If you’re looking for an enjoyable and satisfying safe-at-home hobby for the whole family, you might want to try feeding your backyard feathered friends! Winter is a time when our avian neighbors count on us more than ever to help them with nutritious food to get them through the cold months. If you enjoy watching birds, this is a great time to bring them close so you can learn to identify them while enjoying their antics. There are several things you can do to help them through winter, including providing food, water, and shelter.
Kristi Lane and her husband Wes, own Wild Birds Unlimited in Las Cruces and they have years of experience helping bird lovers set up safe areas in their yards for our feathered friends. According to Kristi, backyard bird feeding is the fastest-growing hobby after gardening. (The Santa Fe Wild Birds Unlimited is located at 518-B Cordova Road.)
You need four things to give you a great start to feeding and enjoying the birds in your backyard, especially in the winter. Three of them are for the birds: water, food, and shelter. The fourth? A field guide. According to John Douglas, Mesilla Valley Audubon Society member and a “serious birder” for more than 40 years, “Apps are fine, but if you have a bird book, you can learn birds by sitting there and looking through the pages while you watch them — all of a sudden you will say, ‘Huh, I think I know what that bird is!’ That’s how I learned.” A field guide will also help you identify birds in their winter plumage, which can sometimes be quite different from bright breeding plumage. Binoculars, although not essential for feeding birds, will help you see identifying field marks and increase your enjoyment even more.
Kristi says water always attracts birds, and a birdbath doesn’t need to be fancy —even a saucer on the ground will work. Make sure the water is no more than a few inches deep, as most birds like to touch the bottom while bathing. (Robins are an exception, and enjoy somewhat deeper birdbaths.) Birds need water both to drink and to keep their feathers clean. Clean feathers mean a warm bird, as feathers act like air pockets, keeping the warmer air next to their little bodies.
In the winter, you may find a ceramic birdbath will freeze and crack, although a birdbath heater can help prevent that. Heaters keep the water from freezing, and turn off when the water temperature is just a bit warmer than 32 degrees. Kristi says it’s a myth that birdbath heaters cause birds’ feathers to freeze — birds fluff and shake and get the water off, and there’s nothing left to freeze.
A consistently full bird feeder becomes a reliable source of sustenance and, especially in bad weather, bird feeders can make a real difference to their survival. Bird food high in fat is especially helpful in winter. Even though it doesn’t get bitterly cold here, the nights are long, and birds aren’t feeding as long or as much — but they still use up to 75 percent of their fat stores per night. Studies show birds with regular access to feeders are healthier, have better feather growth, more successful reproduction, and better disease immunity.
John notes that, “In winter the insect eaters go away and the seed eaters are who you will mostly see.” Kristi suggests an easy way to get introduced to backyard bird feeding is to use the Flying Start® combo feeder, which includes seeds, suet, fruit, and nuts in one feeding station. This way, you get an idea of who comes in and what food attracts them.
When you are ready to up your bird feeding game, try using different varieties of suet dough. Wild Bird Unlimited sells Bark Butter® Bits, which are high in fat, protein, and calcium to help feather production during the winter. Winter SuperBlend® is formulated with the highest fat content of any seed blend, and specifically formulated for winter bird feeding. Quail Block and No-Mess Blends attract ground feeders without leaving shells strewn about. Kristi cautions against birdseed that contains milo, wheat, or oats. Doves love all of these, but other birds will kick it out of the feeder to get to the good stuff (like sunflower seeds).
Of course, putting out birdbaths and bird feeders means the added but extremely important chore of keeping them clean. Kristi suggests rinsing out birdbaths once per week using a brush and a 10 – 1 water and white vinegar solution (or a 10 – 1 water and bleach solution if the bath or feeder is really dirty) every couple of weeks or so. Make sure to rinse really well and let it air dry before refilling. Kristi admits it’s a little harder to do in the winter, but it needs to be done. Feeders should be cleaned about once per month using the same vinegar and water or bleach and water solution.
Finally, providing shelter is as simple as stacking some branches and brush in a corner of your back yard, which provides protection from both the wind and from predators. Of course, incorporating native trees and plants into your landscape will provide both shelter and food for birds (and other pollinators).
If you attract birds to your yard, you’ll want to keep them safe. First, your feeder and birdbath should be kept far away from any place an opportunistic cat could lie in wait (please consider keeping cats indoors!). Second, take action to prevent window strikes. When you add food and water to your backyard, you will attract not only local avian inhabitants, but also migrant birds passing through the area (Las Cruces is on the Central Flyway). Migrants don’t know about windows — they only see the reflection of your yard and the sky. Many options are available to prevent window strikes, such as decals, feather guards, and liquid UV that you use to draw grids on your window — birds see it, but we (mostly) don’t.
Finally, don’t be frustrated if you can’t identify all of the birds — sometimes not even the experts can. Get some help so that you start off on the right foot. One woman new to feeding birds agrees: “Start off by looking at birds in your neighborhood. Wild Birds Unlimited is a great resource for information. They are knowledgeable, and talked to me about the different birds that are native to our area and feeding options. You don’t have to go fast with feeding. Start out with a small feeder and see how it goes. You can bird watch and feed birds at your own pace. It’s turned into great fun for me.”
Follow Wild Birds Unlimited (@WildBirdsUnlimited) on Facebook and visit Sangre de Cristo Audubon Society to learn more about identifying birds in your backyard and beyond.
Written by Elaine Stachera Simon • Photography courtesy Wild Birds Unlimited and by Cheryl Fallstead
Adapted from a story originally published in Neighbors magazine