As published in Back Home Magazine, Nov./Dec. 2013
Spread some cheer outside for a great family activity
Winter gives me the shivers and a strong urge to fly swiftly toward the equator, so it’s only fitting that retirees who flee the frosty northern states in winter are called “snowbirds.”
One of the few upsides of all that cold and ice is the opportunity we have to attract and observe the variety of backyard birds that choose to brave the cold with us. From the warm side of the window, a mug of hot chocolate in hand, even the smallest child can enjoy the color and habits of many types of birds and may even help you cope with the cabin fever and boredom of winter vacation.
For example, children can create special decorations to attract birds, play “I Spy” for different colors and types of birds, start a collection of photos or drawings of your winter visitors, keep a log of the types and numbers of birds you see, or observe and talk about bird behavior. Older children may even want to join in for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, an international project co-sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Kids can record their data and turn it in online or by mail.
Depending on your temperature zone, you can expect to see pairs of northern cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, tufted titmice, blue jays, goldfinches, junkos, crows, woodpeckers, and flickers.
Sharon Stiteler writes a popular birding blog and is the author of three books on birding. Her most recent is 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know. She says there are three key elements you need to attract a wide variety of backyard birds: food, water, and shelter.
A bird buffet
“If you choose a commercial mix, make sure you can see what you’re getting,” says Stiteler. “Many blends include fill that some birds simply refuse to eat. Black oil sunflower seeds are clearly the favorite of most birds,” says Stiteler.”
While it’s a little more expensive, creating your own mix can lessen waste and attract more birds for your buck. Nancy Castillo, co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Saratoga Springs, NY, and author of the Zen Birdfeeder blog, says that the blend you create depends on the type of birds you want to attract.
“Mix seeds in whatever proportions you can afford,” says Castillo. “Black oil sunflower is a good starter. Consider adding other foods like striped sunflower, safflower, millet, shelled sunflower, peanuts, and fruit such as raisins.”
“Peanuts and cracked corn are also popular and nutritious,” says Stiteler, but she doesn’t recommend stale bread, cookies, or potato chips on a regular basis. “These aren’t the healthiest food choices, and they also attract rodents and raccoons.”
Birds will come to your yard if you give them what they need, so don’t become discouraged if they’re a little wary of a new feeder or your homemade decorations. Birds find food by sight, so a little seed sprinkled on the ground will help them get the idea.
An open, clean water source is essential, especially when ice and snow can make fresh water harder to find.
Birdbaths are commercially available in many shapes and materials and, depending on your budget, are also available with integrated heating units, says Castillo. Clay, concrete, and glass birdbaths may crack and leak in freezing weather, so don’t work well for winter birding.
You can also make your own simple birdbath out of any shallow basin such as an old serving tray or a disposable aluminum baking pan. Place your birdbath on a stump or garden wall out of reach of predators. Freshen your water every other day, and scrub your birdbath periodically with a stiff-bristled brush. Remember to break the ice during the coldest days.
Brush and cover
Your birds need the protection of nearby trees or bushes, so place your feeder in a location that makes them feel secure. Stiteler suggests using your discarded Christmas tree or piles of brush placed about 10 feet from the feeder for a quick escape from ambushing cats.
Sit back and enjoy
Some great sources for bird identification are Stan Tekiela’s state-by-state bird guides, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site at www.allaboutbirds.org, the Online Guide to North American Birds of the National Audubon Society, the iBird Pro Guide to Birds app available for iPhone and iPod Touch, and the Peterson Field Guide to Birds app.
As you observe all the backyard activity from inside your cozy sanctuary, you can also savor the special satisfaction of creating your own inviting winter haven. You may even find that you want to take it a step further by attracting summer visitors such as hummingbirds.
And it could be that what began as a simple project to pass a chilly afternoon will cultivate a new family interest already shared by millions worldwide.
More birding resources: The Great Backyard Bird Count at www.birdsource.org, http://www.birdchick.com, www.wildbirdsunlimited.typepad.com, www.birds.audubon.org, and http://www.juliezickefoose.blogspot.com.
Here’s a winter craft project that accomplishes three things: it adds interest and decoration to your trees outdoors, provides winter food for birds, and gives children something fun and interesting to do.
You will need:
6 large oranges
2 cups peanut butter, softened in the microwave
2 cups birdseed
½ cup rolled oats
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds
spoon for scooping out the pulp
yarn or string
Halve each orange and scoop out the pulp. Using a nail or wooden skewer, punch a hole about ½ inch from the top of the orange “basket” and punch another on the opposite side. Using yarn or heavy string, create a handle for your basket. With your hands or a pastry cutter, mix the remaining ingredients and use a spatula to fill each basket. Decorate your trees and bushes at a height of about five feet and watch your birds flock to your offering. Makes 12 ornaments.
A commercial or homemade suet provides energy and warmth and appeals to many types of birds including chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers and flickers.
Try this healthy winter suet recipe field-tested and perfected by the author of The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds by Julie Zickefoose. It can be a little messy to make, but birds find it a delicacy.
New Zick Dough (Gourmet Suet)
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup lard
2 cups chick starter
2 cups quick oats
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup flour
In a microwave, melt peanut butter and lard and mix well. In a larger mixing bowl combine the chick starter, oats, cornmeal and flour. Add the melted peanut butter and lard mixture to the dry ingredients and mix well. The mixture will resemble granola. Serve on a flat surface such as your deck rail or an old plate, or use a platform-style feeder. Store the mixture at room temperature.