Brrrds in Winter
By Sue Olcott
Leaves have long since fallen from the oaks and maples around the house, and the grass is capped in frost most mornings. Ice skims the edges of streams and traces patterns over puddles in the road. Life moves slowly at the change of the year as insects huddle dreamless in hidden cubbyholes and chipmunks slumber in their rocky mansions. As snow begins to sift through stark branches, gray and white travelers, the snowbirds, trill their arrival. Winter bird feeding has officially begun--the juncos have arrived!
Feeding birds is an enjoyable and rewarding pastime during West Virginia's cold and often snow-filled months. The movement, color and life of the birds outside the window help remind us that spring really isn't too many months away. Only about 50 species of birds, other than waterfowl and raptors, call West Virginia home during the winter compared to 172 during the summer months. Warblers, vireos, flycatchers, tanagers, several blackbirds and sparrows, and others migrate south in the fall to escape the cold temperatures and lack of insect food in the harsh north. They'll return in the spring with the warming temperatures and burgeoning insect populations.
For those that remain, feeding is actually rarely needed to help them survive as they get most of their food from natural sources even if feeders are present. During extreme conditions like blizzards or ice storms, however, feeding can mean the difference between life and death for some individual birds.
Bird feeders come in a bewildering variety of types and sizes. The most common ones are platforms (flat surfaces with seed scattered on them), hoppers (reservoirs that hold seed that trickles down into a feeding area surrounded by perches) and tubes (cylindrical holders with seed ports punched in the side from which the birds feed). Tube and hopper feeders are often designed to have only one type of seed used in them. Imaginative people have designed many variations of these three basic types. Cardinals, doves and blue jays prefer the relative stability of the platform feeder in its many forms. Sparrows and finches as well as cardinals, chickadees and titmice readily use hopper feeders. Tube feeders are used by smaller species such as chickadees, titmice and finches. Some birds prefer to feed on the ground – sparrows, doves and cardinals will use the seeds that other birds scatter to the ground. Most species will use more than one feeder type, and the actual feeder they use depends on what type of seed is in it.
If you can only offer one type of seed at your feeder, make it black oil sunflower seed. This seed has a high amount of fat and protein, and has a thin shell, making it easy for small birds to shell and eat. It is highly preferred by the majority of West Virginia's wintering songbirds, including chickadees, titmice, cardinals, finches, blue jays, doves and nuthatches.
Proso millet, a seed often used to feed domesticated cage birds, can be offered on platform feeders and on the ground for sparrows, towhees, juncos and doves. In the eastern United States, native songbirds prefer white millet over red millet.
Thistle is a tiny seed devoured by finches from specialized tube feeders or net socks. Also called niger , it is imported from several African countries and safely treated to prevent germination of seed that falls to the ground.
Once they become accustomed to it, safflower seed is relished by cardinals. If you have squirrels that raid your feeders, you might consider offering this to the birds. Most studies have confirmed that squirrels avoid eating it.
Cracked corn is a popular feed for some ground foraging species such as some sparrows, wild turkey and ducks. Be aware, however, that it will attract starlings, crows and grackles in flocks, which can be a nuisance because they spook other birds and excrete large amounts of waste. Additionally, many inexpensive seed mixtures sold in grocery and discount stores include milo , wheat, canary and/or rape seed as part of the mix. These seeds are typically not eaten by song birds in the eastern United States and will go to waste, creating a larger mess and clean-up.
Foods other than seeds can also be offered. Suet, or rendered animal fat, is a high energy food relished by woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches. These species also enjoy peanut butter pressed into cracks and crevices of logs. Several other species will also sample suet and peanut butter during extreme weather. Be aware that starlings also prefer suet but can be discouraged by using a feeder that can only be accessed from below. Starlings have weak feet and cannot cling upside-down like the native songbirds.
If you have bluebirds, robins or wrens in your area, you can offer them mealworms from your local bait shop. Fruit, such as apples, oranges, raisins and berries, will be eaten by cedar waxwings and mockingbirds. You can harvest blueberries, haws, viburnum , dogwood, holly berries, rose hips and elderberries in the late summer and fall and freeze them, doling them out during winter and early spring. Generally speaking, the greater variety of food you provide, the greater variety of birds you will attract.
No matter how many feeders you have, and how enticing the food, birds will not stick around to enjoy your gift unless you provide some shelter. Winter is a tough time for others besides songbirds. Hawks, especially first-year birds, see your feeding station as a smorgasbord. Songbirds will only feel safe if they have someplace to escape if a hawk or other predator appears. Place feeders approximately 10 feet from thick, shrubby cover. Evergreen trees are especially attractive as they provide the most cover. If a hawk does capture a junco or two, be philosophical about it. The hawk is a natural predator culling out the weaker members of the flock. Placing the feeders closer than 10 feet to cover may allow squirrels to jump onto the feeders and give cats an increased chance of nabbing ground-feeding birds. Planting fruit-bearing species, such as viburnum , hawthorn or holly, provides a double benefit of cover and food. Providing a shrubby corridor from the feeders to the woods is especially attractive.
A final element of a premier winter bird feeding station is water. In some years, liquid water isn't a problem in West Virginia. In others years it can become a serious issue. Providing liquid water for drinking and especially bathing (feathers must be kept in prime condition for insulation from the cold) is a bonus that will attract and retain many songbirds. Inexpensive heaters for bird baths can be purchased at most home centers, as well as reasonably priced heated bird baths. As an alternative, water in unheated baths can be changed periodically during the day to provide liquid water.
Along with all the pleasure of watching the birds at your feeding station comes an element of responsibility. Several dozen hungry songbirds can leave a mess. Couple that with damp seed and you have a formula for disease. House finch conjunctivitis, salmonellosis and aspergillosis are three potentially fatal diseases that can be avoided with proper maintenance of feeding stations.
Feeders should be cleaned every two weeks and rinsed with a 10 percent bleach solution and thoroughly dried before refilling. Clean half the feeders one week, and half the next so that some feeders are always operating. Hulls should be raked up (or vacuumed up with a shop- vac ) and disposed of regularly. If diseased birds are seen at the station, stop feeding immediately. Dispose of the seed in the feeders and clean them. Wait a few days to a week before resuming feeding. The birds will survive fine without you for a few days. It is better that they find an alternate food source than you cause a disease outbreak. Remember, you feed the birds for their benefit as well as your enjoyment.
When spring arrives, continue feeding until early May when trees have started leafing out and insects are readily apparent. Take down suet feeders because melting suet will turn rancid and foul feathers. Spring migrants, including warblers, can be attracted with fruit and the insects that feed on the fruit. Leaving one sunflower feeder up during the summer months is enjoyable. Chickadee and titmouse pairs may bring their awkward fledglings around to teach them about this abundant food source, and goldfinches in their bright summer plumage may stop by for a snack.
By May the juncos have disappeared to their northerly breeding grounds. The air is filled with the bright song and color of returning migrants. The snowbirds will grace us again, in their dapper gray and white, when the snow flies again.
Sue Olcott is a wildlife biologist stationed in Fairmont.