Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 2, 2012

Food, water, shelter will keep birds flocking back


TRAVERSE CITY — Stephany Podolan can see birds from nearly every vantage point in her living and dining rooms.

The Duck Lake Peninsula resident hangs more than a dozen feeders from poles mounted on posts along her 48-foot deck railing, plus additional feeders in the yard. She also works to attract birds through natural landscapes.

"It's so fun," said the Grand Traverse Audubon Club member who once counted more than 350 birds along the deck railing where she spilled seed. "They enrich your life."

Winter is a banner season for attracting birds. Beckoning feathered flocks to your backyard can be easier in winter than at any other time if you provide what they need to weather and survive the coldest months.

So what are those needs?

"Food, water and shelter," said Judy Barrett, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Traverse City. "You can't say it enough and in enough different ways."

Barrett suggests feeding birds on different levels to attract the widest variety. Besides hopper, dinner bell or tube feeders for birds such as cardinals and chickadees, consider a ground feeder for juncos, mourning doves and the stray robin or two that winter over.

What you feed depends on what type of feeders you're going to use and the kinds of birds you're trying to attract, said Tim Lampton, owner of McGough's in Traverse City. The majority of birds eat black oil sunflower seeds, which are high in nutrition, oil content and calories and give birds the extra energy they need to survive even the worst weather. Add suet — with or without fruit, nuts and seed — for woodpeckers and Nyjer or "thistle" seed for finches and you've covered most of your bases, he said.

Other good winter feeding choices are bark butter, peanuts, dried mealworms and high-quality seed blends with tree nuts and peanuts high in fat.

Bird feed is the biggest seller at the store year-round, said Lampton, who dispenses feeding advice to customers all day long. That's a change from the past, when many people fed only in the winter, when birds need the most help.

Podolan has gone through as much as two-and-a-half pounds of Nyjer seed a day, plus peanut bits, whole peanuts, sunflower hearts and suet. To save money, she often buys chunks of beef suet from the grocery and hangs them in net bags or cage feeders.

But some of the best winter food is free, she said, citing the crabapples that dry on her tree and the voles, mice, rabbits and other small animals barn owls like to hunt for in the brush piles she leaves in her yard.

"Birds love brush piles," she said, noting that the piles also provide shelter for smaller birds.

In fact, shelter can be as simple as dragging your discarded Christmas tree onto your deck, as Barrett does, or providing roosting boxes so birds can get in away from the cold.

Paula Dreeszen has a roosting box, but says nesting boxes can work just as well.

"If you have nesting boxes you use in the spring, clean them out for the fall and winter," said Dreeszen, who leads warbler walks for Benzie Audubon Club in the spring and is part of a group of Leelanau County birders informally called "the grackles" who gather for Sunday birding walks year-round. "Downy woodpeckers like to use empty nesting boxes. Birds that are comfortable going into a cavity they find in the spring are comfortable using a nesting box in the winter."

Dreeszen and her husband, Bryce, work to attract birds to their Interlochen yard all year long, but say winter feeding offers a special treat.

"With winter feeding you get different kinds of birds, like Canadian finches that migrate south if the pine cone crop isn't good, pine siskins, redpolls and pine grosbeaks," Dreeszen said.

Contrary to popular belief, it's safe to feed birds even if you go away for a while and can't fill the feeders, Lampton said.

"Some people think if you feed the birds and then stop, the birds are doomed to die. That's probably not true, but it can be a hardship on them if they're used to feeding there and now in the middle of the winter they have to find a new source," he said.

Instead of stopping feeding cold turkey, Dreeszen suggests weaning birds off your feeders and encouraging them to look elsewhere by not filling the feeders a day or two during the week.

"In a neighborhood they have a circuit they visit," she said. "Yours isn't the only place they're feeding."

Fresh water is as important to birds in the winter as food, said Barrett, even if you live on a lake.

"They love a small bath like they like to drink out of a puddle," she said. "They typically don't bathe, but they need a drink."

Some birdbaths come with built-in thermostat heaters to warm the water to just above freezing. But heaters can be added to almost any bath. Podolan and her husband, Thomas, have four or five birdbaths and a manmade pond with a miniature waterfall and a flat rock on which birds can perch.

"You get as many birds to the birdbath as you do to the seeds," said Podolan, who fills the bird feeders at the Boardman River Nature Center one morning a week.

A scarcity of natural available food, cold temperatures and severe storms push bird mortality high all winter long, said Joan Casanova, of Green Earth Media. But just as backyard birds may be more desperate during the lean times of winter, so are predators such as cats and hawks. Position bird feeders in a safe place to protect birds and pay attention to prints in the snow to learn what predators may be threatening your feeders.

After a bear visited her feeder station, Dreeszen now takes in her feeders until the danger of bears has passed and the animals have hibernated.