If you’ve never put out food for wild birds, this column is for you. Perhaps you are motivated personally — you’d like to see if you can attract beautiful winter birds to your backyard.
Or perhaps you envy the birds you see in your neighbor’s yard. Or maybe a child has come home from school and asked to put up a bird feeder.
Whatever the reason for feeding winter birds, you probably have several questions, namely, what foods to offer, what feeders to use and what birds to expect.
To keep this simple, buy a bag of black-oil sunflower seeds and a tube feeder. All seed-eating birds that might visit your backyard eat sunflower seeds, and oil seeds have a high fat content, which is valuable in cold weather.
And most of these same birds will use a tube feeder. Those that can’t will eat the seeds that fall to the ground.
The best thing about feeding birds is watching and identifying the visitors. Thanks to the results of last year’s Project FeederWatch, I can be quite specific about what species you can expect.
Assuming you have suitable habitat with at least a few trees and shrubs for cover, you can expect 15 to 20 species over the course of the winter.
Based on data submitted from 6,120 sites from the northeast quarter of the continent, you are almost certain to attract chickadees (black-capped or Carolina, depending on your location), dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, American goldfinches, downy woodpeckers and blue jays. These six species were reported at 90 percent or more of the FeederWatch sites.
Northern cardinals, white-breasted nuthatches, and house finches were reported at three-quarters of the sites. And tufted titmice, European starlings, red-bellied woodpeckers, house sparrows, American robins, hairy woodpeckers, pine siskins, American crows, common grackles and song sparrows appeared at more than half the sites.
I’m confident that a feeder filled with black-oil sunflower seeds will attract 12 to 15 species by the end of winter. Starlings and grackles are most common during fall and spring migration, robins are not seed-eating birds and pine siskins are irruptive migrants that only appear every few years.
The occurrence of pine siskins at 59 percent of feeder sites is particularly notable. From 1988-2008 they appeared at an average of just 20 percent of sites. In some locations siskins actually nested before the end of winter.
These locations had young siskins visiting feeders in March and April. This was possible because, even where they normally nest in the north, siskins build exceptionally well insulated nests that enable them to nest before most other species.
Other winter species that might appear at feeders include white-throated sparrows, Carolina wrens, American tree sparrows and purple finches.
And occasionally genuine surprises appear. Last winter a green-tailed towhee, a species native to the southwest U.S., showed up at Peggy McDevit’s feeders in Collingswood, N.J. This year, an Asian rarity has already been reported in Alaska and Saskatchewan.
David Bonter, Project FeederWatch leader, reported that rustic buntings have been photographed at several FeederWatcher stations already this year.
“This Asian species is a rare find in North American,” Bonter told me during a recent telephone conversation, “and when they do appear it’s usually just along the Alaskan coast.”
Launched in 1987, Project FeederWatch is a citizen science program that compiles information gathered by volunteers from all across North America. Last year nearly 117,000 checklists were submitted from all U.S. states and Canadian provinces.
FeederWatch volunteers devote just a few minutes every week or two to identify and tally the birds that visit their feeders. No special knowledge is required because the material provided to volunteers include posters that facilitate bird identification.
To become a FeederWatch volunteer, visit www.birds.cornell.edu and click on the Project FeederWatch icon, or call 800-843-2473 during normal business hours, or send a check to Project FeederWatch, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, P.O. Box 11, Ithaca, NY 14851-0011.
The $15 fee ($12 for Lab of Ornithology members) covers all materials, data analysis, and publication of each year’s results.