Successful birding through winter

A few weeks ago the temperature dropped below 30 degrees, and the first winter feeder birds, white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, showed up.

That means it’s time to get serious about preparing backyard bird feeding stations. First, make sure you have taken care of any overlooked late summer tasks. Take down nectar feeders, clean them thoroughly, and box them until spring.

If you’d like a chance to see a wandering rufous hummingbird from the west, keep one nectar feeder up until January. Take it indoors on cold nights so the nectar doesn’t freeze and crack the feeder. The odds of seeing a rufous hummer are slim, but if you take all the feeders down, those chances drop to zero.

Last pass

Next, visit all your nest boxes one last time and remove any remaining nesting material. Do this for all boxes, including purple martin apartment houses. After this final cleaning, cavity-nesting birds may use some nest boxes as winter roosting quarters and deer mice and flying squirrels may use others as winter dens.

After cleaning martin apartment housea, take it down or plug the holes so house sparrows and starling can’t roost in it during the winter months. In late March, visit these nest boxes one more time to remove materials that winter visitors have added.

This insures that the boxes will be ready for the nesting season. Now you can turn your attention to the feeding station. First, soak metal and plastic feeders in a bucket of hot water, then clean with a 10 percent bleach solution and a stiff brush.

Then rinse thoroughly

If you’re new to feeding backyard birds, choosing a feeder or two is the first order of business. Many people start with an open platform feeder or a traditional hopper-style feeder.

These simple, non-exclusive feeders permit access to all birds. Because they are non-exclusive, however, larger birds such as blue jays, grackles, mourning doves and pigeons often dominate these feeders.

Prepare feeders

To accommodate a larger variety of birds, use a variety of feeders. A tube feeder filled with oil sunflower seeds attracts everything from cardinals and chickadees to nuthatches and woodpeckers. Tube feeders filled with nyjer attract finches. Remove the tray at the base of tube feeders to prevent larger birds from monopolizing them.

Be sure tube feeders have metal-reinforced feeding ports to prevent squirrels from enlarging the openings. Some manufacturers now offer tube feeders that hang inside a wire mesh cage. The cage physically prevents squirrels and larger birds such as grackles, mourning doves, and pigeons from reaching the seed.

A bowl-style feeder covered with a plastic dome to deter squirrels permits only clinging birds such as finches, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and woodpeckers to feed. Larger birds such as grackles, pigeons, and doves require perches and are physically unable to use bowl feeders. Suet offered in plastic-coated wire baskets appeals to those birds that prefer a diet high in animal fat — woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches.

The single best food for wild birds is black oil sunflowers seed. Virtually all seed-eating birds prefer it, and fortunately, its price is beginning to come down from all-time highs. Other good seeds include striped sunflower seeds, nyjer (often incorrectly called thistle), white millet, nuts, and cracked corn.

Seed storage

Backyard birders must also deal with the problem of handling and storing large quantities of seed. Seed is less expensive when bought in 50-pound bags, but large quantities are difficult to store and even harder to carry. Some wild bird stores and nature centers offer customers a seed storage program.

You order and prepay seed in advance, but pick it up at the store only as you need it. A seed storage program, an ingenious innovation in customer service, also simplifies planning and ordering for store owners, so both buyer and seller benefit. Ask your seed supplier to provide a similar arrangement.

Finally, remember the importance of water. Birds drink water whenever it’s available, though standing water is not essential. Birds can extract moisture from the foods they eat. But if you fill a small saucer with warm water every morning or install a submersible heater in bird baths, you’ll be amazed by the number of birds that use winter water.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

One Comment

  1. Jeff Jones says:

    A very thorough look at preparing for winter bird feeding. One of the points you made that bears repeating is making sure there is a source of CLEAN water available at all times. A lot of backyard bird feeders, beginners and pros alike, just put water out until it’s gone or frozen. I empty my water daily and clean once a week. Even if I’m dumping a block of ice and replacing it with room temperature water. I see a huge spike in activity after I do this. If you live in a place that has cold winters I would consider a birdbath heater. Otherwise, I’ve found that having a resin bird bath that I can use a rubber mallet to break up the ice for refilling works great. My bath has lasted eight years and cost about 40 bucks.

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