Stock Up on Seed To Help Birds Weather the Winter

My interest in wild birds was a gift from my parents. I grew up in a woodsy Boston suburb with lots of trees and wildlife in and around our neighborhood. We always had a bird feeder, and one of my chores was to check it daily and refill it when needed.

My mother hung an Audubon Society chart on the wall for us to identify and record the dates we sighted different species. The feeder was the primary attraction for our neighborhood seed-eating birds, and our sightings usually took place from the warm comfort of our house.

The large oak trees in our neighborhood were also home to many squirrels. We would enjoy watching their antics, and despite our efforts, it was all but impossible to keep them from pilfering seeds from the bird feeder. They drove my father nuts (sorry for the pun), and he tried in vain to fashion various devices to thwart their thievery.

When I moved to Connecticut, I kept up the family tradition of maintaining a bird feeder. I learned from my parents the importance of feeding birds, especially during the winter months when our avian neighbors are most in need of sustenance to see them through the cold winter months.

A large winter storm packing deep snow or ice can cut off birds from their natural food supplies, and some can starve if food is not available. Backyard bird feeding can make a real difference for their survival.

This month, in preparation for the winter, I cleaned out our feeders, purchased fresh seed and several suet packets and loaded the feeders for our local birds to enjoy.

There are several types of bird feeders. One of the most popular is the tube feeder, and I have two of this style — one specifically for thistle seed and the second for black-oil sunflower seed. Both of my tube feeders are made by Droll Yankees, a manufacturer of high quality feeders located in Plainfield — right here in The Last Green Valley. Droll Yankees was the first to make the tube style feeder. For more information on their feeders, check out their website at: http://drollyankees.com.

I also have a metal box-shaped feeder that I use for two reasons — it was free (always good) and it is excellent for keeping squirrels from getting at the tasty seed. Like my father before me, my intention is to feed birds, not squirrels.

My “squirrel proof” feeder has a feeding perch attached to a hinged door or cover that drops down and seals access to the feed ports when a heavier animal (i.e. squirrel) sits on the perch. Lighter birds don’t activate it, and, being adjustable, it can also be set to deter larger birds, such as blue jays. I like blue jays and they are fascinating birds, but they have nasty eating habits and will toss several seeds to the ground in the process of gorging their expandable esophagus with seeds.

Along with the three feeders, I also hang two pre-made suet packets in suet cages near the feeders. The box feeder has its own pole and is about 6 feet off the ground. The tube feeders and suet cages hang from metal poles purchased at a nearby hardware store. We also have a bird bath near the feeders. Water is important for the birds, not only for bathing, but for drinking. It is important to clean it regularly, and keep it filled because water sources can be harder for birds to find during winter months. Our bird feeder is 30 feet from the house and in an open area adjacent to a large red oak tree. The tree provides a perching location for the birds as they wait their turn at the trough.

After several years of feeding winter birds, there are a few things I always keep in mind. I feed our birds black-oil sunflower seed and purchase it at my local farm cooperative feed and grain store. I prefer to purchase my seed and suet from locally-owned stores because it seems to be fresher and free of debris compared to the commercial varieties at chain stores that sell pet and bird supplies.

Black-oil sunflower seed will be eaten by pretty much any wild bird who visits my feeder and those who can’t crack the seeds themselves will scour the ground under the feeder looking for bits and pieces. It became readily available in the 1980s and, unlike the striped sunflower seed used when I was a child, the outer shell of the black-oil is thinner and easier to open. The kernel of the black-oil variety is also supposed to be larger than the striped variety, so the birds get more food per seed.

Our thistle feeder, as the name suggests, holds the tiny thistle seed that would flow out of the feeders typically used for sunflower seed. The best thistle feeders are the tube variety, though you can also find thistle seed “sock” feeders as well.

All the small finches – goldfinches, house, purple, redpolls, etc., enjoy the thistle seed and our chickadees also use the thistle feeder. Thistle seed can go rancid and moldy in wet weather, so it is good to clean out the feeder from time-to-time, especially if the seed builds up at the bottom of the tube.

I have not tried other types of seed and find the black-oil sunflower seed and thistle pretty much take care of the birds residing in or passing through our property. I have looked at other bird feed, including hulled peanuts, white millet, cracked corn, safflower, and seed mixes. However, I’ll stick to what works for me. I learned the hard way to avoid the cheaper bags of mixed seed sold in chain stores. Some of these mixes have filler “junk” seed our native wild birds won’t eat.

Hanging suet is also an important part of my bird feeding regimen. People tend to avoid a lot of fat in their diet, but for birds, especially in winter, the fat in suet is an excellent source of energy. My mom used to get it from the butcher and hung it in a mesh bag. That worked fine in the winter, but come spring it was a gooey mess.

Today you can find a variety of pre-made suet packages at any store selling bird seed. They are designed to fit wire mesh suet holders, and since this processed suet has been rendered, the blocks maintain a solid form even in hot weather.

The suet packets I purchase come mixed with seeds and bits of fruits to attract specific species such as cardinals and woodpeckers. The many woodpecker species we have on our property really enjoy it, especially the downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers.

Come spring and summer I’ll continue with the thistle seed, because it’s a good food source for birds who are predominately seed eaters, such as finches. In the spring, the native seed-producing plants are going through leaf and bloom before the seeding cycle of summer, so it is good to make sure the seed eaters have a food source during the important nesting and breeding season.

I keep three bluebird nesting boxes on our property. When the boxes are occupied by a breeding pair, I’ll buy a package of live mealworms and put a handful in a dish near the nest boxes. Bluebirds are primarily insect eaters, and I am happy to supplement their bug catching abilities with nutritious mealworms.

As the snowy season comes in, I will tend my feeders regularly. If we get lots of snow, I will tamp down the snow around and underneath the bird feeder so the ground-feeders can easily get to the drops of seed that fall in the snow.

A favorite winter bird is the dark-eyed junco – a beautiful small charcoal colored bird who nests in Canada and winters in New England. It is primarily a ground-feeder, so each time I fill the feeder I scatter a handful of seed on the ground for the junco.

Another winter favorite is the northern cardinal. The bright red color of the male and the muted red and orange of the female provide a picturesque contrast to the white snow of winter. When the bossy cardinal is at the feeder most smaller birds make room.

Along with the northern cardinal, I enjoy seeing the active and noisy red-bellied woodpecker. With its red nape down the back of its neck and frenetic demeaner, it is an easily recognized member of the woodpecker family. We have at least two breeding pairs who have taken up residence on our property, and they are a welcome sight.

Black-capped chickadee and both the white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatch are frequent visitors to our winter feeder. The tufted titmouse will make an appearance as well. Sometimes, we’ll be visited by the tree sparrow. They arrive in New England during the winter all the way from their summer breeding grounds in Canada.

A pair of binoculars is always on the window sill, and both a Peterson and Sibley guide to North American birds is nearby, if needed, for identifying the visitors to our seed and suet buffet. I rely on my bird guide books to identify birds correctly. There are, for example, many types of sparrows. We have spent countless hours enjoying the birds as they arrive, alight, feed and fly from our feeders.

Winter is approaching fast. Snow and ice will soon cover the sleeping ground, but life still flits from branch to branch in a seemingly constant search for food. Are you stocked up with bird seed and ready to help our feathered friends through the frigid days to come?

We live in a beautiful region called The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join me and celebrate the coming season. Remember our winter birds, enjoy them and care for them. They will brighten even the most frigid dark days of winter.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in the region for more than 30 years and can be reached at bill@tlgv.org