Recently a dear friend started feeding winter birds for the first time, which has reminded me of the many mistakes a beginner can make, as well as the joy of discovering wild birds as winter companions. Michael says that his favourite part of backyard bird feeding is the sense of hominess it brings when birds are happily feeding outside the window, but all is not perfect in bird feeder land. While it’s exciting to watch a woodpecker swoop in to grab a peanut, instant dread sets in when you hear a bird body bounce off a glass window or door. With 30 years of experience behind me, here are my top 10 tips for making feeding winter birds safe and enjoyable to all.
1. Fast Food
For quick results, start with an open tray feeder stocked with sunflower seeds. Open trays allow easy access and quick getaways, so birds love them. Sunflower seeds appeal to a wider range of bird species than other types of seeds sold for feeding winter birds.
2. Ground Feeders
In addition to stocking a feeder with sunflower seeds, scatter mixed grain bird feed on the ground for birds that are reluctant to visit feeders. Sparrows, doves, and juncos feel safest feeding on the ground, and they like inexpensive cracked corn and millet seeds just fine.
3. Little and Often
Put out small amounts of food at a time. Birds like their food fresh and dry, and will reject seeds that have gone mouldy due to rain. When you notice no birds visiting your feeders despite fresh food, there is probably a hawk or other predator lurking in a nearby tree.
4. Become a Bird Spotter
Identify your most familiar birds and watch how they feed. Get a good bird book written for your region, and make notes when you identify species. It will be a short list! In her blog on Feeding Garden Birds Naturally and Cheaply, Ann Marie Hendry names sparrows, tits, wrens, blackbirds, robins, chaffinches, bullfinches and yellowhammers as frequent winter visitors to her Scottish garden. Here in the Eastern mountains of the US, I see tufted titmice, cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows, juncos, doves, goldfinches, purple finches, and two different woodpeckers.
5. Watch and Learn
To maximise the pleasure of garden bird feeding, place feeders where you can see them from comfortable sitting spots indoors. This may take some experimenting, because the open spaces that make the best viewing for you may be too exposed from the birds’ point of view. Ideally, birds should be able to fly to the feeder from nearby tree branches, or wait in a bush for their best shot at breakfast.
6. Flight Risk
As bird traffic in your garden increases, you may need to mask high risk windows and glass doors that sustain multiple collisions. When birds can see through the glass to distant perches or green plants indoors, they may fly toward them at high enough speeds to kill them upon impact. Placing indoor plants just inside windows can help, as can using sheer curtains, but where this is not practical, stick-on window decorations come to the rescue. My front storm door was taking regular hits until I decorated it with gel window stickers from the discount store. Problem solved.
7. Sweet Spots
Learn your landscape’s bird feeding sweet spots, which are often near trees and shrubs that provide cover as birds crack open seeds or wait their turn for feeding rights. My top spot is among the spidery limbs of a small dogwood tree near several evergreen shrubs. When I want to introduce a new feeder, that’s where I put it.
8. Listen Up
Listen closely when you go outdoors. Just as you recognise many birds by sight, they recognise you, too. If the feeder is empty they will fuss and chip to get your attention, and if it’s full they may be chatty with happiness. They really will try to communicate, and there is nothing wrong with talking to birds.
9. Winter Fuel
Provide fat-based foods in cold, snowy weather, including suet, fat balls, or homemade bird cakes. There is some concern among wildlife biologists that woodland birds may be running short of dietary calcium because of fewer little snails in shrinking tracts of forest. Adding finely ground eggshells to suet or bird seed mixtures can help with this problem.
10. Feeder Hygiene
Clean feeders often, and compost mouldy seeds. Don’t leave loaded feeders out overnight in places where mice, rats, or other pesky animals can find them. I stop my backyard bird feeding when the bears emerge from hibernation in March. As my neighbour can attest, it’s no fun to go from feeding wild birds to feeding wild bears.