for University of Illinois Extension in Coles County.
After the unusually warm days of fall, winter's abrupt arrival has been quite a shock. These last few days of freezing temperatures, biting wind, and blowing snow have wreaked havoc on the interstates, cancelled community events, and shut down schools. It will be nice to have a white Christmas, but the conditions outside make it hard to enjoy the natural beauty of the season.
While stuck inside during the throes of nasty weather, I can't help but notice the frantic activity of the birds around our backyard feeders. My husband faithfully fills the feeders early each morning, and the birds literally flock to them. The flurry of wings and aggressive body-bumping show their attempts to find suitable perches at the seed ports and along the edges of the open trays. Sometimes, I wonder how he's able to get out of the way fast enough!
The urgency of the feeding activity reminds us that our feathered friends really do have a tough time making it from one day to the next in harsh weather. Like us, birds really need only three things to survive the winter: food, water, and shelter. All of these things are readily available in the wild, but sometimes the grip of ice and snow make it hard for the birds to locate them. In really tough times, our supplemental feeding can truly be the difference between life and death. For those of us who like attracting a variety of birds to our yards, there are a few tips we can try to get the most visitors to our feeders.
FOOD. The more types of food we offer, the more varieties of birds will frequent our yards. It's important to remember that among the bird guests will be both insect-eaters and seed-eaters. For the insect-eaters we should have a constant supply of suet available. Commercial blocks of a wide variety of suet mixes (animal or vegetable fat blended with seeds, fruit, or nuts) are available wherever bird supplies are sold, or pure suet acquired from the grocery store meat counter may be even better. If you happen to know a local deer hunter who is willing to part with leftover suet, that is a great source as well. Suet is a desirable source of fuel for the birds particularly in winter since it helps them to satisfy their increased calorie requirements in freezing temperatures and during long, cold nights. Suet lovers include those that are cling feeders - birds that cling to tree trunks in search of insects - but many other types of birds will feed on suet, too. Woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, titmice, brown creepers, and starlings are some common species known to visit suet feeders.
For the seed-eating species, it is important to provide a good variety seed mixture to attract a wide array of birds. A good mix will list thistle, cracked corn, sunflower seed, and white proso millet first on the label. The economy mixes that are heavy with milo, rice, oats and wheat are to be avoided if possible -- the birds will tend to push these out of the feeders as waste. Thistle feeders or nyjer seed sacks will support a variety of finches. Peanut butter spread in the holes of specially made feeders or along the bark of tree trunks are a welcome treat, as are unroasted peanuts and other nuts and overripe fruits cut up into small pieces. If one had to choose one type of seed that would attract the most species, a good choice would be black-oil sunflower seeds -- you just can't go wrong with that one.
WATER. When water is locked up in ice and snow, it becomes very hard for the birds to use. Providing it can be a great way to attract birds to our yards. Setting out a receptacle of water that is replenished daily (or more often in exceedingly cold weather) or providing a bird bath with a heating element can keep the water just above freezing. Clean water is needed not only to drink but also to bathe in, as clean feathers provide the best insulation. Place the water source away from the feeders so that seeds and shells aren't dropped into it. Locating it near trees or shrubbery can provide a safe place for them to fly if predators approach, and can help the birds feel safe and secure. And a consistent supply of fresh water can sometimes attract birds to the yard that ordinarily would not come to the feeders.
SHELTER. The cold temperatures and biting wind can sap energy and warmth from the birds, and this is especially true at night. Birds have a natural ability to reduce their body temperature in the evening to conserve energy, but when the winds come up, that system is severely challenged. Providing natural shelter in the form of dense shrubbery and evergreens is desirable, but in addition to these we can leave our nesting boxes (bird houses) up all winter. Stuffing them with dried grass or bits of hay can make them less drafty and a cozy place for the smaller birds to get in out of the elements. Roosting boxes are becoming a popular alternative to the birdhouses, and are constructed with the entrance hole at the bottom to keep drafts to a minimum and perches inside to accommodate several birds at once. Positioning the box to face the south may help to warm it in the afternoon. When they have a warm place to spend the night, birds are able to conserve precious energy that would be otherwise be expended just trying to keep warm.
If we feed the birds faithfully all winter, is it true that they become so accustomed to the filled feeders each day that they become solely dependent on them for survival? The answer, simply, is "No." Ideally, it's best to taper off gradually before leaving, or have a friend or neighbor restock the feeder regularly in our absence. But birds are amazingly adaptable, and studies show that even birds with full access to feeders consume up to three-fourths of their diet elsewhere. When feeder birds are deprived of the supplemental foods we provide, they quickly revert to an all-natural diet. And if our neighbors feed as well, we can rest assured that our feathered friends will not starve.
If you feed the birds, you are in good company. Bird-feeding is one of America's favorite pastimes. Setting up backyard bird-feeders in winter makes their lives easier and our lives more enjoyable. The beauty is, we don't even have to brave the elements to observe them -- we can simply enjoy the show from the comfort of our homes. And perhaps the most rewarding thing is knowing that during harsh winters, we are able to give these fascinating social creatures a helping hand.