Feeding Pagosa’s winter birds

Winter is a difficult time for non-migratory birds, but supplemental feeding can help see them through.

For those who enjoy rendering such avian assistance, now is the time to clean and erect feeders.

Though some folks question the wisdom of supplemental feeding — suggesting it disrupts migratory behavior, thereby creating a dependence upon humans — numerous studies show that most winter birds depend on a number of food sources, rather than a single supply.

In fact, according to the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW), any particular feeding station provides little more than 25 percent of a bird’s total diet. Too, when a certain food source is lost, birds quickly seek alternative supplies that will sustain them.

DOW biologists doubt that supplemental feeding inhibits the movements of migratory birds. Again citing several studies, the agency believes shorter days and dwindling sunlight contribute more to triggering migration than food availability. Indeed, most seasonal birds leave here in late summer and fall, when seeds, berries and insects are still plentiful. The DOW thinks it unlikely that neighborhood feeders influence a flock’s decision whether to leave or stay.

Birds in general, including non-migratory birds, have an incredibly rapid metabolic rate and must feed often, throughout the day. For instance, a black-capped chickadee weighs between nine and 14 grams (or a third of, to half an ounce) and loses roughly 10 percent of its body weight nightly, while shivering and flexing chest muscles just to keep warm.

Throughout the spring and summer months, many songbirds eat an abundance of insects and spiders, which provide good nutrition. In the fall and winter, however, most non-migratory species turn to eating seeds, nuts, and fruit to survive.

Black-oil sunflower seeds are the overwhelming favorite among the winged species inclined to visit backyard feeders. Most birds will eat them, and Bill Thompson of Bird Watcher’s Digest considers them the “hamburgers of the bird world.”

Apparently, the outer shells are thinner and easier to crack than those of striped sunflower seeds, and the inner kernels are larger. When mixed with cracked corn, white proso millet and, perhaps, some chopped dry-roasted peanuts or peanut hearts, most non-migratory birds will readily feast at the feeder.

Squash, pumpkin and melon seeds are also good sources of energy and nutrition. When properly dried and free of mold, they’re best when passed through a food processor before going to the feeder. Scattered on the ground, juncos, sparrows and towhees can easily devour them.

Animal fat, or suet, is also an excellent source of energy for insect eaters like downy and hairy woodpeckers, flickers, chickadees and nuthatches. Most meat markets offer it at little or no cost, but commercial cakes — often with seeds, fruit and nuts added — handle well and don’t melt as fast in warmer weather. Metal “squirrel-proof” suet baskets are widely available and easy to place in a variety of locations.

Once assured the bears are in hibernation — usually by late November — I’ll hang a couple of hopper feeders and two suet feeders from various trees in the yard. At the same time, I’ll plug in the heated birdbath, thus ensuring the availability of fresh water, even during sub-freezing temperatures.

Hopper feeders are essentially seed bins with perimeter trays, upon which many different birds can perch and feed. Using a length of green rubber-coated wire, I hang them over a stout branch, away from the trunk and out of most squirrels’ reach. As their seed supplies dwindle, I can lower them for easy refill.

Common suet baskets include a short length of chain with a hook at the end, allowing for easy placement amid barren branches seven to 10 feet from the ground.

While clean drinking water is critical to a bird’s survival, the birdbath also allows regular bathing, even on the coldest days. Tidy feathers offer superior insulation, thus preserving vital energy.

Those of us who choose to feed winter birds accept considerable responsibility. Once birds discover the feeders, they flock to them in unnaturally high concentrations, where a number of diseases are easily transmittable amid unsanitary conditions.

Therefore, it is necessary to clean feeders and baths every couple of weeks, or more often when heavily used. Scrubbing with dish soap or laundry detergent, then rinsing with a one-to-nine bleach to water solution, followed by a final fresh water rinse, will suffice.

Real fanatics (like me) might want to consider mounting a roosting box to house birds on the coldest of nights. I recently positioned one on the south-facing side of a ponderosa, within 40 feet of the bath and feeders.

Built to accommodate roughly 26 smaller songbirds at a time, the box design keeps birds dry and out of the wind, as they huddle together and preserve collective body heat. To date, I’ve observed no activity at our box, but that should change as colder weather sets in and the birds discover it.

A plethora of information on seed and suet feeders, heated birdbaths and roosting boxes is available on the Internet. You can also call For The Birds in Durango at (970) 382-9396, or Weminuche Audubon Society President Susan Halabrin at (970) 749-6143. You can e-mail Susan at shalabrin@aol.com.


SUN photo/Chuck McGuire
It’s time to put out the bird feeders as winter sets in. Numerous studies show that most winter birds depend on a number of food sources, rather than a single supply.