The Dirt: Help the birds

Surveys say that as many as forty-five percent of Americans and about seventy-five percent of Brits feed birds in their yards; it’s a multibillion-dollar industry. Some cities discourage bird feeding (specifically ground feeding) for fear of attracting rats—but bird watching and feeding is an interest and passion that is not going to go away. (City bird-lovers, read on: you can still benefit the birds without fear of tickets.)

But what about the argument that feeding birds sets up an artificial dependency, alters their behavior, and harms the species? Birds are tough little critters. Surely they’ll survive just fine without our hard-earned money and effort, won’t they?

How birds handle cold weather
Surviving a Northeast winter in a two-ounce body is quite a trick, made possible by some amazing physiology and behaviors. Consider these:
• Feathers with an oily coating that insulates and waterproofs
• A fall molt, during which many birds produce extra insulating feathers
• Feet and legs covered with insulating scales
• Independent temperature controls for the extremities and the core, to limit heat loss
• Gorging on plentiful food in autumn, to build fat layers
• Fluffing of feathers to create air pockets
• Shivering, for increased metabolism
• Roosting in clusters for shared warmth

Birds are also able to take in winter sunshine by turning their backs to it and spreading their feathers. At night, they tuck their beaks under their wings and crouch low over their feet to retain heat. Sometimes they go into a state of torpor, in which body temperature drops radically and metabolism lowers to conserve calories, although this also increases risk of predation.

So yes, the birds of our region are built to survive winter conditions quite well without our help—except when they can’t. Many suffer. We can help.

Calories count
As remarkably adapted as they are, many birds suffer and/or die every winter in direct response to weather patterns and the habitat available. Imagine trying to maintain a normal body temperature (105°F) when the wind is blowing and the thermometer reads fifteen degrees. It’s most difficult for small birds—picture the tiny core volume in proportion to the amount of outer surface area. During just one cold night, that little bird body can use up to ten percent of its weight and should replace that during the day.

While fat reserves can help the small creature survive for a couple of frigid days, an extended cold spell is often disastrous.

Meanwhile, foraging for food in the wild may require four to six hours of effort a day. What a difference it makes if a bird can find nutritious food in a safe location, protected from the wind.

Birds benefit from our help in other ways, as well. With winter bird feeder support, many species produce more eggs per clutch and sometimes a second clutch per season. Deanne Cunningham (no relation to the author), bird photographer and bird-feeding hobbyist for many decades, says, “I know I make a difference. In the spring, so many birds raise their young in and around my yard that I know my feeders are an attraction. In winter at the feeders, I see cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, goldfinches, juncos, blue jays, a variety of sparrows, both hairy and downy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, and mourning doves, and they feed most intensely when a storm is coming.”

Bird expert Marilyn O’Connell (owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, McKinley Parkway in Blasdell) also reports especially exciting sightings and higher intensity at the feeders this year. The summer drought and early freezes depleted natural food sources in Canada as well as here. Birds— siskins, and red-breasted nuthatches among them—are looking for food farther south of their range, according to O’Connell.

Serving up the food and drink
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Rodale Institute, and other science-based resources all maintain these key points on how to help birds (and do no harm).
Provide high quality seeds and fats: When the insects and fruits of summer are gone, birds seek seeds and fat. Quality bird feeding includes high-calorie and high-fat sources, such as sunflower, safflower, or thistle seeds and nuts. And they all love suet.

Feed high, feed low: Some birds (juncos, sparrows, mourning doves, and sometimes woodpeckers) eat on the ground and like low platforms. Higher feeding trays and raised or hanging feeders please the others. All feeders should be sheltered from wind, with nearby shrubs or trees for escape, and at least seven feet of open space in all directions for protection from predators.

Be timely and consistent: Feed all winter, but don’t be afraid to feed just because  you’ll miss once in a while. While consistent feeding is ideal, birds make the rounds of many feeders and other foraging locations, so your holiday trip won’t ruin their lives.

Water is equally important: A bird can melt snow to drink, but that uses precious calories, so figure out some way to provide unfrozen water. Simple de-icers may suffice for your birdbath or water garden, but the simplest method is to use high quality, heated bird baths from bird supply stores. A heated birdbath makes for happy birds.

Provide shelter, whether manmade or natural: Ideally you have planted native, berrying shrubs around your yard, and a variety of evergreens for safety and roosting. Some birds will use roosting boxes or bird houses for warmth.

Keep it clean: There is one way our bird-feeding hobby can hurt birds. Disease spreads easily when there is a dense population of birds, defecation that isn’t cleaned up, and moldy or decaying food. Brush off and hose the area; use a non-toxic five-percent disinfecting cleaner; refresh birdbath water; use smaller feeders and fill them more frequently.

Messages from bird lovers

I asked both experts and hobbyists what they want to tell beginning bird watchers and food providers. Several stressed the value of providing water—especially if it’s trickling, bubbling, or dripping. Also, plant shrubs, both evergreen and berrying: serviceberry, Aronia, elderberry, blueberry, winterberry, chokecherry, crabapple.  

Experienced hobbyists also advise using quality products. Instead of buying cheap feeders that the squirrels chew through, buy better ones. Deanne Cunningham says, “There are a few really good squirrel-proof feeders; expensive, but they will save money on seed in the long run, and they have lifetime warranties. When I have squirrel damage, parts are always replaced promptly and without charge.”

Top quality feed is essential, too. O’Connell cites research material concerning chickadees that lose ten percent of their weight on cold nights. During a period of ten-degree nights, the chickadees with access to high-calorie food had a seventy-nine percent survival rate, compared to twenty-nine percent survival among birds that had to forage. O’Connell also points out that cities that ban bird feeding really enforce it only when a problem erupts—another reason to use high quality seed (or hull-less seed for ground feeding) because there is less waste to attract rats and raccoons.

Most of all, those of us who feed birds want to share our passion because it’s a joy. Watching from the window of a warm house as the birds flit to the feeders and flutter in the water makes us happy. We can provide a small kindness to some exquisite creatures so unlike ourselves. They are cold, hungry, thirsty, and looking for shelter—and look what we have provided!                             


Sally Cunningham is a horticulturist, landscape consultant (CNLP), and director of the National Garden Festival; she feeds birds at her East Aurora home.

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