By Clay Christensen
As we continue into winter, many of us are thinking about feeding the birds. Minnesota winters can be tough. The birds seem to be needy and I, for one, want to help them survive any way I can.
Typically, during winter, we’ll see black-capped chickadees, house finches, house sparrows, mourning doves, blue jays, crows, white-breasted nuthatches, American goldfinches, European starlings, dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows and downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers.
These don’t all show up on the same day! Some of them are seasonal. For example, the white-throated sparrows may come in September and October and then be gone until spring.
For feeding my birds, I mix equal amounts of safflower seed and shelled black oil sunflower seed. I like shelled sunflower seed because I don’t have to worry about all the shells that pile up beneath the feeders. The shells have a toxicity that prevents other plants or grass from growing beneath feeders with sunflower shells dropping down.
All the birds love sunflower seed. On the other hand, house sparrows don’t seem to like safflower seed. That’s a plus in my book!
I buy 30-pound bags of each of the two seed types. I store them in small garbage pails with locking lids. I haven’t bought bagged seed mixes for years because they often have a lot of “filler” seed, like wheat, oats, sorghum and rice.
I feed shelled peanuts in a squirrel-proof feeder. More about squirrel-proof feeders in a bit. Woodpeckers enjoy peanuts. I don’t know how they can get the nut out of that little square mesh hole, but they do!
I also feed suet. I buy suet cakes that fit into a suet feeder cage. This suet has been rendered and doesn’t melt at warmer temperatures. I’ve found a brand that includes roasted peanuts, oats, corn, almonds, pecans and walnuts. Yes, there are some oats in there, as filler, but the birds love it.
There are a variety of feeders for delivering seed. I have a large fly-through feeder, a tray with a roof built over it, so the birds can see 360 degrees around them and get away in several directions. The feeder is on a pole that has a squirrel baffle — a pyramidal cone — on it. It amuses me to see a squirrel look up at the feeder, start up the pole, get to the baffle … and it can’t see the feeder anymore! Down it goes.
I also have several tube feeders. Over the years, I’ve upgraded to a brand that advertises itself as squirrel-proof. They’re designed on a central rod that’s spring loaded. If a squirrel jumps on the feeder, the outside slides down, closing the feeder holes, and it can’t get any seed.
In general, foiling squirrels is always on my mind when feeding birds. They are endlessly resourceful. After all, squirrels have all day with nothing to do but try different approaches to getting at that bird seed.
I used to spray vegetable cooking oil on the pole of one of my feeders. That was fun while it lasted, but I learned that putting any substance on the pole can be harmful to birds. If they brush against it and get it on their feathers, they can’t get rid of it. That can have a bad effect on their flight ability, warmth and waterproof condition. It probably makes them smell funny, too.
My birding buddy, Val, says that water is almost more important than food. Years ago, I tried to rig up my own warming apparatus consisting of a light bulb in a tall can under a bowl of water. Did not work well. There are better ideas.
Pet stores often sell heaters used for outdoor dog bowls. They can be used to keep your bird bath from icing up. You’ll need to scrub off the bird droppings occasionally.
Now I have a bird bath that has a built-in heater in the base. It comes on when the temperature drops to 40 degrees or below. In the winter, I have to carry a bucket of water out to refill it. I scrub it out with a big brush, rinse, refill and it’s ready to go. I don’t use any chemicals; that would just require more rinsing.
All these winter bird baths that depend on an electrical heater should be connected to a GFCI outlet to protect you and the birds from shocks. It trips the circuit if there’s a short on the line.
Since you’ve got water close to electricity, GFCI is recommended. It may be required, for all I know.
I hope this encourages you to start winter bird feeding or to expand what you’re doing now. The birds will certainly appreciate it.
As for the squirrels, they can go dig up all the acorns they stashed while messing up your lawn!
Clay Christensen, a longtime birder, lives and writes in Lauderdale.
Photo cutline: Downy woodpecker on suet cage. Photo by Clay Christensen.