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Volume xviii, Issue 3 ~ January 21 - January 27, 2010

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Birds Bring Color into Your Winter Landscape

Here’s how to lure them

by Margaret Tearman

If I keep a green bough in my heart, then the singing bird will come.

–Chinese Proverb

Winter’s dull landscape is done in shades of grey and brown. So in our winter yard, we look to the birds to color the season, luring them with feeders stocked with seeds and nuts. We get our red from a handful of cardinals perched in leafless trees, looking like forgotten Christmas ornaments. Feisty jays swooping down on the feeder give us a flash of bright blue, as seed and smaller birds scatter.

The aviary rainbow appearing daily at our feeders entertains us through bleak winter days. We show our appreciation by helping the birds that stick it out survive the mean season.

On the House

The colder the temperature, the more calories all warm-blooded creatures, including us humans, need to stay warm — and alive. Unlike many of us humans, birds have little stored fat. The calories they take in today, they burn today, so they are constantly searching for food. Mother Nature does her best to provide the necessities, but as humans chop down woodlands, fill in wetlands and pave over meadows, living au natural gets harder and harder. Your well-stocked bird feeder makes life a little easier.

Statistics show we love feeding the birds.

“Feeding birds is one of America’s biggest hobbies,” says Bill Herald, owner of the Wild Bird Center in West Annapolis. “These are not birdwatchers, people who use binoculars and keep logs. These are people with a bird feeder or two in their yard who just enjoy watching the birds.”

Fifty-four million people feed and watch birds and wildlife in their own back yards, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. People spend nearly $4.3 billon annually on bird food, feeders and baths.

That’s a lot of seed.

Main Courses

Bird diets do not vary by season. Most of our native species subsist on seed and insects, or a little of both. The most preferred food is the black oil sunflower seed.

“These seeds have high oil content with important calories and nutrition,” Herald says. “And with no trans fat, it’s a good healthy food, packing a lot of nutritional value in one little seed.”

Sunflower seeds are eaten by a wide range of birds, including finches, cardinals, jays, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, mourning doves, buntings, grosbeaks, juncos and sparrows.

Another favorite food is raw peanuts, shelled or whole. Blue jays, finches, cardinals, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and sparrows all eat peanuts. Regardless of their size relative to the legume, most birds can shell whole peanuts.

“It’s a lot of fun to put unsalted peanuts still in the shell on a patio or deck railing,” Herald says. “It’s especially fun to watch tiny chickadees stuff a big peanut in their mouths and fly off.”

Of course, squirrels also love peanuts. Some bird feeders say if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and suggest providing squirrels their own stash in a different location.

Vivid in the winter landscape, brilliant red cardinals are fond of black oil seeds, but they also like safflower.

“Safflower seed is a great way to bring extra cardinals to your feeder,” says Herald. It also discourages grackles. The large iridescent blue-black aliens used to be migratory but are apparently hanging around. They land in flocks and will clean out your feeder in one big swoop, faster than any squirrel.

Mourning doves have a special taste for millet, as does the dark-eyed junco, the odd northern bird that migrates south to Maryland. Scatter a bit on the ground to attract these Arctic-range birds to their idea of Florida: your yard. 

American goldfinches, a common sight in our late-summer gardens feeding on sunflowers and purple coneflowers, appreciate Niger seed in the winter. In their winter garb, the little birds aren’t as easy to see.

“The male finch molts and is olive drab in the winter,” Herald says. “Even though you don’t see the brilliant yellow birds, they’re still around. By late February, the yellow feathers reappear.”

Another good source of energy for birds is suet. Made from rendered beef fat, suet provides a concentrated form of calories that birds love, especially mixed with other ingredients, like berries, nuts and seeds. And suet will bring in the big birds, like pileated woodpeckers. These enormous creatures, measuring two to three feet long, usually stick to wooded areas and despite their size can be hard to see. Suet is a good way to get them into the open.

Maryland is a transitional zone for Eastern bluebirds, and some stick around through winter. They are not seedeaters, so they’re unlikely to be found at feeders. But put out a dish of meaty mealworms and they’ll come flocking.

“Bluebirds are quick to recognize a regular container of mealworms,” says Herald. “If you are consistent with what you use, they’ll see it and be on it before you’re gone.”


Your feeders are full, the suet is hung and the worms dished. A veritable winter feast to be sure.

But birds cannot survive on food alone.

The single most important need of birds is often overlooked in winter: water.

“Water is essential to their survival,” Herald explains. “It is more important to have a functioning birdbath than a birdfeeder. Like us, birds can survive for days without food. It might not be pleasant, but they’ll live. But they cannot live without water.”

Hydration is necessary, but so is cleanliness. Birds must keep their feathers clean to be able to fly, and on even the coldest days you can find birds splashing in open water.

Keep birdbaths going all winter by selecting a heated model or using a removable heater. You’ll need to plug them in, so place the birdbath near an electrical outlet. Unfortunately, the solar-powered heaters on the market today cannot store enough energy to be effective.

“It takes a lot of juice to keep enough heat going so the water doesn’t freeze overnight,” Herald says. “Solar just can’t provide enough power.”

Off the Menu

There are some common misconceptions about backyard bird feeding. The commonest: Birds will become dependent on feeders and without them, they’ll die.

Not so, says Herald.

“Research suggests that even in the coldest weather, birds get a majority of their nutritional needs from nature.” The natural buffet may not be abundant in winter, but there is still food to be found.

Another misunderstood feeding fact is the need for grit for proper digestion.

“Chickens need grit to digest their food,” Herald says. “Songbirds don’t. They can eat their food and digest it just fine.”

And the one about birds getting stuck to cold metal? Unlike Flick, the character in A Christmas Story who on a triple-dog-dare gets his tongue stuck to a flagpole, there is no danger of that happening to a bird.

“Birds’ feet don’t have perspiration glands; they’re dry,” explains Herald. “So there is absolutely no danger they’ll get stuck.”

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