One of the least expensive, highest energy and longest-lasting treats we can provide is raw suet, available in chunks at the supermarket. A big suet feeder, made of vinyl-coated wire mesh, will hold a large quantity of suet which will last for quite some time, without refilling. I like to hang suet in several locations, so all birds can enjoy this treat. High-fat foods are necessary to maintain body heat and insulate feathers against the snow, cold rain and plummeting temperatures of winter. All backyard birds seem to relish suet, especially the shy Downy Woodpecker, whom you may want to provide with his own upside-down suet feeder. Why? Because the pesky starlings, that also crave suet, will crowd out less aggressive birds; however, woodpeckers and many of the smaller birds can easily feed by clinging upside-down, while most starlings cannot. I did have one "smart" starling solve the mysteries of flipping upside-down during flight, but with great difficulty and he soon went back to the big suet cage.
Another source of heat and energy are preformed suet cakes, made to to fit within smaller, square suet feeders. These are handy, can be stored in the freezer and are easily popped into the suet cage, as needed. They often include special treats like peanuts, nut meats, seed, fruit, berries or even insects (popular with woodpeckers and mockingbirds). Do-it-yourselfer? You can render raw suet over low heat (keep kids away from the stove and hot fat). After it's completely cooled, and before it solidifies, stir in sunflower seed, seed blends, nuts, orange bits, raisins, etc. Pour into molds and store in the freezer, until needed. Here's another project - one the children will enjoy... Mixing this dough requires lots of muscle, but it's a fun project. The basic recipe is 4 cups cornmeal, 1 cup flour, 1 cup peanut butter and 1 cup shortening - mix well and pack into pine cones, suspended from lower tree limbs or that recycled Christmas tree. Fill mesh onion bags or suet feeders with the mixture and hang near bird feeders. Fill in tree bark crevices with the dough and enjoy the antics of nuthatches, titmice, chickadees as they retrieve this tasty treat. Freeze any leftovers for refills.
Turn up the heat... one more way to increase the fat content of the backyard bird is to fill most feeders with black oil sunflower seed. As you might guess, this seed is rich in natural oil, further insulating birds against the elements. All birds will enjoy this sunflower, so you can simplify your feeding chores and storage issues. However, if you care to cater to their particular preferences, there are other seeds and blends to explore. Striped sunflower (high-fiber, less oil) and sunflower kernels (no messy shells) are eaten by just about everyone. Downy woodpeckers will dine from specially-designed feeders, preferring nut meats, peanut hearts, sunflower kernels, and white millet.
Other preferences - To some extent, you can regulate backyard visitors by offering specialty seeds and blends. Peanut hearts are relished by most birds. Surprisingly, cracked corn, in limited quantities, is eaten by a variety of birds and is chiefly a digestive aid. White millet (avoid coarse red millet, which attracts pigeons and other "undesirables") is a treat for the cardinal, finch, sparrow, junco, nuthatch, titmouse, mourning dove and pheasant. Tiny black Niger (commonly, "thistle") seeds are sought out by the smallest birds and mourning doves. The white hard-shelled safflower (squirrels dislike this one) is eaten by the cardinal, mourning dove, titmouse, chickadee, nuthatch, red-bellied woodpecker, red-winged blackbird, evening grosbeak, rose-breasted grosbeak, song sparrow, white-throated sparrow and house finch. Look into specially-designed feeders for the seeds and mixtures you plan to offer. Low, platform feeders are great for offering safflower to the ground-feeding cardinals, white-throated sparrows and mourning doves. It keeps the seed dry and doesn't attract squirrels.
Speaking of squirrels... At this moment, I have no doubt that top engineers continue to devise yet more ways to discourage and baffle those persistent gray squirrels. Pole baffles, hanging baffles, special mechanisms and weighted perches designed to foil these furry, gray-suited "engineers" are mounted in backyards even now, under scrutiny and attack by squirrels who always seem to enjoy a challenge. Try mounting a twirling feeder (away from bird feeders), whose four metal arms hold dried ears of corn. It's fun to watch the squirrels spinning 'round for their lunch!
Other food sources include weed seeds and berries from wild areas, as well as perennial seeds and persistent fruits on your garden trees and shrubs... a good reason to include plants that that offer winter food sources. Some landscape specimens like flowering crabs, viburnums, winterberries and cotoneaster provide valuable winter fruit. My resident, wintering mockingbird survives on a diet of suet and berries. Leaving taller, staked perennials all winter adds to the natural food supply - Aster, Black-eyed Susan, Joe Pye weed and Helen's flower offer seed into the winter and can be cut back in spring.
Shelter can easily be provided with birdhouses and roosting boxes. Fall-mounted birdhouses will be claimed early next spring for nesting. Try to include evergreens of all sizes, if space permits. Pines, spruces and firs are large-scale habitats, but upright and pyramidal yews, as well as upright junipers (birds love the berries) offer smaller-scale shelter and nesting sites. Feeding stations should be positioned near sheltering plants, providing protection from weather and hawks, along with accessibility to food.
And last, but not least - water! In the Northeast, we're experiencing a dry, open winter that has suddenly turned frigid. With the local pond frozen, it's time to provide an open source of water. Normally, birds obtain some moisture from snow, but there has been almost none, so far. Birdbath heaters and heated birdbaths that are thermostatically-controlled, are widely available. It's still important to keep the vessel clean and water changed, daily. Another option is a flexible, shallow, black rubber feed pan. Set it on cement blocks or bricks in a sunny area, knock out the ice and replace with fresh water, daily. The black color attracts the sun's warmth, keeping the water open for a longer time. Birds will get used to this source and stop by for a drink, whenever you change it. I try to change it twice, on the coldest days.
If you employ just some of the above techniques, you'll be assisting wildlife, while bringing nature up close for your own enjoyment. Place feeding stations in easy view from kitchen tables, easy chairs and other such prime observation points. Keep field guides handy, for correct identification of the many bird species you attract. Children usually enjoy this aspect of backyard birding... eager to identify all newcomers. Take that same enthusiasm, along with the children and field guides, on a winter hike through local preserves and Audubon trails. Identify plant species, new birds, animal tracks and other signs of winter wildlife. All too soon, another gardening season will be upon us!
Photos & Text: ©2011 Deb Lambert
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