Deep freeze covers the East Coast with single digits during the day for me in Maryland, and that gets me thinking about wild bird survival. Birds need every help they can get as the temperatures plummet.
Birds have many strategies to survive without our help but as a concerned birder, I like to think that my feeding them nutritious food tips the balance in their favor during extreme weather. Mortality during extremely cold weather is much greater for birds and it has been proven that bird survival improves with ready access to backyard feeders.
Predation of birds will occur at your feeders and is the way nature happens. Hawks and other prey birds have to kill and eat one to three other birds or rodents a day to survive. Your best strategy is to provide cover such as hedges or shrubs near your feeders so that feeding birds have somewhere to shelter if a hawk comes hunting.
Sometimes you just see a streak plunging through the sky when a hawk appears and all the songbirds scatter for cover. Flocks of crows will also descend on my feeders and empty them out. If I see them I let my dogs out to chase them away. The same for squirrels…. I don’t mind squirrels raiding the feeders once in a while and my dogs make sure they keep their visits to a minimum.
Cardinals are regular visitors
Evergreen trees provide the best place for a roosting bird to hide from predators. An alternative to planting coniferous trees is building a brush pile of repurposed branches and debris from your yard. Gather branches, moss, and other yard debris pile them up in a sheltered corner. Birds like to hide and settle in these brushy havens. I have a meadow with towering spent goldenrod and other wildflowers that over the course of the winter tends to flop over and create hidden pockets for animals to find sanctuary in.
Re-purpose your old Christmas tree as an instant shelter. Put up old plywood sheets as a windbreak. Keep up old birdhouses/nesting boxes over the winter which allows birds a safe haven from weather also. Empty the old nesting materials and place old cotton, scraps of fabric and yarn into the cavity.
Placing your feeders close to shelter, evergreen and deciduous, allows birds to perch and zoom in on the feeder when it is safe.
Birds more than any other time of year need fresh water in the winter. It is a precious commodity and if you can provide, birds will flock to it. The cheapest way is to buy a heated dog bowl. Simple but effective.
My pond is frozen but the waterfall is still running and I find birds hopping in the running water.
I also have a pond de-icer to keep a ring of water free around the unit. An alternative is to buy a bird bath heater to keep the ice away in your bird bath. Even if you put out a bowl of water, in this weather, the water freezes very quickly, and a heater is a must have.
Set the Table with High Fat Food
If done right, feeding birds can be very beneficial, both for the bird and bird watching friends. Make sure your seed is high and dry. A hopper or tube feeder keeps the food dry and free flowing. Peanut feeders, suet feeders, and platform feeders are all options to increase your odds of attracting the largest variety. Think fatty things! After cutting fat off of a chuck steak, I placed the chunks on a platform feeder and it was gone in a few days. Meat scraps, meal worms, peanuts, suet, and peanut butter are all healthy options for a high fat diet.
Also, don’t forget to have clean, bleached (one part bleach to nine parts water) bird feeders ready to go when your old ones get all soggy from precipitation. Scatter seed at the edge of woods, under hedges, and in brambles to encourage shy birds to eat. Some birds won’t venture to feeders and compete with others.
Peanut Butter Bird Suet
This makes a simple high fat suet cake that you cut up to make any size or shape. I use lard or beef suet for the fat. Lard is easier to find. I also throw in many additions like raisins, sunflower seeds, nuts, etc.
- 2 C Crunchy or smooth Peanut Butter
- 2 C Lard or Beef Fat
- 4 C Oatmeal
- 4 C Corn Meal
- 2 C Flour, white of whole wheat
- 2/3 C Sugar, brown or white
- Raisins, peanuts, dried fruit, bird seed can be added to this mix, just make sure everything is thoroughly moistened with the lard mix
Melt lard and peanut butter in a dutch oven.
Stir in the remaining ingredients. The mixture will be stiff and wet.
Spoon into a 9 x13 glass casserole or half gallon waxed milk container. When hard, cut into squares and you can store any excess in the freezer.
These strategies don’t cost you much but on those nights when the wind blows icy cold and the snow swirls around, our feathered friends will be puffed up and cozy in the shelters that we provided, well-nourished and hydrated. To read more about Bird Buffets go to my post Berry Bird Buffet.