December 24, 2011 in Washington Voices

Gardening: Proper food attracts birds in winter

Pat Munts
 

I finally found an easy way to amuse bored cats now that the weather is cold. We placed two round cat beds in front of the window in my office. Dusty and Earl now spend much of their time watching the birds come and go from our feeders in total comfort. There is always something to watch.

So far the winter hasn’t been too bad for the birds. There are still lots of seed heads to pick through, and the ground is free of snow. Temperatures have been mild, so free-flowing water is still easy to find and it’s not too hard to stay warm.

That can and will change, so now is the time to set up bird feeding stations so the birds have time to find them and become regular visitors.

Tube feeders with multiple seed ports for small birds and a roof to keep rain and snow out are the easiest to hang from almost any sturdy branch or hook. Platform feeders with a roof set on a post work well for larger birds like juncos, sparrows, towhees, quail and doves but also draw squirrels that can empty a feeder in no time. It’s important to keep the seed dry so that mold and diseases don’t form. Wet seed also freezes, making the birds work harder to get it.

Hang feeders where you can see them but close to large dense trees or shrubs so the birds have a quick place to hide if a predator shows up. We’ve had hawks try to snatch birds right off the feeders. It’s quite a show, and fortunately the hawk doesn’t always succeed. Hang them at least 4 feet off the ground to deter cats. Given that we can get heavy snows, make sure you can easily shovel a path to it.

Fill your feeders with seed that is high in fats and protein. The birds need them to generate heat to stay warm. They will literally pick through a batch of seed for the seed with the highest food value and kick the rest out of the feeder. They have to – it takes energy to break a seed open, and they can’t waste that on something that isn’t going to give them the highest food value in return.

Black oil sunflower seeds attract the widest variety of birds in our area including chickadees, finches, nuthatches, pine siskins, California quail, doves, jays and woodpeckers. Niger thistle (not related to our noxious weed thistle) attracts goldfinches, pine siskins, dark-eyed juncos, chickadees, purple finches and sparrows. Woodpeckers, flickers, chickadees and nuthatches are drawn to suet cakes and peanut butter hung in a wire basket or smeared into pine cones. If you don’t want the mess of empty shells, buy hulled seed.

Free-flowing water is important for the birds to drink and keep their feathers clean so they stay warm. Place a birdbath heater in a large shallow tray of water nearby and keep it filled.

Pat Munts is a Master Gardener who has gardened the same acre in Spokane Valley for 30 years. She can be reached by email at pat@ inlandnwgardening.com


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