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Putting out a bird feeder or two can certainly buoy the birds' overall chances of surviving a harsh winter. (photo by R Carner)

Nonmigratory birds depend on us when the weather turns particularly harsh

By Ruthanne Johnson

Not all birds are lucky enough to fly to warmer climes for the winter. Dozens of species stay in Colorado in the cold months, including house finches, goldfinches, nuthatches, chickadees, jays, pine siskins, juncos, and some sparrow and hawk species.

Though birds are survivalists and don’t really need our help, putting out a feeder or two can certainly buoy their overall chances of surviving a harsh winter.  “If birds are used to coming to a feeder and we have a spell where we have really harsh weather, that food could help them survive,” says Steve Frye, owner of Boulder’s Wild Bird Company. “That’s especially true for smaller birds, such as chickadees, who lose heat a lot faster than the larger birds, just like little kids get chilled a lot faster than adults.” When temperatures plummet, chickadees can actually lose a third of their body weight in a single night. The next day becomes vital for finding food to replace that fat. “If they don’t, they will keep going downhill and downhill.”

If you hang a feeder this winter, below are a few simple tips to ensure you are doing right by our winged friends.

A Boulder Bird-Watch

Photos courtesy Wild Bird Company

Tips for feeding birds in winter

“The best all-around food is sunflower seeds,” Frye suggests. “But we have quite a wintering population of dark-eyed juncos here, who really like millet.” Mix the two and fill a hopper or platform feeder. You can also add unsalted peanuts and dried berries.

 Suet is high in fat and protein, and important for birds like nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers and bushtits. But make sure the suet is out of reach of your dog, as eating that much fat will make a dog sick. Contain the suet in a suet cage on a platform feeder so that squirrels can’t get at it either.

 Keep native grasses long and leave the seed heads on garden plants as bird food for the first part of winter, Frye says. If it’s too unkempt for you, cut the seed heads’ stems like you would cut a bouquet of fresh flowers, leaving the stems long. Tie the brown bouquet together and hang it from a fence or tree.

Limit cleanup and trimming of berry plants, such as chokecherries, sumac and viburnum. “Those are good food sources for the birds, especially in late winter and early spring,” Frye says. “My crab apples just sit there and sit there. But around about March, the birds start feeding on them pretty heavy.” Juniper berries are a favorite of cedar waxwings and Townsend solitaires, who come down from the mountains during winter. “Townsend solitaires are juniper specialists and will sing to announce the defense of their trees.” Mountain bluebirds seek out juniper berries when they return to Colorado in March, and robins can’t resist a tasty juniper berry.

 Locate bird feeders where birds can keep an eye out for danger from the ground, “like from a cat,” or from the air, “like from a Cooper’s hawk,” Frye says. “They also need cover, like a nearby bush or evergreen tree, if a hawk shows up.”
Place feeders at least 3 feet from any windows. A 3-foot distance is safe, because the bird isn’t likely to gain enough speed to mortally injure itself if it does hit a window. Thirty or more feet gives the bird time to recognize the window as a barrier and choose an alternate route. “Windows reflect the sky and trees behind them and they think they can fly through them,” Frye says. You can also use special window decals designed for birds to see.

 A heated birdbath or fresh water added to a regular birdbath every morning can help keep birds hydrated during the dry winter months.

 It may be helpful to enlist a neighbor to fill your feeders if you leave town during a cold snap. “The feeder can help them in those really harsh times in terms of their overall winter survival,” Frye says.

Keeping feathered friends full over the winter requires hardly any effort. And you’ll get the benefit of seeing wildlife in your yard during the coldest months.