Follow these tips from Songbird Station, then relax and enjoy a backyard filled with your feathered friends.
October is behind us and already we have seen the snows and cold weather creep steadily closer. The days seem even shorter now as we rolled back the clocks and the light is casting long dark shadows by the afternoon. The trees have become mostly barren with a few leafy blotches of gold, orange and red desperately clinging on as if to defy the northern winds. Sweet aromas of wood fires drift lazily from chimneys filling neighborhoods. One last glance out of the window at dusk provides silhouetted images of Northern Cardinals at the bird feeders grabbing a few last-minute morsels before heading to their nightly roost. The signs of winter are slowly settling in across Central Missouri.
The large flocks of blackbirds, except for a few stragglers, have been ushered south by the first cold fronts. Our winter birds, the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-crowned Sparrows and others have arrived over the past few weeks having been driven south by the same cold northern winds. Soon Pine Siskins will appear, maybe even some Redpolls. The northern birds that will spend the winter across Central Missouri have replaced the birds of summer. The Baltimore Orioles, Red-breasted Grosbeaks, Tanagers and dozens of other birds who rely on insects for food are but a warm weather memory. The Warblers that nested to our north have been passing through since mid-October. They stop in backyards for a splash in the bird bath and to glean what insects remain before retreating further south ahead of the approaching winter. This annual fall migration of birds is a visual reminder that the seasons are about to drastically change.
It is these cold weather changes that encourage many folks who didn’t maintain a bird feeder during the summer to consider offering supplemental food sources for our backyard birds. After all, when the snow blows and the temperatures plummet, our resident winter birds are a short thirty-six hours away from starvation. These feathered creatures, most that weigh less than a few ounces, only survive the harsh frigid nights on what foods they can consume during the day.
Feeding birds in our backyards has become more than just a passing hobby. In fact, birding in the United States has become the fastest growing outdoor recreational activity for families and individuals with close ties to gardening. The birds entertain us, they educate us and they bring color and activity to a seemingly cold reality outside our windows. But what does it take to feed birds and attract them to our yards? It’s very simple. Birds find food by sight. You put the food out and they will come.
In the past many people would just scatter the bird seed on the ground, or possibly have a single bird feeder filled with a general wild bird mix and expect all birds to enjoy their fill. However backyard bird feeding has become more specialized, targeting the specific feeding habits of birds to meet their needs. Some birds will only feed at elevated feeders like the Chickadees, Nuthatches and Goldfinch. Others, such as Juncos, Doves and native Sparrows feed primarily on the ground. Still other birds like Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and Brown Creepers prefer to feed around the tree trunk zone. Then there are the Cardinals and Blue Jays who are just plain opportunistic feeding wherever the seed is made accessible to them.
Two of the most common style of bird feeders for attracting a large variety of birds is a hopper feeder, which will attract large and small birds, and seed tube bird feeders designed primarily for smaller birds. Other bird feeders include ground and platform bird feeders which are undoubtedly the most versatile for attracting a large variety of bird species. Then there are bird feeders designed to attract specific birds such as Nyjer thistle feeders for Finches and suet feeders for Woodpeckers. These types of bird feeders are recommended for a successful backyard bird feeding program.
Just as the type of bird feeder you select determines which birds you will attract, the bird seed you fill them with is just as important. Birds that feed at elevated bird feeders prefer sunflower seed, safflower seed, peanuts and other nut mixes. If you put a general Proso millet wild bird mix in these feeders, the birds will sweep through it picking out the nut products, scattering everything else to the ground.
Thistle feeders are for Nyjer thistle seed and Finch mixes. Caution must be taken to assure the thistle seed is fresh or the Finch you are trying to attract may reject it. A good Finch mix contains only Nyjer thistle seed and finely ground sunflower chips, nothing else. Avoid those commercial Finch mixes that contain flax, canary grass seed and other filler seeds that birds do not eat.
General wild bird mixes have a base of white Proso millet with cracked corn, peanuts and sunflower seeds added. They are best used on platform and ground feeders where birds can select the seed they want without sweeping through it. However, when purchasing a general wild bird mix read the label. Many of these inexpensive mixes contain filler seeds such as Milo, wheat, red millet and other products that birds do not eat. As much as 40% of a bag of bird seed that contains these filler seeds can end up uneaten and wasted on the ground. There is a variety of no-waste and no-mess wild bird feeds on the market. Although they may cost a little more, it will save you money in the long run.
If squirrels are robbing the seed you intended for the birds to enjoy, you may want to consider adding a squirrel baffle or investing in a squirrel proof bird feeder. Safflower seed will attract most all your favorite backyard birds and can be used in any type of bird feeder. The advantage is that squirrels do not care for it and will leave your feeders alone.
Water for birds, especially during the winter months, is essential for their survival. Although they do not rely on any one food source, an open source of water in the winter can be difficult to locate. In fact, offering fresh water can attract more birds than bird seed alone. To keep the water from freezing there is an assortment of bird bath heaters and heated bird baths on the market that are thermostatically controlled and use less energy than a 60 watt light bulb. Fresh water does more for birds than just meet their hydration needs. Clean feathers provide insulation during cold nights.
Winter offers many relaxing moments watching the birds go about their daily feeding routines from the comfort of your home. Winter also provides time to consider installing bird houses for the nesting season come spring. It’s a good time to make some landscaping plans for the spring that will benefit the birds in your yard year round. Hedges and shrubs will not only offer shelter from bitter winter winds, but will become a place for birds to nest and provide a natural food source as well. Consult with a Master Gardener at your local garden center or the University of Missouri Extension Office about planting habitat for wildlife.