Old man winter is holding a tight grasp onto the first days of March and doesn’t want to let go. He is doing his best to remind us of his powers with subfreezing temperatures, snow, hail and hard blowing, biting winds. It is hard enough for us to endure, but even worse for wildlife and birds, especially at the tail end of the season.
This is the time when they are the most vulnerable. Food stores in the natural world are gone, their body fat is waning and endurance diminished. You can make a difference to their comfort, and even survival with backyard bird feeding.
The most important thing to know is that you get what you pay for. It may be tempting to buy a 20-pound bag of wild bird seed mix for $8, but as the old adage states, “buyer beware.” The majority of that seed is white and red millet. These seeds will attract the non-desirables such as English sparrows, starlings and pigeons.
Different seed types attract different bird species and require different styles of feeders. Probably the best all-round birdseed is sunflower hearts, or chips. Buying just the hearts prevents the messy build-up of shells and they are very nutritious.
Sunflower hearts appear to be more costly, but because you are not paying for the bulk of the hulls, there is less weight and less waste. Purchasing sunflower heart chips are less expensive and still have all of the benefits of the whole hearts.
Sunflower hearts can be used in most feeder types including hoppers, tube feeders and platform feeders. They will also attract desirable species of songbirds including cardinals, titmice, nuthatches, grosbeaks, wrens, finches and even woodpeckers. If your budget cannot quite reach for the hearts, then black oil sunflower seeds are the next best choice.
Niger seed (or thistle) is often used to attract goldfinches and used only in tube feeders or special feeders. The seed is so light that if used in other feeders it will blow away. Niger seed is the most expensive of the seed types, but the results can be quite rewarding. Some tube feeders are made just for Niger seed with the hole below the perch. Goldfinches are the only birds that can hang upside down to eat the seed making bird watching even more entertaining.
To attract ground feeding birds like desirable sparrows (white-throated, gold-crowned, fox, Lincoln’s and others) use a platform feeder. Seeds like sunflower hearts and cracked corn work well for platform feeders. Be careful though, cracked corn can sometimes attract crows, blue jays, cowbirds and blackbirds. If this happens, you can stop feeding for a few days until they leave and then begin again without the cracked corn.
Don’t forget suet cakes and raw peanuts for the woodpeckers, sapsuckers, nuthatches, wrens and others.
Maintaining a bird feeding station throughout the winter months will not only help provide seed to birds when other naturally supplied seeds have been depleted, but also bring color on gray days lifting spirits and making connections with us to nature.
Lynn Youngblood is the executive director of the Blue River Watershed Association in Kansas City, Missouri.
You can reach her at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net or follow her on Instagram at TheGreenSpaceKC.