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Feeding Winter Birds

Suet will attract a variety of birds, like this male pileated woodpecker. A wire basket prevents mammals from stealing the suet. 1 / 4
A group of hungry pine siskins gather food from a feeder designed especially for dispensing thistle seed. The feeder is also deer-proof. Siskins are especially common this winter. 2 / 4
A northern cardinal female is feeding on sunflower seeds from an open plaform feeder. Sunflower seeds attract a considerable number of songbirds.3 / 4
A blue jay drinks from a heated bird bath. Bird enthusiasts can attract more birds to their property by employing a heated water source.4 / 4

Have you been stuck indoors on recent winter days? After all, an outdoor thermometer that read minus 30 or even lower, is best viewed from the warm side of the window. You likely cranked up the thermostat, or maybe threw an extra log on the fire.

The critters that live outdoors, especially birds, don't have that luxury. They fluff their feathers for added insulation, and do their best to gather food to fuel their furnaces.

The weather forecast for the next week or so isn't very promising. So, do we kick back and complain, or fill bird feeders to attract colorful creatures during these gray days of winter.

Feeding birds is no longer a hobby just for the enthusiastic birder watcher. Roughly 60 million people in the United States feed birds and we spend over $2 billion per year doing it. Besides, it's cold outside and our feathered friends need food to stay warm.

In reality, most birds do just fine without assistance from humans. But we feed then regardless. When we peer out a window to watch a colorful cardinal dexterously use its heavy beak to remove the heart from a sunflower seed, we know we are feeding the birds more for our benefit than theirs. Watching birds like a cheery little chickadee with feathers fluffed against the cold on a subzero morning makes the long winter a little bit more bearable.

To draw the greatest variety of bird species you'll want to present them with several food options. A well-stocked backyard feeding station should include sunflower seeds, thistle seeds, safflower seeds, cracked corn, millet and suet. In order to dispense an array of feed, several types of feeders should be used. Suet can be placed in a wire basket, sunflower seeds in a standard gravity feeder, thistle in a tube feeder, and corn and other feed in a tray-like feeder placed on the ground for sparrows and other ground-feeding birds.

With a spread like this, you can expect to attract black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, cardinals, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and several members of the finch family.

The luckiest birders will spot red-breasted nuthatches, red-bellied woodpeckers, evening grosbeaks, purple finches, pine siskins, and common redpolls. And the really lucky ones will see pine grosbeaks, pileated woodpeckers, crossbills and brown creepers.

Those species, of course, are just potential visitors. The habitat surrounding your home will dictate, to a certain extent, which birds will frequent your feeders. Early and late winter will see the addition of many more species that pause here during migration.

Try including the whole family in bird feeding. Get the children involved by making it their responsibility to keep the feeders filled. Buy them a field guide to birds and challenge them to identify as many species as they can. Soon they might be teaching you a thing or two.

Much can be learned about the natural world by watching birds at backyard feeders. Best of all it can be done from the warmth of your home on a cold winter day.

Bird feeding tips

• Even during winter, birds can be attracted to water. Birds like to drink from a heated bird bath during winter. Heated bird baths are available at specialty shops.

• Feeder location is important. If possible, place your feeders in a sunny spot out of the wind and slightly away from heavy cover where predators such as house cats and birds-of-prey can hide. Most people feed birds for enjoyment so locate your feeders where you can see them from a convenient window.

• Feeders containing different foods should be placed in various locations. That way if large intimidating birds use one feeder, smaller, more skittish birds can use another.

• It's fun to keep a log of the various species of birds that visit your feeders. Then you'll be able to compare your backyard bird history from year to year.

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.

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