Feeding and bird watching in winter
Well I have to eat a little crow here because I too am now a backyard bird feeder enthusiast. It all started out as something to entertain and distract us during the weird and unsettling spring of 2020. We threw in a feeding tube and tallow and watched in amazement as the swirl of goldfinches, woodpeckers and cardinals poured in. It was exactly what we needed with ever-changing entertainment, easy household chores, and a way to feel a connection to nature when the weather isn’t so good outside.
So we added another feeder, then another. Then we found a makeshift birdbath. And soon enough, I looked for a place to hang a third hummingbird feeder and I was officially a full-fledged backyard bird feeder.
Watching and caring for our feeders is something we do year round, but the intensity with which we do it – and the intensity of bird feeder use – wanes over the summer.
With the end of fall and the onset of winter, visits to feeders will increase as birds begin to look for food sources that will support them through the winter. They do their rounds, showing where and how they can find easy meals.
So now is the right time of year to start feeding backyard birds. The tips and tricks below come from a bit of my own experience, but also years of experience and knowledge from some of the birding experts in our area including Winneshiek County Conservation Naturalist Larry Reis and the ornithologist Paul Skrade.
You can find a winter bird feeding guide outlining the preferred types of feeders and food for different species, as well as many other birding resources, on our website, www.winneshiekwild.com/ birding. And welcome to the club.
Types of feeders and food
Bird feeders are available in enough designs, shapes and colors to satisfy all styles and preferences, but they can generally be categorized into several types, including platform, tube, hopper, floor and tallow, designed to contain and distribute different foods in different ways.
Different birds use different types of feeders depending on their feeding style, food preferences, and body shape. Cardinals, for example, don’t do well with small tube feeders because they need long perches to hold onto.
As a general rule, using different feeders with different types of food will result in the greatest and greatest variety of birds. Start with a feed tube, platform, or hopper that can hold a wide variety of foods, then consider adding feeders designed for specific types of foods. And keep in mind that birds really don’t care what the feeder looks like. A flat board on a stump is a perfectly suitable feeding platform.
If you thought there would be a lot of decisions to be made about what type of feeder to use, wait until you dig what you put in that feeder. Birds are like humans in that they all have their favorite foods. What you fill your feeders will have a dramatic effect on the people who visit them.
If you want to keep it simple, you can’t go wrong with black inshell sunflower seeds; it is a great economical choice for attracting a very wide variety of birds and works in many types of feeders. Adding a little shelled sunflower seeds to the mix will make it even more appealing, but slightly more expensive.
After that, you can work on attracting different types of birds with different types of food. Want some peaks? Add a tallow feeder. Itching to see nuthatches? They love peanuts. Goldfinches? Better to try a Nyjer thistle tube feeder. If you really want to increase the setting of the bird feeder, install a heated birdbath.
Birdseed mixes that contain cracked corn, white millet, and safflower are a good choice for platform or tray feeders. The most discerning birds will sort the mix haphazardly, crushing extras all the way down to ground-feeding birds like black-eyed juncos and mourning doves. Avoid mixtures with a lot of red millet, golden millet or flax, which our birds just don’t like and will leave behind as seed waste that can lead to the growth of fungi or bacteria.
Location, location, location
Where you place your bird feeders is almost as important as what you put in them, both for your own enjoyment and for the health and safety of the birds.
Avoid placing feeders where they will increase the risk of birds hitting your windows. Try to place them more than thirty feet from your windows or about three feet.
Squirrels, raccoons, mice, and other unwanted creatures can also be attracted to the food in your feeders, but they don’t have the benefit of flying. Make it more difficult for them by hanging your feeders on shepherds’ hooks and well away from trees, fences, or overhanging branches that might allow them to jump on the feeder.
Birds also need places to hide, rest, and shelter from the wind when they are not actively foraging. Planting native shrubs and grasses can provide year round cover and food for birds, but dense brush piles (or depleted Christmas trees, like in my house) can also provide excellent blanket in winter.
However, cats and other predators can also use a blanket to sneak up on unsuspecting birds, so keep about five feet of free space between the feeder and the blanket.
What to watch
Once you’ve sorted the feeder type, food, and location, the fun of watching begins! Some of our year-round birds in northeast Iowa, including cardinals, blue jays, black-capped chickadees, goldfinches, and various woodpeckers, are all common foraging birds. Black-eyed Juncos are a regular “winter bird” that comes to southern Iowa from the north and in good years we will also see increased numbers of Purple Finches, Finches and Pine Siskins in the winter. .
There may also be more unusual winter birds that appear, especially if food supplies in the north are low and our staff are keeping an eye out for some of the exciting winter bird sightings in the area. If any unusual people show up, we’ll post ideas and tips to spot them yourself on the Winneshiek County Conservation Facebook page.