With the temperature topping off at 20 degrees Fahrenheit today, it got me thinking about how rough the winter must be on birds that remain in Maine year round. I’ve been feeding backyard wildlife for a few years now, but I’ve still got a lot to learn.
So I decided to call up the staff at the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden to ask them about the best ways to help my neighborhood birds (and inevitably squirrels) through the winter.
Audubon naturalist Holly Twining not only answered my questions about different types of bird seeds and feeders, she also shared a few fun craft projects for making wildlife treats. Based on our conversation, I created an informative/how-to video, with the help of my dog Oreo and my two cats, Bo & Arrow.
Below is my chat with naturalist Holly Twining about feeding backyard wildlife (birds and squirrels, mainly) in the winter.
- Do I really need to get a bunch of different kinds of bird food to attract different birds?
Often the kind [of food] that will attract the most species is black oil sunflower seeds. A lot of finches do like thistle, especially in the winter time. And if you put millet on the ground, you’re going to have sparrows. But if you want the biggest bang for your buck, you want to go to black oil sunflower seed.
- Is thistle the really small black seeds you see in bags?
Yes. Thistle is also called nyjer seed. You can put it in a conical feeder with smaller holes. Smaller birds, such as chickadees, goldfinches, siskins — things that have smaller bills — will eat it. The goldfinches will actually stay there and eat and eat and eat. The chickadees are funny the way they eat seeds. They come and get one and then go and eat it. Purple finches and house finches will hang out on the feeders. And nuthatches will sit there like they’re looking for the perfect seed, digging around and tossing seeds out, and then they get one and take off to either cache it somewhere or open it on a tree branch.
- Are suet cakes OK for the winter, or do they freeze?
Yes. It just doesn’t get all melty like it usually does in the summer. The birds will go in there and take off hunks of it. I get so many different birds on my suet. The best one so far was a red-bellied woodpecker. They’re beautiful. I highly recommend suet in the winter.
- Is there one bird feeder that is a good first feeder to purchase?
I would say probably just start with a tube kind and put black oil sunflower seeds in it, and I bet you the chickadee will be the first one to feed on it. Or if you don’t want a bird feeder, you can throw neat feast (a nutty blend without shells) on the ground.
- I don’t mind my squirrels, but I know other people will want to know… what’s the best way to keep squirrels from your feeder?
There are baffles and squirrel buster feeders out there, and you can certainly give them a try, but it’s funny — squirrels are very smart and it seems like eventually they find a way.
- Can you provide shelter for birds in the winter?
I always recommend having brush piles in your yard, and I never put a garden to bed. The seeds are still there, so the birds can get them if they want to, and it can be used as shelter, too. Also, if you have shrubs, birds love that, too. I keep my birdhouses up, just in case somebody wants to go in during a storm, but more often than not, mice will use it in the winter, but you know, that’s OK too.
- Is there a way to include your backyard wildlife in the holiday festivities?
The big one we love to do is get pine cones and fill them with peanut butter, then roll them in seed and hang them outside. Also, if you cut an orange in half and empty it out, you can put suet mix or the peanut butter-seed mix in it and hang it out as well. Another big one is when we go to throw out our Christmas tree, we put it on our deck or the backyard and continue to put bird seed and popcorn and peanut butter on it all through the winter.
- Is there anything else you can do for your backyard critters in the winter?
One thing that’s important to remember, especially during wetter weather, is really making sure that before you keep putting seeds in the feeder, make sure it’s actually clean and you’re not piling new seeds on top of old seeds. It compacts and can get a bird sick essentially.
Another thing — I actually use a heater in my bird bath and do recommend it to others. They’re great to have because the birds truly do come for a drink.
(Twining sent along this link as an example of a heater that can be used in bird baths: http://www.drsfostersmith.com/product/prod_display.cfm?pcatid=18099.)
SUET CAKE RECIPE
I almost forgot, the Fields Pond Audubon Center provides a simple suet cake recipe to visitors: Heat and stir together 1 cup of peanut butter, 1 cup of vegetable shortening and 3-4 cups of cornmeal. Add a cup of birdseed. Pour into a pan and let it cool, then cut it into cakes. Extra cakes can be stored in the freezer.
If interested in learning more about backyard birding this winter, there are multiple birding events scheduled at Fields Pond, including monthly birding walks, the screening of “Counting on Birds” on Dec. 18 and a Christmas bird count on Dec. 20. Fields Pond Audubon Center will also be hosting a solstice celebration on Dec. 20, during which they will festoon a tree with edible decorations for the wildlife of the property to enjoy.
For information about all of these events, visit maineaudubon.org.