Feeding birds during the winter

If you are serious about attracting birds to your garden, Brian Minter shows you how.

  • Nov. 11, 2017 1:30 p.m.
As well as setting out food, a garden planted with certain varieties of trees and shrubs will also provide additional and consistent food sources over the winter, says Brian Minter

As well as setting out food, a garden planted with certain varieties of trees and shrubs will also provide additional and consistent food sources over the winter, says Brian Minter

After our brief encounter with winter weather, it’s a good reminder to help out some of our best garden friends – the birds. Instead of hanging a feeder somewhere in the yard and filling it with whatever bird seed we can find, we need to do better. It’s a nice gesture, but if you are serious about attracting birds to your garden, there is a lot more to it.

Many fine books are available on the subject of attracting and feeding birds, and there is fairly reliable information on the internet. This information will give you a broader perspective on the value of having birds around your home and some of their special needs.

Cleanliness and consistency are two of the most important necessities of a feeding station. Mouldy, spoiled food can be dangerous to birds, and excess food spilled on the ground will attract rodents. Keep your feeders clean all year round, and only put out enough food to last a few days, then refill. It is also a good idea to rake the ground below the feeder, and clean up any spilled food. Birds will not stay in one area if their food service is not consistent. Year-round feeding is a great idea, but even if you only do it during the winter months, don’t allow the feeder to be empty for days at a time, especially during cold spells.

As well as setting out food, a garden planted with certain varieties of trees and shrubs will also provide additional and consistent food sources over the winter. Berried plants that fruit, like pyracantha, cotoneaster and ornamental flowering crabapples, are a great source of winter food, as is English holly and deciduous Ilex verticulata. The seed pods of alder and certain dogwoods, like ‘Red Osier’, and even winter-flowering Cornus mas, offer a good supply of food. Believe it or not, the cones from mugho and Scotch pines, spruce and hemlock are food sources too. Rose hips, particularly from some of the old-fashioned roses, and the new Meidilands, like ‘Bonica’, are a real treat for birds.

As for purchased bird seed, the cheapest is seldom the best. If the birds just pick through it and scatter most of it uneaten to the ground, it is not much of a bargain. Although there is no question that certain species prefer special seed types, the blend generally attractive to most wild birds is black oil sunflower seed and white Proso millet. It’s interesting that most species have little desire for buckwheat, flax, oats, rice seed and wheat. If you are going to purchase seed, you might as well get the stuff they eat.

During cold weather, birds need high energy food, and suet is among the best. Generally, beef suet is the tastiest (for birds) and the least expensive, and it is now being sold in packages.

Don’t forget that birds have no teeth. Instead, they rely on fine particles of grit in their gizzards to grind up hard seeds. You can buy grit, but coarse sand will do fine. Just scatter some on your feeder.

Birds need water too. If you can keep an open source of water near your feeder, you will attract more than your share of birds. If you have a birdbath that quickly freezes up, you may want to purchase a birdbath heater. One lady told me that she uses fresh chopped apples as a source of moisture for birds – it’s not a bad idea. Bananas, blackberries, cherries, cranberries and strawberries are wonderful fruits for birds as well.

Remember: secure your feeder in a location out of cold winter winds to protect the birds while they are dining. It is also a good idea to locate feeders near thickets or bushy trees where they can dart quickly should a predator suddenly appear. Also avoid reflective windows they might fly into. If you haven’t done so before, try setting up a bird feeding station for the winter. I think you will find it fascinating. The birds in your neighbourhood will appreciate it too.

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