Single Digits? Feed the Birds ---and Water...

Feeding winter birds, how and why, with thanks to Cornell Ornithology Lab and personal experience from 1968 through 1987 on Braeburn Drive off Snowden Lane in Princeton.


My Princeton Patch readers know that, [apart from healing from hip replacement and even now], I spend as much time with nature as I possibly can. 

Our New Jersey in general, --and Princeton in particular--, are rich indeed in nature.  More than anyone knows.  Some of nature's gifts actually come TO us, as in winter birds.  You can lend a hand by feeding in this season.

As you read your thermometer this morning, you saw that mercury had plunged to single digits.  Shocking as this can feel to humans, it is far more dire for our winged brothers and sisters. 

There are many sites to teach us about feeding winter birds - Cornell Ornithology Lab's being my particular favorite.   -- "Everything you always wanted to know about birds.  You can even study 'movies' of birdsong, learning audio and visual at the same time.  Of course, most birds except chickadees are silent in this non-breeding season.  Still, it's grand to know "who said that?"

I'll condense Cornell's bountiful information  -- beginning with the reality that seeds are essential for most, if not all avian species.

The point of feeding birds is to provide calories, a.k.a. energy.  Not only for flight, but to withstand cold and wind.

You realize that, by now, most berries have been consumed, mostly by migrants to fuel their 'impossible journeys.  You know that insects (protein) are long gone. 

Robins turn into fructivores in this season, so they can be nourished by fruit remaining on shrubs. If you put out raisins or currants for them, however, soak them first.

Peanut butter and suet are energy-central.  These may be mixed with cornmeal or oatmeal, but it is not essential.  Plain white suet chunks in meat department at the supermarket is ideal.  It does require a tough 'cage' very securely attached to sturdy tree trunk.

The best seeds, as remnants below your "squirrel-proof" bird feeders will show you over the years -- are black oil sunflower seeds. 

See Cornell's marvelous grid or table on site above - showing "preferred" and "readily eaten."  "Preferred" is checked for sunflower for cardinals, grosbeaks, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, finches, sparrows and blackbirds.  Cornell also checks painted buntings, here -- I've NEVER seen one of these living rainbows at a feeder.  Jays, woodpeckers, and even indigo buntings come under "readily eaten" for sunflower.  So, if you're only buying one seed, that is the one.

Nijer or nyjer (thistle) is "preferred", even required for finches.  The German word for this lively little species is "distelfink" - which means "thistle finch".  These minuscule seeds must be served forth in a feeder of mesh with very tiny holes and tiny perches.

Favorite of our birds, near woods on Braeburn off Snowden, were also cracked corn and cracked peanuts.  The fragrance of these items draws birds when there has been no feeder present before.

Cornell has every sort of topic succinctly covered on their site- including types of feeders (sturdy, large so you don't have to refill often), and so forth.  We were able to find feeders with 'cushioned' perches so that bird's feet didn't stick to metal in single-digit weather. 

Tray feeders work for cardinals, juncos, sparrows and towhees.  Let me know if you bring towhees to your winter windows - I've only ever encountered them scruffing about in leaf litter in the Institute Woods and in the Pine Barrens.

Feeder placement is covered -- the most important aspect of this segment is that it/they must be near natural cover, so birds can zip back into evergreens or other coverage when the inevitable (and also hungry) raptors arrow past.

Several feeders, several feet apart are suggested.  I remember how swiftly our novice-bird-feeding family were taught this one.

Our daughters christened this back-yard array our 'bird-proof squirrel feeders.'  You'll find out why, as you enter into your heroic mission of keeping winter birds alive.

Water is crucial for them, and I deeply regret that we didn't know that.  It's needed to keep birds hydrated (even humans must stay hydrated on winter walks to keep inner thermostats in working order).  Birds also need to bathe in open water.  Clean feathers insulate best.

Notice that birds, such as mockingbirds, don't look like themselves on single-digit days.  Birds puff themselves up, like the most luxurious down coat, to keep wind and cold at bay.

I admit this is extreme - but my husband was Swiss.  When they take on a hobby, watch out:  Werner actually purchased new lid-lockable garbage cans, one for each type of seeds, and one in which to mix a feast for winter birds.

As you ponder to feed or not to feed, consider all the harm humans have inflicted upon nature, not only her creatures, but also her habitats.  Here's your chance to make amends. 

You'll contribute to species health and even breeding success, come spring.  And all that lively beauty will fill your winter windows.

Remember, also, to support your local land trust, such as D&R Greenway and Stony Brook Millstone and Friends of Princeton Open Space -- who keep habitat that nourishes birds alive and well and surrounding Princeton.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Phyllis Teitelbaum January 05, 2012 at 02:31 PM
Based on decades of bird-feeding experience, we have found that the only feeder that is truly squirrel proof is the Mandarin Feeder by Arundale. It must be hung on a horizontal wire at least 6 feet away from trees and other things squirrels can climb or leap from. The squirrels will still try occasionally, but they will fail. If you feel sorry for them, you can always put food for them on the ground.
Brenda January 05, 2012 at 04:28 PM
Thanks for these bird feeding tips, Carolyn. We poured hot water over their frozen water container to melt the block of ice that formed over night.


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