Winter can be a difficult time. Days are windy and cold and nights are long and even colder. Observing wildlife is a pleasant way to cope and to remind us that life goes on.  Coats, hats and gloves keep us warm on chilly days – many mammals – deer, mice, foxes, squirrels and rabbits adjust by growing thicker coats. This allows them to stay active through winter days. Animals like chipmunks, raccoons and skunks reduce their activity and slow their metabolisms. They may sleep for long periods – days or weeks – to emerge for food during unusually warm winter days.

Unlike mammals, birds don’t use body fat for insulation – their feathers do that job quite well, and they can’t afford the extra weight of a thick layer of fat while flying. Instead, birds use fat as the most efficient way to store the energy they need to keep their fast metabolisms running through long cold nights, when they are unable to find food. Vegetation is gone and most insects have died.

Finding food can be challenging for birds on extremely cold days.

If you have a bird habitat in your yard, you will enjoy a flurry of activity in winter. Setting up a backyard feeder can make life easier for birds and more enjoyable for us. During spring and summer, most songbirds eat insects and spiders, which are highly nutritious, abundant, and, can be easily captured. During fall and winter, nonmigratory songbirds shift their diets to fruits and seeds to survive. This is when it is best to provide additional food. To attract a diversity of birds, provide a variety of food types.

Sunflower seeds attract the greatest number of species. These seeds have a high meat-to-shell ratio, they are nutritious and high in fat, and their small size and thin shells make them easy for small birds to handle and crack. Sunflower hearts provide nutritious food without the shells to be cleaned up later. Cardinals especially appreciate safflower seed which has limited appeal for starlings and House sparrows and squirrels. Dried, whole-kernel corn is favored by jays, doves and pheasants but cracked corn is easier for finches and sparrows to eat. Niger or thistle seed is a delicacy for small finches such as goldfinches, siskins and redpolls. Many backyard birds (and squirrels) enjoy peanuts. Suet is an excellent high-energy food favored by the many kinds of woodpeckers in our area. Bluebirds can be tempted to feeders containing dried mealworms – available at most feed stores. Hosting bluebirds on a sunny winter day will lift anyone’s spirits! You can sometimes tempt robins, thrushes, bluebirds and waxwings by offering fruit such as softened dried raisins and currents, sliced apples, oranges and other fresh fruit or frozen berries. Berry bushes, such as holly and winterberry, that you planted in your habitat may also be feeding these winter visitors.

Unfrozen water can be hard for birds to find in winter. A dependable supply of fresh water will attract many birds to your yard. A shallow, easy-to-clean birdbath is best. An immersion-style water heater can keep your birdbath unfrozen in the winter (or try a solar solution). Clean your birdbath often and keep it filled with fresh water.

Your efforts will be rewarded with visitors to the yard all season long – and who doesn’t need a little bit of color during the monochrome days of winter?

Susan Wilder
Penn-Cumberland Garden Club

Feature photo: Robins enjoying a winter bath by Sherri Buser Hendricks, Appalachian Audubon Society Public Bird Chat Page

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