My favorite thing about winter is Soup. While I’m generally not a big fan of being cold, at least with soup, I finally feel warm on the inside and out and secure energy needed to brave the cold. Once satiated, my slurps slow down and my gaze shifts, as I admire the birds feasting on the banquet we have provided them on our deck.
After the hummingbirds leave, we quickly replace their feeder with suet, and convert our table to a feeding area sometime in September. Then we faithfully keep the birds supplied with food all winter long – 3 levels – hanging suet, an overflowing birdfeeder on the table, and ample seeds scattered about on the deck flooring. Our suet cakes are filled with seeds, nuts and fruit for insect eating birds. Then we provide a mixture of seeds and grains for the other feeders. We are especially attentive during snow cover and frigid weather when nutritional energy is especially critical. I recently read most song birds fill a special storage pouch in their esophagus with food, stored to digest overnight! And they conserve energy by lowering their metabolic rates and body temperature.
Now the entertainment begins. A wide variety of colorful birds, movements and chirps, come to visit happily feasting on the bounty, feedings especially frenzied early morning and late evening. On cold mornings, we notice their down feathers are especially puffed out, creating air pockets to maximize their insulation and trap body heat. We watch in fascination when they tuck a foot or whole leg up into their feathers for extra warmth, or hop on just one foot, then the other, while moving about chowing down. Some birds grab a quick snack while others linger until satisfied; some more timid than others; cardinals usually visit as couples while others appearing to travel solo.
Then there is “Thin Tail”, our tail-challenged fat squirrel and his friends, those we constantly chase away. Thin Tail is quite persistent, so we always stall at the door a bit longer making sure our stealthy squirrel has totally left the area releasing his last strong hold, a clinging foot attached to the side of the deck poised for his return! Squirrels can be deterred if that’s a priority. Then there are the occasional flocks of starlings, they need to make a living too!
As though simply being beautiful and inspiring wasn’t enough, birds have many other benefits as well. They control thousands of insect species; stimulate economies keeping tourists and birders in motion; vultures serve as road-kill clean-up crews; they are studied to determine the health of our ecosystems; they assist in seed germination and serve as pollinators throughout the world giving us plants that provide food, medicine, timber and recreation. Winter survival is especially challenging so we always provide ample food to meet their needs.
We hang cages filled with high energy suet cakes. There we frequently see sap suckers, hairy and downy woodpeckers, titmouse, nut hatchers, finches, chickadees, wrens and an occasional red-headed wood pecker. Their antics are fascinating as they crowd in and feast, many times hanging upside down. (See recipe at end of article.)
We provide a wide variety of seeds and grain in our overflowing birdfeeder on the table and scatter seeds about the deck floor. Table feeders include nut hatchers, chickadees, cardinals, finch, and squawking blue jays; whereas junkos, sparrows, towhees and brown thrashers prefer ground feeding.
As for bird feed, black-oil sunflower seeds are the #1 choice as it is high in calories with high fat and protein content, critical for the survival of a wide variety of birds. Hulled sunflower seeds are less messy and striped sunflowers cheaper, but small birds struggle with their harder shells. Cardinals, house finches and mourning doves favor safflower whereas finches prefer nyjer, a tiny black thistle seed from India and Africa. Cracked corn attracts blue birds and jays. More nutritious premium mixes contain black oil sunflower, peanut, millet, and striped sunflowers, while cheaper mixes include more milo, cracked corn, wheat, striped sunflower and other seeds.
Frequently overlooked, birds need water, especially when ponds and streams are frozen. Fortunately, where we live, the Missouri River flows by but flying there takes energy, so a heated bird baths is an option. It’s best to create bird feeding stations out of the wind, preferably to the east or southeast side of the house or where trees, especially evergreens, shield the wind.
Many estimate 100 million birds are killed every year in the United States alone from window strike mortalities, so place your bird feeder either within three feet of the window or greater than 30 feet away. Ours is close to the door – easy to see and easy to feed! As for those felines killing millions of birds every year, a bell on the collar isn’t enough. Keep them inside during the mornings and late afternoon when birds do most of their feeding.
The “Birds of Missouri Field Guide” by Stan Tekiela is organized by color, my go-to source when identifying our feathered visitors. Or consider buying a book specific to your geographic area, making identification much easier. Hopes are, we will all stay warm this winter and help the birds along the way.
For those ambitious birders – Here is one of many suet recipes –
NO-MELT SUET RECIPE
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
1 cup lard
2 cups quick cook oats
2 cups cornmeal
1 cup white flour
1/3 cup sugar
Melt the lard and peanut butter in a microwave or stove top pan.
Stir in the remaining ingredients. Pour the suet mixture into a square
container about 2″ thick. Store the suet in your freezer.
I add generic bird seeds too and double the recipe and cut into squares
before it gets too hard.