By Karie Divelbiss-Harding, Allen County Parks Naturalist
Birds are warm-blooded animals, so it takes a lot of energy for them to keep warm during the cold, sometimes blustery months. When it is cold, birds can often be seen fluffing up their feathers to keep warm. Also during these months the natural food supply is dwindling, hidden by snow, or, in the case of insects, dead or inactive. Birds need high fat, high protein, and high energy foods to survive the winter.
Therefore, feeding birds in the winter is very important. The beginning of the winter months brings a change of eating habits for most birds. Birds will flock together and form groups that will allow them to better find food and protect themselves from predators. As this begins, they will often find sources of food to aide in their winter survival. This is where bird watchers - both novice and advanced - come in.
Bird watchers who tend their bird feeders provide a way station for many birds. As a bird watcher, it can become very disheartening when you attempt to feed the birds and have little luck. But there are some guidelines that may help you in your attempt to attract birds and to keep them happy.
Bird feeders should be hung out of the wind and elements. Feeders hung out in the open give predators an advantage over the birds. Some cover (evergreens, thick shrubs) should be nearby. Also, one should use a variety of feeders to give birds an assortment of different ways to get food. Certain breeds of birds have preferences to where they are fed. For example feeders hung in trees are for birds such as titmice and nuthatches that have little problem hanging on.
The following are suggestions for seed to put in feeders:
SUNFLOWER SEEDS. Many birds like black-oil sunflower seeds. Most birds in NE Indiana will eat them. The birds that aren't strong enough to crack open the shells can sit under the bird feeder and scavenge for parts of discarded seeds by the larger birds.
SUET. The fat of the suet is good for birds in the winter as it is a good source of energy. Suet cakes can be bought at most bird stores. There are many different types of suet cakes with mixtures that will attract different kinds of birds, but they are not hard to make at home. If feeding suet in warmer months, it is important to render the suet. This means to melt it and take out any particles that don't melt. Then mix in seeds and let it set again. This will give it a longer shelf life.
MIXED SEED. When purchasing mixed seed it is important to check the percentage of each type of seed. Many of the pre-mixed seed you can buy in grocery stores are filled with wheat and millet. These are fillers and are rarely touched by birds. To find a good mix, look for a mixture of sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and white millet.
PEANUTS. Peanuts are a high protein, high energy food that can be given to birds. It is important to make sure they are unsalted. Birds like woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice like to eat peanuts. Unfortunately, some squirrels can have an allergic reaction and can look as if they have the mange if too many peanuts are consumed.
THISTLE SEED. Small finches like to eat thistle seed. Thistle needs to be fed in a special feeder because of the seeds small size. Thistle feeders are usually tubes with oblong holes or mesh socks. Both work well.
SAFFLOWER. This is a white, thin-shelled seed eaten by many birds especially the cardinal. The main problem of safflower comes when it is fed on the ground, as it becomes rancid quickly because of its thin shell.
CRACKED CORN. Cracked corn is good for birds because it is in manageable pieces. Some people don't like feeding corn because it entices nuisance birds such as blackbirds and sparrows. Whole corn is too large for the birds; however, squirrels will love it. Cracked corn attracts other animals such as turkey and deer, so it should be fed in moderation - unless, of course, you want to feed a herd of deer.
FRUIT. Birds may have a short supply of berries during the winter so it may be helpful to entice them with fruit. Put out grapes, apple slices, orange slices, or even bananas to entice them. You can feed raisins, but they are a bit hard for the birds to consume.
In addition to feeding the birds in the winter, it is also important to give them a source of fresh, thawed water. Heated birdbaths are very helpful in attracting birds. It is important to have a heated birdbath, or to empty ice and refill with clean water several times a day.
It is also important to feed the birds every day. Birds will come to depend on the food found in your feeders. If the feeders are not filled on a daily basis, the birds could potentially leave and may not come back.