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Winter Feeding – It’s for the Birds

Jan 04, 2016 12:49PM ● Published by Bryan Scott

By Pomera M. Fronce, Wild Birds Unlimited

Cottonwood-Holladay - Winter can be a difficult time for birds. Days are often windy and cold. Nights are long and even colder. Natural summer food supplies have withered or been consumed and most insects are dead or dormant. Finding food can be especially challenging for birds during days with extremely cold temperatures. 

You may be surprised to learn what a huge difference you can make by feeding birds right outside your own door or window. Birds are looking for reliable sources of food, water and shelter in order to establish their winter territories. Those with access to feeders are able to consume a large amount of energy in a short period of time with a minimum of foraging. Winter survival rates for some birds almost double when they have feeders within their home range. 

Consider the chickadee, a perennial back yard favorite. This tough little bird weighs in at less than one-half of an ounce and does not migrate. A chickadee has been found to need 20 times more food in winter than in summer. It may use up to three-fourths of its fat reserves in one night and then replenish them the next day. This can be as much as 10 percent of its body weight. This cycle explains why you may have noticed how ravenously birds eat at your feeders, especially first thing in the morning and just before dusk.

Birds need top quality, energy-rich foods during the winter to maintain their high metabolic rate. Black oil sunflower is an excellent overall seed. It has a high calorie to ounce ratio due to its high fat and protein content and its relatively thin shell. Peanuts are another great energy-producing food. Seeds like Nyjer (thistle) and white millet are also very good cold weather choices. Suet is a high energy, pure fat substance which is invaluable in winter when insects are harder to find and birds need many more calories to keep warm. Bark Butter is a spreadable suet that can be easily smeared on tree bark to attract birds such as woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and kinglets.

Visitors to winter feeders may arrive in mixed flocks or come as individuals so you may want to provide different feeding options for the birds. A ground feeder filled with seed will attract quail, doves, sparrows and juncos. Tube feeders will bring in chickadees, house finches, pine siskins and goldfinches. Platform and hopper feeders are especially good for attracting chickadees, jays and grosbeaks. Woodpeckers, jays, chickadees and nuthatches will clamor for peanut feeders. Seed cylinders are designed to entice a variety of birds. They are packed with seeds, fruit, suet and other nutritious foods. No shells means no mess and no wasted food. They’re convenient, too. Just set one out and watch your birds chow down.

Birds also need reliable water sources in winter for bathing and drinking. Bathing is especially important in order to keep feathers in top condition. Research has shown that a chickadee with well-maintained feathers can sustain a 70 degree layer of insulation between the outside air and its skin. Heated bird baths and heaters will keep your feathered friends coming to your back yard all winter long. Even birds like robins and waxwings that typically don’t come to feeders might stop in for a visit.

Be consistent and keep feeding through the winter. Make sure your feeders and bird baths are full. Birds rely on your feeders especially in severe weather when the snacks you offer may mean their very survival. Ground-feeding birds will be able to gather up the seeds that drop if you stamp down the snow under the feeders. Remember to clean and disinfect your feeders regularly. Poorly maintained feeders may contribute to the occurrence of infectious disease and mortality. With good prevention, you’ll seldom find sick or dead birds at your feeders. Kelli Frame, owner of the WBU store in Holladay says, “The joy of feeding birds comes with a responsibility to keep them safe and healthy!”

Winter is a great time to feed and enjoy birds. Setting up backyard feeders makes their lives easier and ours more enjoyable. You don’t need to brave the elements – you can simply watch the show from the comfort of your own home. The Wild Birds Unlimited mission, “We Bring People and Nature Together” includes informing and educating people about the wonders of birding and nature. Call us at 801-878-4449 with any questions or problems.  

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