Surviving Extreme Weather – Top 3 Ways to Help Birds

 

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.

Yellow shafted flickers come to my feeders frequently
Cardinals cluster on a snowy day

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.

Hawks prey on birds at 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

Top Three

Shelter

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.

Thickets of goldenrod in my meadow create pockets for birds to take shelter 

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.

A fluffed up Bluebird is perching in a nearby tree close to my feeders

Fresh Water

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.

The birds can still access water in my waterfall

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.

Place a rock in your bird bath for birds to perch on

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.

Homemade suet- see my recipe below

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.

High fat smorgasbord- meal worms, sunflower seeds, beef fat, and sunflower seeds
A starling on a suet cage
Woodpeckers use their long pointed beaks to dig out suet

Suet Recipe

Print

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.   

Ingredients

  • 2 C Crunchy 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

Instructions

  1. Melt lard and peanut butter in a dutch oven. 

  2. Stir in the remaining ingredients. The mixture will be very stiff. 
  3. Spoon into a 9 x13 glass casserole or disposable aluminum pan and spread flat. When hard, cut into squares and you can store any excess in the freezer.
Suet supplies
Melt suet and peanut butter in a large saucepan
Stir in dry ingredients
Spread mixture in pan to harden completely
Put in refrigerator to harden completely and cut into chunks; I added raisins to this batch

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.

Dueling birds

Berry Bird Buffet

I have added berries from my garden to this planter

When the leaves falls and the temperatures drop, I start unearthing my bird feeders and stocking up on suet, seed, and, and dried fruit for the birds.  Trying my best to satisfy the different varieties of birds with an array of delicacies that consistently feed birds the most nutritious and attractive foods, is my goal.

You can make your own suet

But it takes time, money, and dedication to provide the food necessary to keep birds healthy and happy. And why do we do this? Is it just the satisfaction of tracking the variety of birds to our yards so we can keep “yard lists”?  For me, I love watching the behaviors, songs, colors, and enjoy the show they put on right in front of me. And with so much wild land being developed, birds need to have alternate sources of sustenance.

Observing birds nest is one benefit of having birds visit your yard

And as a photographer, I want to bring the birds up close so I can photograph them. For that reason, I am ready to fill my feeders with the most nutritious foods and am always looking for ways to vary the offerings to attract some more unusual varieties.

Since I love to create containers, I decided to put together a ‘bird buffet’ container using a recently emptied container killed by frost.

Line an old metal plant stand with landscape cloth and add soil if starting from scratch
Same container dripping with begonias early in the summer

After cleaning out my container, but leaving the soil, I browsed my yard to pick up all kinds of berries and seed heads. Collecting echinacea seed heads, winterberry, purple and white Callicarpa, scarlet Viburnum,  and Blackberry Lily berries, was easy to do in mid-November before the birds have cleaned me out.

Edge the container with draping evergreens, sticking them into the soil; Here I use Arborvitae;  There is some creeping Jenny left over from the old container
In the back, I placed the Echinacea seed heads and added lots of berries in the front and middle
The black berries are Blackberry Lily, a perennial, and the red is Erie Viburnum
I set a bird house on top of a block of wood so you can see it better
I tried some deer antlers but decided not to use them
Sprays of millet completed the buffet;  Find these at pet stores

Make sure you water the container so it is moist, not soggy. Once the freezing weather arrives, the soil freezes keeping everything in place.

Next up is my recipe for home made suet and a DIY of a seed covered bird house.

 

 

 

The Great Backyard Bird Count

Blue bird perching in my Sycamore tree observing my bird feeder
Blue bird perching in my Sycamore tree observing my bird feeder

The 20th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) starts Friday, February 17, through Monday, February 20, 2017. Visit the official website at birdcount.org for more information but continue here for the events highlights:

I love feeding and observing what happens right outside my window
I love feeding and observing what happens right outside my window

A citizen science event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations, the GBBC is a great activity for kids and adults. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world. Sounds easy… and no stress? Just count your bird sightings for 15 minutes and you have contributed to the backyard bird statistics that scientist use for their research.

Falcon
Falcon

Citizen Science is trendy now for good reason. People feel empowered when they can contribute to the data base that scientists from all over the world can use in their studies of bird migrations. And what better research than backyard bird behaviors and numbers? This part of the natural world is very visible and of interest to many people.

Bird feeding in winter
Bird feeding in winter

Observe Birds that Visit Your Feeders

We are a nation of “bird feeders”! More than 52 million Americans feed wild birds or other wildlife around their homes according to The Bird Watching Daily.  Some statistics:  “Two-thirds are women, and nearly 60 percent were between the ages of 45 and 64. On average, participants had been feeding birds for 18 years”. Wanting to bring nature, therapy, education, and beauty to their backyard, many bird feeders are passionate about birds and spend big bucks on this multi-million industry. Suet, nectar feeding, bird feeders, houses, and baths can be added to this list along with the more mundane birdseed.

Red headed woodpecker in my bird feeder
Red Bellied Woodpecker in my bird feeder

Another important fact on The Bird Watching Daily: “Participation in the wild-bird-feeding hobby” they write, “may be an excellent catalyst for engagement in greater levels of outdoor recreation and greater stewardship of the natural world.” Amen! We need more outdoor appreciation and engagement of our natural world in this digital age.

You might be luck enough to spot a snowy owl!
You might be lucky enough to spot a snowy owl!

How to Count The Birds

  • Count birds anywhere you want. Inside observing your bird feeder, or outside on a hike for at least 15 minutes. Keep track of the numbers and species and the time length.

  • Make an estimate of how many birds you saw of each species. Flocks of birds are tough, but use your best guess.

  • Enter your list online at BirdCount.0rg, after first establishing an account. You can start recording your bird sightings at midnight local time on the first day of the count from anywhere in the world.

Turkey vultures are the ugly but necessary scavengers of the animal world
Turkey vultures are the ugly but necessary scavengers of the animal world
  • When you enter your information, you will see a list of birds that could be in your area in February. If the bird you see is unusual, there is a checklist of “rare species” that you can use. Compiled by local bird experts, bird lists should be comprehensive. But if you enter a species of an unusual bird, you get a message asking you to confirm the report and another check box will come up.

    Ducks count too!
    Ducks count too!

    All of these unusual sightings go to a volunteer in the area who reviews these reports and who might even contact you to get more details. Adding photos is especially important for unusual species.

Cardinal
Cardinal

Why?

Bird populations are always shifting and changing and in 2014, Snowy Owl sightings spiked in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, which were recorded on the GBBC. Like a bellwether, climate changes such as warming weather also shows up in these bird counts. More southerly birds are migrating further north, or birds are changing their routes, shortening or completely cancelling their journey as a result of changing temperatures.

Barn Owl
Barn Owl

Some birds, such as winter finches, appear in large numbers during some years but not other species. Scientists can learn from the different patterns exhibited from year to year.

Eastern Screech Owl
Eastern Screech Owl

An estimated 163,763 bird watchers from more than 130 countries participated in the GBBC in 2016, with the U.S. the top participant followed by Canada and India. To see the summary of results for 2016, go to GBBC Summary for 2016 and see the top sighted birds. Even if you can’t identify all your birds that you have observed, if you look at these lists and photos, you are sure to spot your birds.

Not seen in February in my state of Maryland, the ruby throated hummingbird could be seen in California
Not seen in February in my state of Maryland, the ruby-throated hummingbird could be seen in California at this time of year
I love observing and photographing Peacocks, but like chickens, they are a domesticated bird
I love observing and photographing Peacocks, but like chickens, they are a domesticated bird