When temperatures drop, birds welcome seed and suet.

January 31, 2012 at 10:09 AM Leave a comment

By Sean Conway, Tribune Media Services Cultivating Life by Sean ConwayJanuary 19, 2012

This year, winter preferred to put off its arrival in most parts of the country until well into January. I daresay most of us have not minded a bit. Nor have the birds and critters that populate our yards and gardens. But as temperatures retreat from that mild interlude to their seasonal norms, now is the time to pay attention to our birdfeeders.

Winter reasserted itself quite abruptly in my area on the coast of Rhode Island. A sudden Arctic blast sent temperatures into the teens. Between the time I went to bed one night and when I woke up the next morning, winter went from the equivalent of a chilly North Carolina day to the type of deep freeze we associate with International Falls, Minn.

It seems as if the birds that call my garden home were just as shocked as I was. I could see them flitting from branch to branch in my holly trees trying to find ripe fruit. From years of observation, I have noticed that the local bird population won’t touch the hard red fruit of my hollies until after several cold snaps have occurred. I am not sure why this is, but each winter after there has been several freezes, normally long before mid January, flocks of robins, starlings and occasionally cedar waxwings descended upon the hollies. The birds seem to know exactly when the fruit is ripe and within days will pick the branches clean. This year that day coincided with the arctic blast.

Up until the cold snap, I had not been keeping the feeders consistently filled, as the mild temperatures made life easier for my garden’s feathered tenants. The only diners at my all-you-can-eat buffet were the gangs of freeloading grey squirrels. Now, with all the berries gone from my bushes, it’s time to stock the feeders regularly.

I prefer filling my feeders with black-oil sunflower seed rather than mixed seed. The black-oil seed tend to be less expensive, and it’s high fat content is exactly what birds need when temperatures drop well below freezing.

During extended cold periods, I also break out the suet feeders. Suet, too, provides a high calorie snack for many types of birds; especially those that prefer to dine on insects. Woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice will all readily frequent a suet feeder.

Stocking feeders with appropriate seed is helpful to your neighborhood birds — and keeps these insect-eating garden helpers around throughout the year. Here are a few key items to keep in mind, from the National Audubon Society website:

Cleanliness rules: Birdseed can get moldy when conditions are wet; make sure there is dry, fresh seed in feeders. Also, occasionally sweeping the ground below the feeder will help prevent transmission of disease; in snowy regions, just scraping off a few inches of the snow will help. Also, clean feeders every month with a nine to one ratio of water to bleach solution (this works for plastic, ceramic and metal feeders). For wooden feeders, it recommends a diluted vinegar solution (three-to- one) or non-fragranced biodegradable soap.

Provide water: Try to make sure there is a birdbath or other rough-textured container with a few inches (no deeper) of clean water, the site advises. A birdbath heater or dripping mechanism, often sold at stores or websites that sell birding supplies, will prevent freezing in winter. Change the water and clean the birdbath every few days.

For more information on birds, go to audubon.org.

(Sean Conway’s book “Sean Conway’s Cultivating Life” (Artisan Books, 2009) describes 125 projects for backyard living. www.cultivatinglife.com.)

Copyright © 2012, Tribune Media Services

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Entry filed under: Nature Notes.

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