The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will the robin do then, poor thing?
He’ll sit in a barn,
And keep himself warm,
And hide his head under his wing, poor thing!
I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.
When the days grow longer, the cold grows stronger . . . so says my father-in-law, quoting an old New England saying. The brutal chill of winter can be hard on us, but it is much harder on our feathered (and furry) friends that don’t have the comfort of a warm stove as temperatures drop. One way to help the wild birds and other creatures that live in or near your yard is to make sure they have enough to eat, which will help them to withstand the cold. It is fairly easy and inexpensive to build a simple bird feeder, and really only requires a little bit of diligence to keep the feeding areas free of snow, and make sure the feeders are re-stocked when the seeds are running low—my local “customers,” as we call them, go through a few cups of seeds per day.
Beyond the obvious pleasure of bird-watching, there are many good reasons for feeding wild birds, especially in winter. The Humane Society of the United States states: “Bird feeding is most helpful at times of when birds need the most energy, such as during temperature extremes, migration, and in late winter or early spring, when natural seed sources are depleted.”
How Do Birds Survive in Winter?
I don’t know about you, but in the deep, dark days of winter I always wonder how those little creatures stay alive, especially here in New England where temperatures can get very, very cold. The answer involves a variety of factors: Birds have a higher metabolism than humans, and thus their bodies run at a higher temperature; many species grow special feathers that act as a sort of down blanket in the winter, holding heat close to their bodies; they fluff, tuck, and sun themselves, but they also spend a lot of time shivering. This last bit is one of the reasons why feeding birds is so important—if they don’t have enough food, they won’t have enough energy to do the things they need to do to keep themselves warm.
Brave little fighters, go on with your battle–
Here is a friend who will welcome you all!
Fly to my window–I’ll feed every comer–
Hail to the comrades that constancy show
Loving and loyal, in winter and summer–
With us, alike, in the heat and the snow!
—From “Winter Birds” by Andrew Downing
What Do Birds Like to Eat?
There are lots of possibilities to explore when feeding wild birds, but we like to hang simple wooden birdfeeders on a double shepherd’s hook (we used this pattern to make our feeders, and this baffle has kept them squirrel-free for many years). We also shovel out a circular area in the backyard in which to scatter seeds, and the occasional peanut. Blue jays love peanuts. Of course, we have plenty of squirrels that feed off the ground along with the birds, but I don’t mind. I know they need to eat, too. We are able to spend many happy hours watching the birds eat; we have a wonderful time trying to identify all of the different species. Having different types of feeding locations helps us to attract a wide variety, from mourning doves (who feed on the ground) to finches, nuthatches, and titmice (who like to eat from feeders). In the future, I would love to add a bird table for the species that want to be somewhere in between.
Good for Birds to Eat:
- Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
- Thistle Seed
- Seed Mixes formulated for Wild Birds
- Roasted Peanuts (unsalted)
Not Good for Birds to Eat:
- Raw Peanuts: They inhibit protein absorption in birds and small mammals.
- “People Food”: Items like bread and table scraps provide almost no nutritional value to birds, and moldy bread can make birds sick.
- Chocolate: Toxic to birds (as well as cats and dogs).