By Emily Huang, Croydon Creek Nature Center

A bright red cardinal flutters in for a rest and a bite to eat. His feathers fluff in the cold wind, and his black eyes gleam as he turns his head this way and that. In a flash, he’s gone, and a large handsome blue jay lands on the feeder. Just above, a dapper black, white and gray chickadee waits her turn. It’s avian breakfast time and the neighborhood birds know where to go for a reliable treat, a possible lifesaver on the iciest winter days.

Why feed birds in the winter? Perhaps the main reason is the sheer pleasure of colorful, lively scenes like these, when the days are short and the skies are dim. It salves the heart, something we all particularly need in this pandemic season. Another reason is that, although wild birds can and do find their own food, it can be particularly difficult for them on the coldest days, especially during and after storms. Given how negatively human activities have impacted birds — studies show North American bird populations have declined by 29% in the past 50 years — it is deeply satisfying to help just a few more survive the winter.

Getting started on your bird feeding adventure couldn’t be simpler. Many local and online stores offer a variety of wild bird feed, particularly seeds. Most of the songbirds that winter in Maryland eat plant seeds, as summer insects are off the menu, and the most widely appreciated seed you can offer is black-oil sunflower seed. High in nutrients, this seed is sought by sparrows, finches, nuthatches, cardinals, chickadees and even woodpeckers. Supplement the sunflower seed with commercially available suet (beef fat) cakes for woodpeckers, chickadees and wrens, and you should attract quite a variety of birds to your yard. On the other hand, if black-oil sunflower is a bit too expensive for your budget, never fear. You may also choose to offer less expensive seed varieties, such as striped sunflower, millet or mixed seed, fruit or mealworms for fruit/insect eaters, such as mockingbirds and bluebirds, or roasted (unsalted) peanuts, an outstanding treat for all manner of wildlife.

Of course, you will need feeders to serve all this good food. Certainly, you can make great feeders from recycled materials (https://www.audubon.org/news/how-make-diy-bird-feeder-recycled-materials), but if you are serious about feeding wild birds, a good commercial feeder is more durable, can waste less by deterring pests and is easier to keep clean. (Yes, you need to keep feeders clean! See below.) The most basic type of feeder is a platform feeder, essentially a flat open box in which you can serve seed, nuts, fruit or mealworms. For offering seed, another good option is a tube feeder, which holds the seed in a hollow cylinder and has perches at the dispensing holes. For suet, use metal suet cages, which are so inexpensive that I recycle and buy new ones every year. Hang your feeders from the branches of a small tree or from a feeder pole. Position them, if possible, somewhat near sheltering trees or bushes, but not so close as to provide cover for a sneaking predator — 10 feet away, more or less. Also, keep in mind that high-speed window collisions kill more than 100 million birds a year; conservationists say bird feeders are best placed either within 3 feet of windows or more than 30 feet away.

It may be tempting, once you have a well-arranged setup, to just let the winter go by without taking down the feeders to clean them. Please don’t do this! It is truly better to have one feeder that you can properly maintain than to have many dirty feeders that could spread disease. Cleaning doesn’t have to be difficult. Every two weeks or so, take down your feeders, empty out the seed hulls and debris, and wash with dish soap or vinegar and hot water. Some birdfeeders can even be cleaned in your dishwasher (see the manufacturer instructions). Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry before putting the feeders back up. Tip: I have several feeders to use in rotation, so I can immediately replace the one I take down yet take my time to do the cleaning.

Aside from food, another great gift we can give our avian friends during winter is — water. Clean fresh water for drinking and bathing is at a premium on cold days, and if you choose to set up a bird bath near your feeders, you will likely get customers. Nothing beats watching a bird frolic in the bath; it’s an instant mood lifter. A plastic bird bath can be bought cheaply, but repurposing a clean trashcan lid or shallow pan as a bath may be just as good as getting a commercial one. Just make sure the bath is shallow, as you don’t want to fill it with more than an inch or so, set it on the ground (where birds are used to finding water), and refresh every couple days. And — oh yes — don’t forget to clean that bath every week too.

It’s not always joyful at the feeders, of course. Here are a few common issues that people raise when asking about feeding birds:

  1. What can I do about squirrels eating my bird seed? Or house sparrows, etc.? Squirrels and other mammals are best deterred by placing baffles on your feeder poles. Torpedo-shaped baffles are effective, but the more common cone baffles can work as well. Also, some feeders are designed to be squirrel-proof with a weight-triggered closing mechanism. As for non-native house sparrows, some interesting homemade solutions exist (search for “magic halo”), but it’s probably best for your peace of mind to simply accept some house sparrows at the feeder.
  2. I just saw a hawk take a bird at my feeder. What can I do? Hawks are natural predators in the environment. It may be upsetting but try to appreciate the important role that hawks play in the ecosystem, as well as to enjoy their true majestic beauty.
  3. I just saw a cat take a bird at my feeder. What can I do? Domestic cats are not a natural part of the environment and, unfortunately, it’s estimated they kill more than 2 billion birds in the U.S. annually. Keep your pet cats indoors and place your feeders about 10 feet away from thick shrubs that can hide an approaching feline.

If you already feed winter birds and all the above is familiar news, you might be asking whether there is anything else you can do for birds this winter. Here are two last ideas: report your feeder sightings to a scientific database and plan a spring project: a native plant garden! Project FeederWatch (https://feederwatch.org/) is a program sponsored by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology that makes reporting feeder birds easy, or you can simply join eBird.org for free and report your bird observations whenever you have the time. Your reported bird sightings will help to advance bird science and conservation efforts across the U.S. Or, for a more personal gift to the birds, consider adding to your garden a few native plants that offer food and shelter — a tremendous enhancement for your feeder station. Planning tools are available at https://www.audubon.org/native-plants and https://patterson.audubon.org/programs/bird-friendly-communities.

This winter, we’re all more limited than we’d like to be. We need company, we need contact with nature, we need purpose — we need hope. Enjoying wildlife can assuage all these needs. So, think about bright flowers to plant in the spring, watch the birds at your new and existing feeders, make a little contribution to science — and see how quickly those gray days pass by!