Winter is hard on everyone, but imagine being a tiny ball of feathers living outside all the time, struggling to find food, water and shelter in the icy temperatures, not certain if the coming dark night will be your last. For birds, winter can be the most lethal time of their lives, and this fact was what led former US politician John Porter to address Congress one cold late February afternoon in 1994. Highlighting the “entertaining, educational, and inexpensive” aspects of setting out food for birds, he reminded those in attendance that the birds have a truly sorry time trying to survive during winter, with February often being the harshest month after weeks of plummeting temperatures and food becoming more and more scarce. Importantly, to persuade those whose sympathies may not lie always with animals, he pointed out the sheer benefit that bird feeding and watching can bring to the everyday American, taking time out to do something that was not only inherently good and compassionate, but also birdwatching helps you relax, and helps encourage young and old alike to understand the world of nature through simple and direct means. His speech was very well received and from that year on, each February is declared National Bird Feeding Month, and many organisations have tips and information to help you get involved, including the National Bird Feeding Society (NBFS).
Spring is the time when birds begin their mating rituals and fly head-first into breeding season. It’s also the time of year when migrants will be returning, exhausted and in need of food straight away. This vital part of a bird’s life cycle requires enormous amounts of energy, but every winter many birds don’t make it out the other side, meaning the populations are under even more pressure to recover. Those that did come through will be in desperate need of sustenance to further the family line. The choice of February to become bird feeding month was very astute, as this prompted large-scale action of people putting out food right across the nation just before the rigours of breeding season begin. That act is literally a difference between life and death for generations to come.
For birds, winter can be the most lethal time of their lives
We’ve put together a list of things that are good to know so that you too can take part.
#1 Choose Your Feeder
Bird feeders come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and designs. There are platform feeders, tube feeders, mesh feeders, coconut feeders, hanging feeders, pole feeders, feeders that stick to your window; all have different appeal to different species of birds. When deciding which one to get, it’s always best to focus on function over form. There are many cute and brightly coloured contraptions out there and there’s nothing wrong with bringing a bit of colour to your yard, but just make sure whatever you get has a few particular things: your feeder must be easy to clean, easy to refill, and no sharp edges, small holes or tight spaces that can snag a bird’s foot, and preferably one with a cover so that if it rains then the food won’t rot.
#2 The More the Merrier
It’s always best to have more than one feeder. Once word gets out that you’ve got an all-you-can-eat buffet going on, it’s going to get very busy, and having too many birds at a feeder can be a bad thing. Diseases can be easily transmitted between birds at feeders, so it’s wise to get a few and space them out to keep crowding down, and everyone will get a look in safely and cleanly. Remember to clean your feeder every week using a solution of 10 parts water 1 part bleach, and let it dry thoroughly before putting it back out.
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#3 DIY Feeding
Making your own bird feeder is an excellent project and can cost very little. Who doesn’t love a power tool? There are all sorts of easy DIY plans online, from simply pushing a wooden spoon or sturdy stick through a plastic drinks bottle with a seed hole cut out and hanging it up, to elaborate and palatial platform feeders with gable ends and balconies and a ship’s crow’s nest on top. Let your imagination run wild and see who can design the best feeder. Be aware of what materials you use, though, as it will need to be durable in bad weather, easy to clean, and take a beating from any falls, storms, or pesky squirrels.
#4 Kids and Birding
This is a perfect opportunity to involve the kids too. Teaching the next generation about nature and the part that birds play in the world is one of the most important steps you can take to help the world with bird conservation, as well as foster love, respect and compassion towards animals. Encouraging a love of birds also helps get the kids outdoors, too, and helps them deal with socialising and interacting with their peers. Studies have shown that learning how to ID birds and understand their behavior boosts short-term memory and engenders critical thinking skills. Plus, birds are beautiful, and the simple pleasure of seeing them can brighten anyone’s day.
#5 Know Your Birds
Learn which birds are most likely to be in your neighbourhood. Most urban spaces will attract many songbirds, and people who live near woodlands can get visits from woodpeckers, flickers, and jays. Farmland can bring its own range of birds not seen elsewhere like buntings, pipits and larks. Some folks may even be well-placed enough to have owls or other birds of prey come by. Different species will enjoy different foods – some will be seed- and grain-eaters and others will love fruit such as apples, bananas, and raisins. Some birds love hard cheeses, many adore suet and fat, and peanuts are energy rich and great at this time of year, but remember to crush peanuts as it takes just as much energy to break them apart as they supply. You can never go wrong with sunflower and safflower seeds, and better yet use sunflowerhearts; again, the shells take energy to break open, although black seeds have thinner shells and are perfect with having the highest beneficial oil content. If you have hummingbirds in your area, the nectar mixture should be 4 parts water to 1 part sugar. Providing a range of food means you could get some surprising dinner guests.
Your feeder must be easy to clean, easy to refill, and no sharp edges
#6 Nature’s Food Cupboard
Always try to provide a natural habitat wherever you can. Supplying feeders and store-bought food or even food from your own cupboard is a great way to help the birds, but if you have the space then there’s nothing better you can do than provide nature’s harvest. There are many native plants that you can include in your yard or garden that produce plentiful food during the winter. Many insect-feeding birds also turn to fruits at this time of year, and what’s more, the berries on many plants will have turned soft and mushy, easier to eat. Bayberry is loved by swallows, warblers, and woodpeckers, chokeberry is the go-to fruit for crows, finches, and thrushes, and you can’t go wrong with holly. The aptly named American beautyberry is an excellent choice as those fruits can stay around well into the winter, and birds like quails, robins, and brown thrashers will thank you for them.
#7 Sharing is Caring
As this month is about sharing the love to birds, encouraging others to join in can’t be any simpler than posting your pictures or videos on social media. Many organisations often have bird watching contests around this time of year too, and you can encourage children and adults to get their competitive shine on. How many different species do you see at your feeders? Are there more of one type than another? You can also upload any images you get to the NBFS web pages here (you’ll need to create an account, but its free) and join others in celebrating the beauty and diversity of America’s birds.
Remember to crush peanuts as it takes just as much energy to break them apart as it supplies
Enjoy National Bird Feeding Month, and if you’re reading this from outside of the US, don’t let that stop you! Join in too. We hope you get as much pleasure as we do out of feeding the birds, knowing you’ve done what you can to get them through those winter nights and help them build up their energy levels in time for some essential activity in the warmth and welcome of Spring. It won’t be long now!