Most of us humans would agree that winter is for the birds. Many of our feathered friends, however, might beg to differ.
"Winter is a rough time for birds," says naturalist Guy Hodge, director of research and data for The Humane Society of the United States. "When the ground is covered with snow, their natural goods are inaccessible, and there's always a shortage of food throughout the winter months."
Feeding the birds, that aimlessly pleasurable activity most everyone has engaged in at one time or another, is not nearly as insignificant an event for the birds as it is for humans. For many birds, it could mean the difference between life and death this winter.
Many bird admirers (true bird watchers know better) believe that birds all fly south for the winter, and that by December, every mobile feathered creature is sunning itself happily on the beaches of Rio or wherever. Nothing, says Hodge, could be further from the truth.
He points out two types of birds who live in the Washington area during the winter. Some, like the cardinal or blue jay, are permanent residents. Others, like the junco or white throated sparrow, are winter visitors who spend their summers further north. For them, this IS south.
Both permanent residents and winter visitors, who consume 20 percent or more of their bodyweight in food each day, can benefit from some humane handouts at this time of year, when their energy requirements are higher.
Feeding the birds means more than simply tossing out old bread crusts as they accumulate. "If you start feeding the birds around your home," Hodge says, "you must continue through the winer because they will come to depend on the food you provide."
Hodge recommends feeding from mid-November until mid-April, when the natural food supply is at its lowest. It's also important to make your bird feeding a regular routine. Try to feed at the same time each day. The birds in your area will quickly develop a regular munching routine.
What? Traditional junk foods will be eaten and enjoyed, but are poor nutritional choices for birds (as well as humans). A good bird seed is far preferable to stale coffeecake.
Remember that bird feeding does not have to be a random activity. The type of feed you put out will play a large role in deciding which birds you will attract. And the choice is larger than you think. Hodge, who lives in Fairfax County, says he has spotted members of 43 species of birds at his four feeders, including one curious turkey vulture (who presumably came to watch, not eat).
The amateur bird feeder/watcher can begin with an all-purpose birdseed. These commercial mixtures, usually containing millet and sunflower seed hearts, will satisfy most songbirds who winter in the area. But most of the feed, Hodge cautions is filler, which birds will leave behind for you to rake up later.
If you want to attract specific birds, the possibilities are nearly endless.
Sunflower seeds will entice chickadees, cardinals, nuthatches, blue jays, and titmice. Peanuts (raw and unsalted, preferably still in the shell) will attract cardinals and blue jays (who, after all, are not picky), and cracked corn is particularly good for mourning doves and waterfowl.
Fresh fruit (oranges, apples, and raisins) are not only nutritious treats for mockingbirds, they are otherwise almost impossible for them to come by in the winter. For the truly devoted, commercial feed stores and mail-order houses stock such specialties as suet (for woodpeckers and chickadees) or thistle seed (for goldfinches). Make sure first that you have goldfinches around before making the investment; thistle seed must be imported and can be quite expensive.
Consider putting in some plants whose fruit could provide a feast: dogwood, pyracantha, tulip, sumac, crabapple, and oak trees, for example.
And don't forget that unfrozen water can be in short supply when temperatures are hovering in the teens. Birds, says Hodge, need to bathe as well as drink. Dirt interferes with the insulating qualities of a bird's feathers.
What to feed in can be almost as big a decision as what. Types of feeders are almost limitless, ranging from satellite feeders for tiny birds to suet feeders for mockingbirds to all-purpose feeders for almost anything. The Audubon Book Shop, 1621 Wisconsin Ave. NW in Georgetown, has the largest and best selection of feeders in the area, according to Hodge.
Whatever feeder or feeders you decide on, it's important to care for them properly.Keep your feeder clean. Hodge says he washes his out with a mild soap and water about once a month during the winter.Always remember to check the feeder after a rain. Wet seeds, if not removed promptly, will begin to ferment.
Placement of a feeder? Basically, where the birds can get at it, but the squirrels cannot. It's also a good idea to find a place where cats cannot feed on the birds while the birds are feeding on the feed.
Hodge lists these choices -- none of them foolproof -- on positioning a feeder: secured to a natural feature, like a tree or bush; suspended from a rope or wire; or on top of a pole.
Some feeders come with a suction cup to be attached to a window. This will provide a (pardon the expression) bird's-eye view of the feeding, but you may have to put up with birds crashing into your window. And activity in the room will often discourage birds from venturing too close.
Squirrels -- unlike cats -- would rather have the feed than the birds, and often get their way. One once sat on a branch at Hodge's house, hauled up a rope to which a feeder was attached, secured the rope at the top, and proceeded to gorge itself. Another imaginative creature perched on a pyracantha branch and swung back and forth until it could grab the feeder.
So far as the products called squirrel baffles, most of them don't, says Hodge. He now puts out a separate stock of seeds for the squirrels, on the ground where they can enjoy them.
Bird feeding, of course, gives you the opportunity for some pretty fancy bird watching. Hodge advises getting a good field guide to keep track of guests that have flown in. Not a bad pastime for cold winter afternoons.