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Feed your feathered friends this winter

Put out a bird feeding station this winter to attract those hardy enough to weather our winters

Blue jays are especially fond of peanuts in the shell.

Cold weather has arrived, and most of our birds have migrated south, but the hardy ones are still around.

A dozen or so species remain, and a feeding station kept regularly supplied will attract them to your backyard or deck for your viewing enjoyment, if you place the feeders where you can watch them easily. A variety of feeders can be purchased, or many opt to build their own. A feeding station with shelter from the wind and snow will attract ground feeders, as well.

In Manitoba, black-capped chickadees are our most frequent backyard visitors and can usually be enticed to a feeding station by a supply of small black-oil sunflower seeds. Other species will also come for these: red and white-breasted nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, purple finches and house finches. Less frequent visitors might include pine grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks and crossbills, all of which enjoy sunflower seeds. If you live in a part of our province where sunflowers are grown, these might be available from a nearby farmer — if they managed to get them harvested this fall. Just watch that you buy the small black-oil type, not the larger non-oil ones.

A white-breasted nuthatch enjoys some suet from a cage feeder. To the right is a log that’s been turned into a suet feeder by stuffing holes that were drilled into it. photo: Donna Gamache

Suet or fat is another food that attracts birds, and is something they need in cold weather. Commercial suet blocks can be purchased, but often the birds ignore these. Homemade mixtures are often preferred and can be shaped into bloc?s, cooled and hung in a suet cage. Or a log can be used with holes about two centimetres deep drilled into it, and then the mixture stuffed into the holes as it is thickening.

My recipe includes these approximate amounts, subject to variation: 1 cup softened lard, or melted suet or other fat; 1 cup peanut butter; 2 cups quick oats; 2 cups cornmeal; 1 cup flour; plus shelled sunflower seeds and crushed peanuts. Woodpeckers, especially, come to these logs, and for a couple of years pileated woodpeckers even visited mine.

Some of the smaller birds, such as redpolls and pine siskins, prefer to eat niger seed. It is available in pet stores, gardening stores or some hardware stores, but tends to be expensive. The easiest way to feed niger seed is in a tube feeder or thistle sock. A few overwintering goldfinches might also be attracted — or they often use the tube feeder when they return in the spring.

Blue jays are a colourful bird that many birders enjoy feeding. Peanuts in the shell are a special treat for them, but be warned: if you put out many at a time, they will take them all and hide them for future use. This November, I watched a jay hide a peanut in the snow just a few metres from the feeder, and cover it with a couple of leaves. Then it promptly flew away with another peanut, apparently trying to get as many as possible before another jay arrived. Blue jays also enjoy eating corn from the cob and seeds from sunflower heads. (You might be able to glean corncobs or sunflower heads from a harvested crop.)

If you find too many house sparrows coming to your feeders, and don’t want them, one way to discourage them is to use short lengths of fishing line. Hang these from the top of the feeder, dangling in front of the seeds at about four centimetre intervals. Other birds don’t seem to be bothered by the line.

A feeding station that’s protected from snow will allow birds to forage no matter what the weather. photo: Donna Gamache

Some birdwatchers keep a bird bath operating during the winter. By adding warm water a couple of times a day, this can work in the early part of winter before temperatures drop too much. For the really cold weather, keen birders buy a heated bird bath. I have had one for several years now, and it can operate at even -30 C. Birds don’t use it to bathe in winter, but just for a drinking source. Blue jays use it and sometimes other birds, too. One winter a robin used mine for a month or two, and last winter an errant mockingbird was around for six weeks or so.

Winter bird feeding can be an interesting pastime for adults and children alike. My not- quite-three-year-old granddaughter can already recognize several of our winter visitors and is thrilled to put out peanuts for the blue jays and watch them come for their daily treat, usually timed to occur while we eat breakfast.

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