Overnight lows soon to be in the teens and 20s are a chilly reminder. The winter bird feeding season is here. For a lot of us, it has been here for some time. Whether you feed birds year-round or gear up as the snow flies, birds lock in your location along their daily feeding regimen. They may be summer nesters which stick around longer, migrants passing through or winter arrivals which spend the cold weather months here.
"Fall is the perfect time to go out and get your feeders cleaned, to make sure your water source is in place," recommends Pat Schlarbaum, wildlife diversity technician with the Iowa DNR. "Putting out the water in the fall is a proven strategy to have birds in your backyard."
I keep a sunflower feeder and thistle tube filled most of the year. From there, I follow my "firewood schedule." As I start hauling wood from the stack to the back door, the winter feeders get a soapy-water scrubbing, and regular fill ups. Safflower seed goes out. When the woodstove is fired up for more than three or four days in a row, the wire suet cages are hung and the last few feeders go up-more sunflower, thistle and safflower, maybe peanuts if the squirrels are looking the other way.
"We recommend the black oil sunflower seeds. They are getting pretty pricey, but are worth every penny," advises Schlarbaum. "Cardinals, white-throated sparrows, the more desirable songbirds all like sunflower seeds. With peanuts for the tufted titmice and nyger (thistle) for the finches, you'll have a full palette of color in your winter backyard."
Sunflower seed has gotten expensive in the last few years. Producers have to decide whether to grow birdseed or high dollar corn or soybeans. It remains, though, a much better choice than the cheaper heavy-on-millet, milo or grain mixes.
Also, consider the quality of the seed. Fat content is important. Serious birders swear they've seen songbirds sorting through seed. The cheaper stuff ends up on the ground. Compare the ingredients on the shelves; higher fat content will be worth the price.
Across Iowa, we spend $300 million each year viewing wildlife-primarily bird feeding and bird watching. It is surpassed only by gardening, according to the every-five-year outdoor recreation survey assembled by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
"It just brings the colors of nature to the picture window," says Schlarbaum. "I recommend having those feeders where the family can enjoy them. It's just a great way to enjoy the great outdoors."
Birding "To Do" List
Wash your feeders. Hot water with a 10 percent bleach solution washes away loose, old-possibly moldy-seed and minimizes threat of disease.
Provide open water. A bird bath, with an attached heating element is used for a drink and to splash in, even in cold weather. The quick bath allows birds to "thermoregulate," or stay warm.
Stick with the good stuff. Black oil sunflower, striped sunflower, safflower, nyger thistle, suet and reject peanuts are magnets for the "desirable" songbirds. Cheaper "discount" mixes, heavy on millet, milo or cracked corn, are less desirable.
If you want, scatter the lower-cost mix on the ground to divert sparrows, grackles and other birds away from your feeders.
Squirrels? No squirrels? No peanuts if you want to minimize squirrel traffic. They will pass up safflower, but do eat sunflower seeds. Full service bird feeding stores have squirrel proof feeders or baffles that keep them out.