Helping birds survive the snow and cold

A northern flicker. Providing high-fat foods for birds during daylight hours will help them make it through long, cold winter nights. Photo courtesy Sarah Nelson

Typically, feeders serve as a supplemental source of food for birds. Birds obtain most of their food naturally. During extreme cold and severe winter weather, birds may become more dependent upon the food people provide.

This time of year, songbirds must sustain themselves through about 14 hours of darkness by using only their fat reserves for fuel. It’s not unusual for birds to use 75 percent of their fat reserves in one night. Providing high-fat foods for birds during daylight hours will help them make it through long, cold winter nights.

Avoid seed blends with filler seeds that birds don’t eat and focus on high-fat, high-protein foods like sunflower, nuts, suet and high-quality seed cylinders. Spreadable suet, called bark butter, is particularly attractive to birds and is easy for all birds to eat. Some winter birds like bushtits, yellow-rumped warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets aren’t equipped to crack open seeds, but bark butter is an easy-to-eat, high-fat food source. Simply smear it on to the bark of a tree and watch the show.

Often, birds come to feeders at dawn, so unless you are a real early bird, try filling your feeders just before dark to ensure a daybreak meal for the songbirds in your backyard. You’ll also see birds at the birdbath early in the morning. They will find a block of ice unless you have a heated birdbath.

After snow, it’s also helpful to brush any accumulation off feeders and off any natural food sources like berry-producing shrubs, seed-producing grasses and old flower heads. Try to keep both feeders and natural food sources easily accessible, especially in extreme weather.

Some birds are also quite good at planning for winter by caching food for later use. Birds like chickadees, nuthatches and jays have been stashing food for several months to eat later in the winter. All the food birds have taken from feeders lately hasn’t necessary been eaten right away. Some of it may have been stashed away to eat when it is needed most.

Chickadees prefer to cache black oil sunflower seeds, sometimes husking and eating a small portion before hiding it in or under bark, dead leaves, knotholes, clusters of pine needles, gutters, shingles, or in the ground. They like to cache seeds within 130 feet of bird feeders.

Sunflower seeds mimic many tree and flower seeds. Nuthatches like sunflower seeds out of the shell 25 percent more often than ones in the shell. They prefer to hide foods on deeply furrowed tree trunks and the underside of branches. They are also known to hide seeds behind wooden siding or under a shingle. Jays love to cache peanuts; especially peanuts in the shell. These mimic acorns and pine nuts. They often bury them in the ground and can cache up to 100 in a day, emptying a feeder in no time.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and Birdhouses of the World.

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