So far this winter, about a 200-acre field worth of sunflower seeds have been channeled through a bird feeder just outside my window.
There has been a swarm of songbirds there for months, and thus far, not one of this has said thanks for the handouts. But that is OK. I have enjoyed witnessing their opportunistic gluttony.
Lots of people are into feeding the birds. The biggest part of the time, it is purely a recreational thing for those that put out the food. That is, most often the human-provided food does not make that much difference; it only serves as the “lowest hanging fruit” for the birds.
Feeder food there for the taking gives birds what they want for the least effort. So sure, when they know it is present, they will go there first. It saves all that rooting around, foraging for their normal food sources. In return, the people that fill those feeders enjoy the concentrated presence of birds that the gift food draws. And it gives them a sense that they are helping their feathered friends.
That is largely how it is until it comes to conditions like we have had lately. Winter bird feeding always is more valuable to the birds. Typical winter weather exerts more stress on birds, lower temperatures increasing the need for energy, calories coursing through them to maintain body heat.
Yet, when severe wintry weather grips the landscape, the stress on birds greatly increases. Ice and snow effectively lock up their natural supply of food and water. Temperatures far below freezing, intensified by feather-penetrating wind, sap away body heat at an accelerated rate.
How would you like to go two or three days without much of anything to eat or drink and then have to spend the night in 4-degree weather while perched in a cedar tree?
Under severe conditions, free nutrition offered up in feeders absolutely can ease the stress on songbirds. In some cases, it might be the difference between surviving and not surviving. Winter kill is a potential factor in songbird populations. Bird feeders may help some endure that otherwise would not.
There are a few ways to go with winter bird feeding, but a good general approach is to offer handouts via a seed feeder.
It might be a platform-type feeder, but that is more vulnerable to weather events.
Probably better is some hopper-type feeder in which birds can reach seeds from the bottom of a temporary supply, and gravity replaces the accessible seeds with more.
A hopper-type feeder should protect the seed supply from precipitation, and it doles out seed more gradually, preventing some gobble-gut from wiping out the entire stock.
Birdseed? That sounds like something you would plant to sprout new birds. There are a few options of what to place inside a bird feeder, but highly recommended by all the ornithology-aware sources is black oil sunflower seeds. By far, that is the “birdseed” of choice.
Sunflower seeds are high in oil content that provides the most nutritional benefit for birds. Combine that with an easy-open shell on the seed that gives birds the most efficient energy reward for the minimal effort they must expend.
Sunflower seeds attract and benefit a surprising variety of songbirds that are present hereabouts during the winter. Most common customers at a sunflower seed feeder here will be cardinals, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, purple finches and white-breasted nuthatches.
Experiences here also show a good bit of presence from sparrows (seemingly white-throated and song sparrows, maybe others) and one or more species of vireos, blue jays, winter wrens and downy woodpeckers.
There are commercial mixes of seeds for birdfeeders, blends of stuff that are cheaper options. These often include grains like corn that attract species like blackbirds, starlings, cowbirds and house sparrows that dominate feeders and generally are a negative force toward more desirable songbirds.
Seed mixes heavy on elements like milo are falsely economic, too. At the feeder, most songbirds pick through the less favored seeds, often tossing them aside, to get to the sunflower seeds. Much of the fillers are wasted, ending up on the ground below where they attract rodents.
Put your feeder (or feeders) where you can enjoy the show. Close observation is your benefit. Keep a guidebook close by to help identify the unknowns.
Hang the hopper-type feeder from a stand-alone hook or a tree limb. Best elevation is maybe 4-6 feet off the ground. A clear spot below the feeder creates another feeding area for some species like the wrens, sparrows and juncos that are more comfortable foraging on the ground.
Use some sort of baffle on the supporting hook or cable as a squirrel guard. In use here is a miniature spring-like Slinky toy surrounding the shaft of the metal hook that holds the feeder. Squirrels that try to scale the pole grab onto the sagging spring and immediately droop back to the ground. They eventually quit trying.
If there are prowling housecats in the neighborhood, keep the feeder some distance away from ambush cover from which a predatory feline can pounce on feeding birds.
In a short while, man-made feeding stations will be so much luxury for local songbirds. Right now, however, they are more like emergency aid, possibly a matter of life and death.
Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at email@example.com.