Winter is a busy season for birdfeeding aficionados

Date Published: 
Jan. 13, 2016

Coastal Point • Shaun M. Lambert: A cardinal sits at a bird feeder in Camden-Wyoming.Coastal Point • Shaun M. Lambert: A cardinal sits at a bird feeder in Camden-Wyoming.The other day, my 3-year-old grandson, Samuel, and I were filling our birdfeeders when my son-in-law asked if we really expected birds to come use them at this time of the year. At first I thought, why ask such a silly question? But after I thought a little bit about it, I realized that it wasn’t such a silly question.

Many people remember being taught that birds fly south for the winter. Also, if you don’t have birdfeeders up, you will see fewer birds during the winter months. However, if you have birdfeeders up and keep them cleaned and filled, you will have lots of birds visiting your yard.

Many birds eat bugs and, at this time of year, many bugs go into dormant states. Other birds eat seeds, and plants also go into dormant states at this time of year, resulting in less seeds for the birds to eat.

Then there are the birds that eat other birds and animals. This time of the year, with the leaves off of the trees and shrubs, so there is less camouflage for the smaller birds to hide in. Some birds’ brighter colors of spring and summer actually turn more muted at this time of the year so that they do blend in more.

If you do place birdfeeders in your yard, you will notice that they will be very well-populated throughout the fall and winter, even more so then they are in the late spring and summer. Providing fresh water is an added bonus, but becomes more labor-intensive during the colder months, because it freezes throughout the day and night.

One of the best ways to provide water is to place several small dishes of water out and to change it a couple times a day, or at least put a fresh bowl of water every morning and again a little before dusk. Birds will generally feed the heaviest at early to late morning; sunup until 9 or 10 a.m.; and then at dusk, 4-6 p.m. So, if you place several small saucers/bowls of fresh water out at those times, it will allow the birds fresh water to drink.

Plant saucers, old dog bowls, inexpensive shallow plastic-ware and the like make good choices. Do not use glass or metal. If the water freezes in the glass containers, they can easily break. The metal ones freeze quickly, and the birds’ feet can actually freeze onto the bowls, causing them to lose a toe or even a complete foot from sticking to the metal. (You know — tongue stuck to pole in the “Christmas Story” movie)

Placing birdfeeders in your yard not only helps the birds that come to feed from your feeders, but can also help the birds and animals that prey on them. It brings the seed-eating birds out into the open in a central location, which can sometimes, unfortunately, make them an easier target for other prey birds and animals.

However, careful placement of your feeders can help to deter the prey animals. Place your birdfeeders near fences, buildings, tree trunks/branches, etc. If you place a feeder out in the middle of an open area, you make the birds feeding there easy targets for prey animals. Birds of prey more or less “swoop” down, and they need a more open area to do that.

By placing your feeders near other objects, you make it more difficult for the hawks and such to fly in and grab a bird. Placing birdfeeders away from low bushes also make it harder for cats to hide and sneak up on the birds feeding there. So feeder placement can be very important.

My feeders are currently placed along a fence row that runs between my daughter’s home and mine. During the spring and summer, we place them in additional areas, but in the late fall and winter, I bring them all in closer to the houses.

One reason is rather selfishly motivated, because it makes it so I can watch the birds from sitting in my nice warm house. Secondly, closer to the house means less time I have to spend out in the cold to keep them cleaned and filled. Also, it makes them safer for the prey animals. There are lots of obstacles for prey birds to have to navigate. There are also fewer hiding areas for cats and other prey animals to hide.

If you are new to feeding birds, find out what kinds of birds are around in your area at this time of year, what they eat and what kind of feeder will work best for you. For example, using a hummingbird feeder at this time of year would be wasteful, because hummingbirds do fly south for the winter.

Buy a quality feeder that comes apart easily for cleaning. Also, buy quality seed. Cheaper bird foods comes with a lot of waste in them, which results in less food for the birds and more spilled seed. That spilled seed will often sprout and grow in the spring, resulting in “weeds” growing beneath your birdfeeders.

It also ends up costing you more in time and money. The birds will “spill out” the seeds they don’t like, allowing it to fall onto the ground, which results in your needing to refill the feeders more often, which results in buying seed more often. Also, the spilled seed attracts mice and rats and other unwelcome guests to feast on the spilled seed.

Buying more select seed mixes results in less seed waste. You may spend a little more upfront, but it results in actually getting more for your money in the long run.

Check your feeders regularly. With the windy rainstorms we get in this area, the feeders will sometimes get water inside, causing seeds to sprout (which is OK), but it also causes the seeds to mold (not OK). If your seed gets wet, dump the feeder out, clean it, dry it out completely and then refill with fresh seed.

If the seeds do start to sprout, you can dump it out onto the ground, and some birds will eat them, but if they have any mold, throw it away. Mold can make birds sick and even possibly kill some.

Try different styles of feeders to attract different types of birds. Also provide a variety of seed to attract a wider variety of birds. Some birds will start coming the first day you hang your feeders, but others are slower to find your feeders and are a little more timid.

As your feeders become established, you will notice some birds hanging around on the ground below your feeders; this is because some birds, such as doves, feed from the ground. There are ground feeders you can purchase, or you can sprinkle some seed around on the ground for those types of birds to feed on. (Warning, some of the uneaten seed will sprout and grow during the growing seasons. These sprouted seeds are easy to pull up, because they are only surface-rooted.)

Providing different styles of feeders and types of seeds will result in bringing a wider selection of bird species flocking to your yard. Providing fresh water for birds to drink and bathe in will also help. Placing your feeders where you can see them through a window in your home is best during the colder months, so that you can sit inside in the warmth of your home and watch the birds eating, playing and even sometimes “squabbling.”

Many of my and my grandson’s feeders are placed along the fence row that runs between our two houses. This way, I can sit at my kitchen table and look out the window at them, and Samuel can watch through his back door or out the living room windows, or even from his second-story bedroom window.

During the summer months, we add some additional feeders in different parts of the yard, but many of them are more out in the open, making the birds easier targets for prey animals, such as hawks. Keeping them close to the fence and between the two houses makes the birds more difficult targets for hawks during the time of year when food is scarcer.

Many of the birds have become used to us being out in this area and allow us to remain close without startling, but even when they do fly away, it’s usually not long before they return. I enjoy sitting at my kitchen table every morning, watching the birds eat, drink, play and sometimes even have little scuffles.

In the warmer weather, we have a small outdoor table and chairs where we can sit outside and watch them. We add a flowerbed in the spring that is bird-, bee- and butterfly-friendly. Of course, having the birdfeeders in our flower bed does add for some extra weeding, but the seeds are shallow-rooted and easily pulled up weekly, and sometimes we actually let some of the “weeds” grow, such as the wild sunflowers, which then provide more food for the birds.

Last spring we had a hummingbird feeder, but we did have one male hummingbird that was extremely territorial, so we will probably have two hummingbird feeders, at opposite ends of the flower garden, and then place another hummingbird feeder in the front yard and one more in the back yard. Yes, bird-feeding and flower beds are addicting, and seem to grow and grow and grow.

I had started this article in early December but had abandoned finishing it, until Saturday, when our first snow came along. Samuel and I had filled our feeders on Tuesday. We have four tube feeders, a large hopper feeder, another small hopper feeder, three suet basket feeders and one ground feeder.

Most of the feeders were at least three-quarters full Saturday morning, but almost completely empty by sundown Saturday evening. Sunday morning, I refilled all of them. I also spread a couple pounds of seed on the ground. All day Saturday, there were no less than 50 to 100 birds continuously feeding and, apparently, overnight they told their friends about it, because Sunday brought even more birds.

Apparently, the birds were very hungry, because even while my son-in-law was shoveling the sidewalks, which are less than 4 feet from the feeders, the birds remained. Unfortunately, many larger birds came in, chasing the smaller birds off of the feeders. By sprinkling some of the seed on the ground closer to the houses, it gave the smaller birds other options.

I also threw some bird seed on the ground at several different locations away from the area with the feeders. The birds fed from sunup to sundown both Saturday and Sunday. I guess no one else in the neighborhood has any feeders up.

Some of the types of birds that came visiting were cardinals, black-capped chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, house sparrows, chipping sparrows, Bewick’s wrens, mourning doves, Carolina wrens, house finches, song sparrows, slate-colored juncos, starlings, common grackles, red-bellied woodpeckers, a downy or hairy woodpecker, brewer’s blackbirds, American goldfinches and more.

(Now, I am not an expert on birds. I more enjoy watching and enjoying them, rather than having a positive ID for them. I have a few bird-identification books and a few different websites that I regularly use, so I may not have all of these exactly right, but these were my best guesses.)

I was quite surprised, because we do have quite a few extremely territorial mockingbirds living here, and I did not see them visiting or defending the feeders the last few days. There were several birds that I was unable to identify, but it was still fun watching them and trying to figure out what type of bird they were.

Cheryl Loveland is a semi-retired dog groomer. She currently resides in Millsboro with two bloodhounds, a bichon frisée, two cats, a scarlet macaw, two tree frogs, a leopard frog and a lizard, and a stray cat that has recently moved in and adopted her. Also living on the property are her daughters family’s pets and livestock, including two dogs, a guinea pig, a turtle, a tank of fish, three ducks and numerous chickens and rabbits. She is a member of Colonial Bloodhound Club and secretary for the Mispillion Kennel Club. She is currently retired from rescue work due to her desire to do some traveling. She has been working with all types of animals all of her life. She may be reached at countryservice@comcast.net.