Originally published in the Journal Inquirer Nov. 19, 2012
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
As with any animal humans decide to nurture, outdoor birds require a certain level of commitment. If the desire is to keep them well-fed and safe from predators, the responsibility is somewhat more complicated than buying any old bird feeder, hanging it from a tree branch or outdoor plant hanger, and filling it up now and then – you know, whenever you remember.
During the winter months, in particular, birds will need a dedicated commitment from their human benefactors: consistency in feeding, safe placement of feeders, and nutritious food.
Consistency in feeding is important to maintain during the cold season because birds accustomed to eating from feeders during the warmer months will rely on the same feeders to provide for them through winter. The berries and bugs that nourish them in spring and summer will be dormant, leaving them with fewer natural feeding options and causing them to turn to seeds and feeders.
And it doesn’t take long for a bird to identify a feeder as a go-to food source.
“If you’re going to start (feeding them) now, don’t stop halfway through winter,” says wildlife expert Mary-Beth Kaeser, owner of Horizon Wings Raptor Rehabilitation and Education center in Ashford, Conn. “They get dependent on that food source, and if they can’t find another food source, they could starve.”
Kaeser explains that when it gets cold, birds, whether raptors or songbirds, use a lot of extra energy to stay warm and that it can take just a few days without food and a good cold spell to cause them to deplete their energy and die.
Lutz Children’s Museum Animal Program Curator Sarah Wilby recommends keeping the feeders filled constantly, and suggests asking a neighbor or friend to stop by to replenish the supply if no one else will be around to do it for longer than a few days because of a vacation or a work trip. Even though there may be other people in the neighborhood with their own feeders, the birds have come to rely on a certain location and will only have to use more of their necessary winter energy searching for other feeders if the one they typically visit is empty.
As important as keeping birds fed is making sure their feeders aren’t in areas that could prove hazardous. Feeders in winter might need to be moved from their normal summer spots if they’re in an area that has cover during the summer, but loses the cover once the leaves fall.
This is because small birds are great prey for large birds, Wilby says. And hawks and other predators will often wait around for the smaller birds to feed so they, in turn, can feed on the small birds.
Kaeser warns anyone feeding birds to remember that feeding one bird is never just feeding one bird. It’s feeding several birds, including the predators.
“If you don’t want hawks, don’t feed the birds,” Kaeser says. “You get a good snow cover, and you’ll start attracting birds of prey. And they’re smart. They’ll know. They’ll find your feeder and they’ll be visiting on a daily basis. They’re going to look at that feeder as a drive-through.”
Wilby recommends placing feeders near pine trees or bushes that keep their foliage so they’re hidden from birds of prey.
When filling the feeders, remember that all fillers aren’t equal. Some commercial bird seed provides a complete blend of nutrients birds need, but Kaeser warns against going for the cheapest brand, which probably won’t offer the same level of nutrition. She also recommends providing suet, because it gives birds a lot of fat and energy they’ll need for winter; Wilby adds fruit and peanuts to the bird food menu.
But the convenient standard, bread – particularly white bread – is “the worst,” Kaeser says. “It’s empty calories, like us living on French fries. It’s not good, not healthy.”
Also not healthy is the use of salad or vegetable oil to keep squirrels or other animals from climbing onto feeders. It may be amusing to watch squirrels attempt to clamber up a slippery pole, but the birds get into the oil and it messes up their feathers, Kaeser says. She adds that it can also damage a squirrel’s coat and ruin its protection against the weather. Instead, she offers, buy a feeder specifically designed to ward off squirrels.
One such feeder, the Squirrel Buster, can be found at Agway in four different styles and at prices ranging from $26.99 to $95.99. Ellington Agway sales associate Robin Kupferschmid says that while she can’t vouch for all Squirrel Busters and their effectiveness in deterring all scavengers, hers, the classic Squirrel Buster, has worked very well.
“I used to have squirrels,” she says. “And even a raccoon.”
It worked on all of them, she says.
Some additional tips for outdoor bird care — applicable not just during winter, but year-round:
- Place ultraviolet decals, which are clear to humans but colorful to birds, on windows so they’re less likely to fly into the glass
- Clean feeders once a week using a solution that is 10 parts water and one part bleach
- Hang feeders for larger birds on one side of the house and feeders for smaller birds on the other to reduce competition
- Provide nesting and shelter boxes filled with appropriate material. “Pine shavings are always a pretty good bet,” Kaeser says, and are commercially available. And, she says, “Brush your dog or cat and you can use that. I’ll find my dog’s hair in the nests around here. I’ve even seen horse hair.”