Many different species of birds winter in Wisconsin, making backyard bird watching a favorite pastime of many. Armed with camera and/or binoculars, the backyard enthusiast can spend enjoyable hours observing and learning. The bird watcher can even benefit the birds themselves, as long as the feed is high quality and delivered regularily and with due care.
“If people want to feed birds in their back yard, that’s great. It’s like the number-two outdoor hobby in the country behind gardening,” Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Jeremy Holtz said.
This time of year, expect to attract the hardier birds. Northwoods residents such as chickadees, nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos and maybe even some cardinals.
“A lot of migratory birds are gone, so it’s going to be our year-round residents,” Holtz said.
There are two main types of food you can provide that will attract birds to your yard – seed and suet.
Grains such as sunflower seeds, milo millet and corn are common backyard bird fare.
“You want to use good high-quality feed that doesn’t use a lot of fillers,” Holtz said.
Black oil sunflower seeds are among the best and attract a wide variety of our winter birds, such as chickadees, blue jays, evening grosbeaks, pine siskins, nuthatches, dark-eyed juncos and cardinals. Holtz also recommends thistle seed. Both are high in crude fat. Black oil seeds have thin shells that are easy for birds to crack open – meaning little energy is expended getting at the nut.
Some birds, such as blue jays, prefer corn. Of course, be aware that corn is very attractive to deer, raccoons and many other wild animals. It can be offered cracked or whole-kernel. Don’t offer the red-dyed kernels meant for planting – they are treated with a toxic fungicide.
Suet is animal fat and can offer a replacement for the small critters, such as worms and insects, that birds can readily find during the warmer months.
Suet will attract many bird species, including jays, nuthatches and chickadees. It is especially attractive to woodpeckers such as the diminutive downy woodpecker and the somewhat larger hairy woodpecker, which are common Northwoods residents. In fact, if you want to watch woodpeckers, suet is the way to go.
“They’ll come in, but you need to put a suet block for those birds. You’ve got to put out, basically, a block of fat,” Holtz said. “Sometimes it’s got some seeds in it, but if you want to see woodpeckers, that’s pretty much what you want to put out. Those will attract squirrels too, so you’ve got to be prepared for that.”
Suet is best used in winter as it can get rancid quickly in warmer weather.
Peanut butter is a good choice for cold-weather feeding. Some table scraps, such as bread, are enjoyed by many species of birds. Do not put out spoiled food for birds, and keep feeding areas clean.
“Clean your bird feeders often,” Holtz said. “Make sure they’re clean and well-tended so they’re not likely to transmit diseases.”
Birds can get sick from moldy food and can transmit diseases such as salmonella, which was recently confirmed in a small number of pine siskins from Dane County. Some pointers to keep in mind:
• Shake a feeder before refilling it to dislodge old, wet, compacted seed.
• Clean hulls from seed trays and platform feeders daily.
• Wash your hands after cleaning bird feeders.
• When it’s wet outside, large amounts of seed can become wet on platform feeders. Feed with covered feeders or place only small amounts out at a time.
Don’t forget about it. If you’re providing birds with food during winter months, they may start to depend on your offerings as a regular food source.
“It’s a great opportunity to bring wildlife in close where you can see it but in order to take care of wildlife there’s precautions,” Holtz said. Pets, for instance. Watch your cat.
A loose cat is likely to set up and ambush from a nearby spot and pounce on feeding birds. Wisconsin cats kill an estimated 39 million birds each year, according to DNR numbers.
“If you have cats, you don’t want to feed on the ground or in a spot where the cat can get to it – you don’t want the cats picking-off your birds,” Holtz said.
Birds of prey, such as hawks and owls may likewise watch from nearby, hoping to make a meal out of a feeding bird. It helps to place feeders near trees, bushes, or brush piles so the birds have places to quickly take refuge. Baffles (cone-shaped barriers) above and wire cages around feeders are possible deterrents.
Other animals such as squirrels and raccoons are likely to raid bird feeders and can consume seed rapidly. Raccoons will often destroy a feeder to get at its contents. Baffles on feeder poles or over the top of hanging feeders may help.
The National Bird Feeding Society website (www.birdfeeding.org) offers things like tips on attracting birds, feed mixes, and the best feeder types. Holtz recommends the site.
“A lot of people tell me they don’t know what’s a good trustworthy website and what’s not. You know – free advice is worth what you pay for it. But over the years, as I’ve checked, this website ... has some of the best information.”
References: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; Cornell.edu.
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org