This last week of mild weather lulled us all into a false sense of bliss, I think. Yesterday it was in the 60s (!), and this morning, when I went out to walk the dog, it was significantly colder; in fact, not only were my layers not quite enough, but I really wished I had worn a hat and brought along a scarf!
So imagine what our wildlife must be going through.
"In the old days," the gradual cooling of the seasons between the end of summer and the start of winter helped plants and animals alike get ready for the long, cold Dark, but these days, with the roller coaster weather that seems to have become the norm, it is difficult for anything to be ready for winter. What can we do to help?
One of the traditional activities of winter is feeding the birds. We buy (or make) feeders, fill them with seed, hang them out in the trees, and wait for the birds to arrive. It really is that simple. And, I suspect that if we put out some really good quality food for the birds now, it will help them be prepared when the temperatures suddenly dip.
I have learned that if I am only going to put out one kind of seed, black oil sunflower seed is the best choice. It is high in fat, all birds like it and all can eat it. Grey-striped sunflower seed is also good, but it is larger and has a harder shell, so the smaller birds cannot open it to get to the seed inside (grosbeaks, however, love it). My second go-to is peanuts - out of the shell. Again, all birds love this high-fat food: bluejays fly off with their gullets stuffed with whole peanut kernels, while the smaller chickadees and nuthatches peck off small bits at a time to eat.
Next, I go for nyjer, or thistle seeds. These small seeds are frequented by the finches, but it is expensive, and they are just as happy to eat the black oil sunflower seeds, so if finances are tight, I skip this one. Finally, I round out my offerings with suet cakes (which can easily be made at home if you collect your bacon drippings and other fats drained from the meats your cook). Most birds enjoy suet, but it is a real draw for woodpeckers - always a bonus at your feeder station.
If I'm feeling generous, I'll also put out peanuts in the shell. I've had a lot of fun watching blue jays puzzle out how to get them out of the coiled wire feeders. This morning, however, I found one of my peanut-in-the-shell feeders on the ground. Whether this was from the high winds or a rambunctious squirrel, I'm not quite sure, but I may be rethinking that one.
Where I used to live in northern New York, hunters routinely put the rib cages of their deer up in the trees. These fat and meat offerings attract not only most of the birds, but also bring in other amazing visitors, like martens and their smaller weasel kin.
The coups de grâce for your bird feeding station is water. If you can keep a birdbath filled with unfrozen water, the birds will be your best friends.
As the gift-giving season approaches, it's kind of fun to make your own bird food and/or bird feeders. These are gifts you can give to friends and relatives (especially great for young children to make and give), but they can also be a gift for your winged neighbors.
A classic DIY bird feeder is the peanut butter pine cone. PLEASE - if you make these, you want to do them right. You see, the oil in the peanut butter can be a genuine problem for birds, because it can get into their feathers and not only make a mess, but it can wreak havoc on their insulation. So, if you are going to use peanut butter in any of your bird treats, be sure to mix it with cornmeal, or even oat meal. These ingredients will absorb the oil and make it much less hazardous for the birds.
Another great way to make stand-alone birdfood/feeders is to mix gelatin (or agar agar) with your birdseed (you can find lots of recipes online). This mix can be pressed into a bundt cake pan or even molded by hand. Be sure to leave a hole so you can add string for hanging your creation.
Good foods to use in your homemade bird mixes are lard/suet (every bird needs fat - it is high energy and lasts), peanuts, and sunflower seeds. Dried fruits are also good - you can chop them up and add them to your homemade suet cake mixes. Insects are a high protein food that the birds will love you for - buy some mealworms and either put them out in a bowl or mix them (dried) into your suet cakes.
You want to avoid filler items that have little to no nutritional value (most birds will not eat them anyway, so you might as well save yourself some money and not buy them). These include golden and red millet, flax seed, rapeseed, and canary seed. Quite often, premixed bird feed is loaded with these fillers (read the labels). This is why these mixes are cheap - you get what you pay for - and the birds will kick the fillers onto the ground as they search for the good stuff (sunflower seeds).
More than once people have asked me: "What happens to my birds if I go away - will they starve if the feeders are not filled?" The good news is, no, your birds will be perfectly fine. Odds are they visit a number of feeders in the neighborhood, not just yours, plus they know where the "wild" food is located. So you need not worry about "your birds" if you want to take a vacation or if the bird seed runs out and it's a few days before you can get to the store.
So, put up a feeder or two, fill it with seed, and see who comes calling. If you start now, you will be ready to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count when Valentine's Day rolls around!