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Winter backyard bird feeding

By Sandy Erdman


This article is not intended as a source of information, but for the enjoyment of folks who feed birds in the winter and whose bird watching is done mostly through a picture window. This is how my husband and I did after his heart attack, strokes and dementia, as he loved to watch the birds. 


Did you know that more people spend time watching a greater number of birds in winter than in the summer, even though there are more bird species around. This is because in summer the birds are scattered throughout your yard being busy and hidden by shrubbery. But in the winter most of the birds can be seen in the thinning shrubs and changes in their social habits.


Many wintering species gather into large flocks, roving widely in search of food and will with great pleasure love the given food in the feeder. Placing your feeder near a convenient window where the birds can be continuously, closely, and comfortably observed by folks like you and me, and of course a few cats who also watch, at least in my house, sitting on the bay window sill. We do know that those smart birds did know a window glass was between them and the cats.


A winter bird feeder can be a very popular place. Stock photo

Why feed birds?


Self-satisfaction is most likely the main reason we decide to start feeding birds, along with the instant gratification, compassion, and entertainment. Though sometimes an abandoned, unattended feeder that stands for a period of time with no birds can appear as a rejection. Doubt in the type of feeder or seed and we wonder as time passes as to why I even have a bird feeder? Are the birds all over at the neighbors? What are they doing better than I? But let that first bird appear on that brand new feeder, and a moment of triumph ignites and every doubt is well forgotten. You’ve been accepted! As my husband would cheer with his cane, “Sandy come and see this one!”


Seeds and feeds


Types of seeds are found at most major feed stores and farm stores: Sunflower, mixed seed (marketed as wild bird seed), millet, canary seed, cracked grain, corn, safflower and thistle to name a few. Types of feeds include peanut butter, various suet cakes, the old stand-by baked goods, fruit and more types as you can experiment with your birds.


Feeders and shelters


There are two elements to consider in setting up a feeding station First, what birds are you looking for? Mainly is the accessibility to the birds, easy visibility for you to watch, and shelter from the winds. Second is the ease of filling, cleaning and maintaining feed in the feeder, feeder capacity to hold a good amount of feed as some birds can go through a 20 pound bag of seed in three or four days, especially when it is very cold out, so frequent filling is required, a shelter from snow and/or rain and less exposure to outside cats and squirrels.


Assessment of your yard will suggest the kinds of feeders you should use, be it a table window shelf, post-mounted or hanging. If you have a big bay window facing the southeast side of the house, with ample shelter from the northwesterly winds, there are no concerns to sort out, since this is a setup in which everybody wins. But if your best window faces west or north, and there is no shelter between it and Siberia, you have some adjustments to make as we had to do so we located our feeder close to bushes and we were still able to watch our birds from the window and they had shelter. Warm water in the bird bath and a distance away the corn feeder on the tree for the squirrels and rabbits. All this kept the small wildlife busy, and my husband too just watching them all.  


Knowing your visitors


The individual winter birds that visit feeders and the families they belong to can be found in editions of popular bird books and guides found at your local feed and seed stores, along with the library, bookstore or as near as your computer search.


Walk-in trade


Some animals, other than birds, routinely find the warmth and welcome mats of your bird feeder for better or worse. They may include deer, raccoon, woodchucks, ground squirrels, mice, and other guests. Our main guests include outside cats as the mice would come and eat the seed on the ground and the squirrels love the corn that would also drop from the feeder. A close runner-up is the raccoon.


Bird clubs


Feeding birds and enjoying their closeness and trust during the long winter is considered an individual’s pleasure. We have found that many nursing homes and assisted living facilities have many feeders put out by staff or family members.


Some folks find their way into feeding birds through participation in the programs of local nature clubs, some do it the other way around developing their private interest first and then join a club to share ideas and rub shoulders socially, and some take photos to share with others. I have found that checking under www.dnr.state.mn.us/birds/index.html is a great place to start for more information on feeding birds and even from the comfort of your home. Summer/fall groups and tours through parks can broaden your interest in birds and bird watching.  Other groups can be the Audubon Society. 


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