Feeding wild birds in winter


Attracting and feeding bird species that stay the winter here in southwest Colorado can add liveliness, color and song to your winter landscape. Many bird species, including chickadees, juncos, downy and hairy woodpeckers, siskins, grosbeaks, finches, cardinals, jays and nuthatches, stay in Colorado for the winter and can benefit from supplemental feeding.

Although they are resourceful and resilient, short days and long, cold nights, compounded with a decreased food supply, can be tough on birds.

With the onset of winter, much of the natural food supply has been eaten or is covered by a blanket of snow. Birds that consume insects for protein during warmer months are forced to change their eating habits, looking for other sources of nutrients to sustain them.

Water and shelter can also be more challenging to locate. When the weather begins to cool, birds that stay in Colorado for the winter begin to seek out reliable food sources and many form flocks in order to better find and share food, as well as protect themselves from predators.

Did you know birds shiver? They also fluff up their feathers for insulation and stand on one leg, drawing the other closer to their body to keep the heat in. Birds, like people, are warm-blooded and use a great deal of energy to maintain their body temperature within a normal range of approximately 105-108 degrees Fahrenheit. The colder it is outside, the more energy birds use to keep warm. If you hope to attract birds in winter, you should provide supplemental foods packed with energy-rich nutrients that help them keep up their high metabolic rate and stay toasty.

Birds with access to feeders have higher winter survival rates, and feeder access can be especially important in the event of storms or sudden temperature drops, when birds may be caught off guard. If you choose to put out feed, not only will you provide a bit of extra help for the birds, you’ll get to enjoy watching them all winter long because they know they can find tasty, fat and protein-rich food at your feeders.

To appeal to birds at any time of year, you have to pay attention to the types of birds you can and want to attract, design your landscape to be inviting to those species, know the types of foods they consume and understand how they prefer to eat. To survive the winter, birds need food, water and shelter, all parts of their habitat. When you feed birds and provide sheltered areas for them, you supplement those parts of their habitat.

An inviting landscape and feeding area are critical elements to successfully attracting birds. A landscape that contains or is near to evergreens is appealing because they provide winter shelter from wind and cold and help birds survey your feeding area for danger before stopping by for a snack.

Ensuring your landscape contains fruit or nut bearing plants can also help increase bird visitation. A good option for this area is junipers. Another way to provide both food and shelter for feathered friends is to leave dormant and dead plants such as black-eyed Susan, coneflowers, zinnias, daisies and mums standing in your garden over winter. If you have dead trees or snags around your property that don’t otherwise pose a threat, you can also leave them as part of bird habitat.

Different bird species are equipped to consume specific types of food. Some feeding options include providing black oil sunflower seeds, cracked corn, thistle, suet, peanut butter and millet. Of course, providing a wider variety of these foods will help you to attract more species, but black oil sunflower seeds are usually a hit. Almost all birds that visit feeders eat black oil sunflower seeds because they have thin shells that make them easy to crack, and the seeds themselves are rich in fat and protein. If you choose to feed black oil sunflower seeds, you can be sure very little seed will go to waste.

Feeding cracked corn is also a good option because it is inexpensive. Cracked corn bird feed is high in fats and carbohydrates, but contains very little protein. Mixing cracked corn with black oil sunflower seeds in a feeder is one way to provide fats, carbohydrates and proteins. A hanging feeder filled with this mix will likely attract finches, chickadees and siskins, among others. Jays, cardinals and juncos are ground feeders, so they will clean up any seed spilled from a hanging feeder. Ground-feeding species will also feed from platform style feeders. If you want to attract more ground feeders, you can sprinkle seed directly on the ground.

Suet is pure, hardened animal fat, a very high-energy food. It is generally inexpensive and can be mixed with seeds, nuts and fruits to create a tasty bird food. Peanut butter is also an option that provides similar nutrients to suet. Suet feed can be placed in a special hanging suet feeder, smeared on pinecones and hung in trees or placed on another rough surface such as the bark of a tree. Blocks of suet can be wrapped with twine and hung, as well. Suet feed will attract flickers, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers, among other species.

Thistle seed is a more expensive, specialty food that finches enjoy. If you hope to attract finches to your winter landscape, consider purchasing some of this feed, also called Nyjer.

Calcium and grit are also important components of bird diets, and can be provided by mixing small amounts of play sand and finely crushed, disinfected egg shells info feed.

An ideal location for your bird feeder will provide necessary elements of bird habitat. Placing the feeder in an open area with cover nearby will allow birds to survey for danger before coming to feed, as well as take cover close to your feeder in the event of a storm or temperature drop. If you hope to have more than one feeder or different kinds of feeders, place them at least 10-15 feet apart and always close to shelter. Keep in mind that once you’ve spent time attracting birds to your landscape, you should feed them consistently. Birds are resourceful and won’t likely become entirely dependent upon the food you provide, but supplemental food can make up between 15 and 25 percent of birds’ winter food intake once they’ve found a feeding spot.

Another often-forgotten part of attracting birds in the winter is providing water. During the winter, many water sources freeze, so you will successfully attract more bird species if you are able to provide water for drinking and bathing. If you do provide bird water, be sure to maintain a clean source and keep it from freezing by replacing it often or using a heated birdbath.

Finally, winter is an exciting time to enjoy birds if you enjoy participating in citizen science. Each December, the National Audubon Society puts on a Christmas Bird Count. The count this year began Sunday, Dec. 14, and will conclude Monday, Jan. 5. Spotting and taking note of bird species that visit your yard can help you make an important contribution to a long-running census that helps assess the health of bird populations. To learn more and to participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count, visit birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.

Although this article reviews some species of birds that overwinter in Colorado, there are many others with varied dietary preferences and preferred ways of feeding.

Information for this article was taken from a variety of sources, including Wild Birds Unlimited, Colorado State University Extension, Gilpin County, articles written by Colorado Master Gardeners from Adams County and Russell Ryan, Conservation Chairperson, South Mountain Chapter of North Audubon.

Free wood chips

The wood chips that helped keep things dry during the fair are available to anyone for pickup. If you are interested, just haul them away. There is no need to call the Extension office for permission.

CPR and first aid 

CPR and first aid certification classes are now being offered monthly by the CSU Extension office on the second Monday and Wednesday of each month from 6 to 10 p.m.

We will also schedule classes on additional dates with five or more registrations.

Cost for the classes is $80 for combined CPR/first aid and $55 for individual CPR or first aid. The type of first aid information provided will vary by the needs of the audience. Group rates are available.

For more information or to register, call the Extension office at 264-5931.