The snow is deep and the night temperature dropped a long way below freezing. But as the sun rises over the horizon, the chickadees, cardinals, and sparrows emerge from the pile of evergreen branches and alight on the feeder. Nearby, a family watches their feathered neighbors from the window. While wildlife of the northern climes have developed many adaptations to deal with more extreme winter conditions, their human neighbors can lend a helping hand. This includes both bird feeders and brush piles to provide shelter.
While birds vary by region, wintering birds often include jays, chickadees, doves, nuthatches, sparrows, juncos, and woodpeckers. Zac Cota, the teacher-naturalist and volunteer coordinator for North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, VT said birdfeeders are a help to many species in winter. He said the best types of food varied by species, but in general black oil sunflower seeds and suet were good foods to put out. In addition, he mentioned that thistle is preferred by many finches, though it can spoil easily. In an online presentation of April 2020, Cota said it is a good idea to check the ratio of ingredients in seed mixes and recommended avoiding millet, cracked corn, and sorghum because they did not have much nutritional value. The National Audubon Society includes a recipe for suet on their website, though they say it should not be put out if temperatures are above 50 degrees. (See recipe at the bottom of the page). Cota concurred and said that suet that contained animal fat could spoil in warmer temperatures and therefore, not be healthy for birds but he said people should check information on recipes.
In addition to providing food, shelter from the cold and wind is also important. Both the National Wildlife Federation and the National Audubon Society suggest evergreens or brush piles. The National Audubon Society suggests putting logs on the bottom and layering branches on top.
As stated at the beginning, mammals and birds in northern areas have evolved many adaptations for winter conditions and Cota acknowledged some “ethical considerations” in bird feeding. However he also stated that people have had a negative impact on many bird populations. The State of the Birds Report 2019 published by the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, which is a coalition of 29 federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations and bird focused partnerships, stated that forest birds have declined by 22% since 1970. While it may seem that putting out feeders and brush piles is only for wildlife, the benefits are twofold. Cota said providing feeders is also an opportunity for community science, such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is run by Cornell University and goes from February 12 -15. He said people can go to birdcount.org to learn how to participate and submit information. He also said that such activities create greater empathy and everyone benefits when people have a chance to “slow down, breathe deeply and connect with nature.”
Audubon Suet Recipe:
1 1/2 cups shortening
3/4 cup nut butter
3 1/2 cups wild birdseed
1 cup quick oats
1/2 cup cornmeal
Mix dry ingredients and set aside. Combine shortening and nut butter in a separate bowl and melt. Pour melted mixture over dry ingredients and stir until combined. Freeze for 1-2 hours and put suet in feeder. Enjoy the wildlife in the winter!