Saturday, February 25, 2012

Winter Birding on a Budget (column reprint)


Thanks to a worldwide economic crisis, times are tough all over. But even if you’re pinching pennies, you can still help our feathered friends during the critical winter months.

For wildlife lovers in cold climes, one of the most inexpensive and probably most important gift you can give your backyard birds is water.  While avians are able to get moisture from snow, their tiny bodies must expend a great deal of energy in the process.  Providing fresh and abundant water guarantees your birds won’t have to work so hard to survive. 


Retail farm stores, like Fleet Farm, sell a variety of quality, energy-efficient  water heaters for under $50.  At Bon Bon Pond, I use the models that submerge in existing bird baths, but there are many other styles available, such as heated bowls that attach to deck railings.  If you prefer internet shopping, a quick Google search will turn up a plethora of options.

An added benefit of offering water is you will attract many species of birds that do not  visit feeders. For instance, a few weeks back a flock of beautiful Cedar Waxwings stopped by the Pond to rest and rehydrate.  Additionally, the water I provide keeps a half-dozen male Robins with me for the entire winter. 

Habitat is also crucial for wintering birds and you can help out by doing . . . nothing!  Unless that dead tree is threatening your home or other structure, leave it alone as it will provide shelter for the order of cavity-dwellers, such as Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and  Black-capped Chickadees.  

Wild birds’ diets change during winter months.  With an absence of insects, many species now turn to seeds and suet for sustenance.  A rich, high energy food, nyjer thistle is a cold weather favorite for American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins.

Fruit and nut mixes are the blend of choice for Black-capped Chickadees, Woodpeckers and Nuthatches.

The above-mentioned birds are also fans of suet.  Name brand specialty-flavored cakes are more expensive, but not necessarily favored by the birds.  I look for cakes that contain primarily fat.   If you see a preponderance of gold and reddish-brown dots in the cakes do not buy them.  Milett is a cheap filler and I have yet to find a single species that enjoys it.  Grocery stores and meat markets also sell suet so shop around and look for the best deals.


Sunflower hearts and chips are a great winter foodstuff—especially for the smaller species-- as the birds do not have to expend extra energy breaking thru the hulls.

If you have trouble with marauding squirrels, safflower—the favorite food of Northern Cardinals-- is a good choice.  Be aware that some squirrels will eat it, but it’s not an attraction.

Unfortunately, the premium blends and hull-less seeds are pricey, but if you can’t swing it, there’s still that good old-fashioned staple:  black oil sunflower seeds.  In a pinch, even hungry insect and fruit-eating species, such as Robins, will consume sunflower seeds.

Now that you have your foodstuffs, it’s time to consider feeders. When I first began birding I purchased feeders based on appearance.  Big mistake.  Cute and artsy doesn’t mean squat to our avians.  Having the right feeders can make a world of difference not only in the number and variety of birds you attract, but also how much food you go thru.  Starlings and crows, for example, are notorious feeder hogs that also prevent smaller species from eating.  Cage-type feeders are a great investment as they keep out squirrels and nuisance birds, plus provide Goldfinches, Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, Chickadees and other smaller birds with a safe and stress-free feeding environment.


An added benefit to cage-type feeders is that larger species, like Hairy Woodpeckers, soon learn to “hang” on the bottom,  stick their beaks in and feast on the food that has fallen to the base. 

A simple rule-of-thumb when it comes to feeders: big birds, such as Blue Jays and Cardinals, prefer platform feeders, while smaller birds enjoy perching.  With this plan in mind, I fill the platform feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, and save the expensive mixes and hull-less seeds for the cage-type feeders. 

Finally, do not forget the ground-feeding birds!  While it’s true they can “clean up” where food has fallen, the large flock of  adorable Dark-eyed Juncos that winter at Bon Bon Pond deserve more than just scraps. Each day I sprinkle seeds on the ground in an area that offers protection from predators and is regularly cleaned of snow--speaking of which, remember to brush the flakes off of all feeders after each snowfall.


As an added treat for my Blue Jays, I also sprinkle cracked corn, plus put out a hanging, flat, pan-style feeder that I fill each morning with a couple cups of salted-in-the-shell peanuts.  Some ornithologists frown on this variety,  but I offer  them as a treat and not a staple.  Besides, it’s fun to see a large flock of these blue beauties wait for me each morning, then joyfully wing off with their treasures in tow.  Did you know that brilliant Blue Jays are one of the only wild birds that cache food?

Best of all, winter birding—even on a budget--offers the opportunity to get to know some of the sweetest and friendliest of migrating songbirds, such as Pine Siskins and Red-breasted Nuthatches.  Get started today and you’ll soon have them “eating out of your hand!”


  1. This is a comprehensive and helpful post. Thank you for taking the time to write it. If I may add, incorporating a bird bath in your garden is a good way to provide water for the birds. However, it is more effectual and useful during the summer and drought seasons.

  2. Hi Chelle,

    Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Please visit often!


  3. Thank You, LaBonBon !!!!!

    Very informative . . . and I now have some "corrections" to make !!!!

    Jeff Meyer


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