Bird watching and feeding in the winter can be fun for us and good for the birds
As the weather chills and the days shorten, it's easy to make excuses to stay indoors most of the time. The natural world that sustains us physically and spiritually seems to recede beyond our windows and becomes little more than a heating bill and driving annoyance. You can, however, stave off some of that isolation by attracting winter birds to your yard.
Songbirds in particular need to eat every day to keep their body temperatures high enough to survive the cold nights. A few dollars investment in a feeder and seeds will do. A four-year study of bird feeding found that common mid-Atlantic birds preferred sunflower seeds, followed by peanut hearts, cracked yellow corn, white millet, and canary seed. Red millet, milo, oats, wheat and rice are generally avoided when the preferred foods are available. You can also hang beef suet (get it from the butcher) or treat your local fauna to the occasional peanut butter, hard-cooked eggs, or bread crumbs.
Do not spread moldy bread—it contains potentially fatal toxins—and, by the same token, store seed in a dry place to keep it from molding. Cracked corn should simply be distributed on the ground, as it can freeze and clog the openings in feeders. You can also distribute sunflower seeds on the ground, but the squirrels will almost certainly get most of them.
Feeders with small openings and perches boost the odds for the birds: make sure openings are big enough to accommodate sunflower seeds. Ideally, hang feeders from tree branches. If you don't have any trees near windows, you can buy a post on which to erect you feeder. Wall-mounted brackets can be used as a last resort, but you run the risk of birds crashing into your windows.
Here is a quick (and admittedly mid-Atlantic-based) guide to the visitors you might encounter:
Black-capped chickadee: Year-round favorites for their cheery song and call. Look for a gray back and wings, white belly, and the distinctive black cap and chin.
White-breasted nut-hatch: At a glance, look similar to chickadees, but with a white chin. Look for them climbing headfirst down tree trunks, searching for insects that the "up-climbers" miss.
Dark-eyed junco: These birds can vary in color, but are usually a uniform slate or grayish color with a somewhat darker head and white feathers bordering the tail. They are ground feeders, and you will often see them eating the seeds that other birds knock from the feeder.
Tufted titmouse: Another small and greet bird with a white underbelly. Look for the crest of gray feathers and a black patch on the forehead.
Finches: The most common feeder species, the house and purple finches, can be tricky to tell apart. Both have brown backs and wings. The male purple finch has a rose-colored cap and breast, while the male house finch has a reddish breast and more brown on the cap. Females of both are brown streaked with white: look for a white "eyebrow" on the female purple finch. Also, in both sexes, the purple finch has a forked tail and the house finch a squared-off tail.
Keep an eye out for blue jays, cardinals, mourning doves and downy woodpeckers as well. The small birds in your yard may even attract sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawks.
I have known several people who were greatly disturbed when they discovered that their bird feeder had turned into a hawk feeder. The fact of the matter is that many song birds ultimately end up as meals for hawks. I consider it a privilege to witness Nature in action. On the other hand, domestic cats are not part of the natural landscape. Keep yours indoors or put bells on them, ask your neighbors to do the same, and take strays to the SPCA.
If you feel particularly ambitious and live near a decent-sized body of water, bundIe up and head out! You will be rewarded with many species of waterfowl that spend the summer in Canada, including bufflehead, common goldeneye, old squaw, merganser, canvasback, redhead, and scaup. You might want to arm yourself with a pair of binoculars and a field guide if you head into the cold. Look for a guide that shows plumage differences with sex and season. Peterson's Guides and Golden Guides are both very good, but my favorite is National Geographic; because it covers all of North America and has the illustrations, description, and range maps for each species on the same page. You can also call your local chapter of the Audubon Society for good winter birding spots.
May the feathered nature spirits, warm your soul this winter!
National Geographic Society, Field Guide to the Birds of North America. 1987.
Pistorius, Alan. The Country Journal Book of Birding and Bird Attraction. 1981.