Winter landscapes can seem very lifeless and dreary with nothing much to look at in the frozen stillness. You’ll improve the view from your windows no end if you put out the welcome mat for our feathered friends – feed them and they will come.
The best time to lure in the wild birds is in dead of winter, when natural food sources are scarce or hidden beneath a crust of snow. It’s satisfying to know you’re helping birds survive, even if the real reward is the daily entertainment of a live nature show in your own backyard.
More than 100 species of birds are found in New Jersey during the winter. Which ones you’ll see depends on surrounding habitat and naturally there will be more diversity in rural areas featuring woods, fields and streams than in the heart of built-up cities.
Common backyard species include cheerful chickadees with their swooping, roller-coaster flight, bright red male cardinals and their olive-green mates, loud-mouthed blue jays and gently cooing mourning doves. If you’re lucky, you’ll also spot nuthatches running pell-mell down tree trunks as if on feet of Velcro, slate grey juncos with bellies dipped in white and woodpeckers with intricate black and white feather patterns.
All of these birds and more are attracted to seed feeders and some enjoy the high-octane treat of suet (fat rendered into solid slabs or cakes). Eating produces metabolic warmth and for birds, which need to consume one-third to three-quarters of their weight daily, food is everything.
All you need to get started is a feeder or two and something to put in them. First, scope out a good location for your feeder array. Choose a spot in view of a convenient window, ideally in a site that’s sheltered from high winds by buildings, trees or shrubs. Feeders can be hung from tree limbs and house eaves, or mounted on poles sunk into the ground.
Consider convenience when siting the feeders. It’s important to keep feeders topped up, even if (or especially if) there’s two feet of snow on the ground. I hang my feeders from house-mounted and tree-mounted hooks suspended over a stone patio in sight of kitchen and living room windows and keep my seed in a galvanized garbage can nearby, providing dry storage safe from rodents.
What kind of feeders should you buy? In my opinion, it is entirely futile to waste money on small plastic or wooden feeders that may look appealing but won’t stand up to the elements or to squirrels, the persistent bane of the bird-feeding public. Mr. Squirrel will trash those flimsy feeders in 48 hours or less, either by chewing through them or knocking them to the ground and smashing them open.
The only feeders I buy anymore have an inner seed hopper surrounded by a cage of wire mesh. Squirrels may winkle out a few seeds, but they can’t gobble down your seed stash in a single attack and even their sturdy teeth can’t penetrate metal. The other style of squirrel-resistant feeder has a counter-weighted hopper that remains open when birds land but slams shut under the heftier poundage of a squirrel.
The best all-around buy in seed is black oil sunflower, which has a higher fat content than the common striped kind. Almost any bird attracted to a backyard feeder will happily eat this menu item. The worst choices are cheap seed mixes heavy on white millet (preferred by undesirable exotic species like English sparrows) and red and golden millet, which most birds won’t eat.
There are some other seeds and mixes worth considering. White safflower with its hard seed coat is not preferred by squirrels but I find that among the birds, only cardinals are eager consumers. Woodpeckers are crazy for mixes with dried fruit, but so are starlings; I sometimes have to discontinue this offering for a while until large starling flocks move on. Very fine Niger seed is ignored by squirrels and most birds but beloved by finches, including our state bird, the goldfinch.
This seed calls for a specialized holder and my favorite is the Upside-down feeder by Perky Pet. Perches are located above feeding ports and since only goldfinches can spin themselves upside down to feed, more numerous and belligerent house finches are out of luck. (Niger is expensive!)
Suet is commonly offered in a small, square wire mesh cage. Squirrels can feed freely on these – but won’t if you buy suet cakes with hot pepper added. Birds don’t seem to mind a little picante with their seed. Their taste buds are largely insensitive to the capsaicin that gives peppers their heat.
The only other thing you’ll need is a field guide to identify your visitors. One that will cost you nothing is available on the internet at allaboutbirds.org, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Getting friendly with the birds in your neighborhood will give winter a whole new dimension. Once the birds have found you, you’ll never be alone.