Bird feeders fill winter emptiness

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D.S. Pledger
Sunday, January 5, 2014

At this time of year, there isn't a lot to see outside other than bare trees and snow.

That's why we keep a bird feeder going all winter. Then, at least, when we look out the kitchen window, there's some life and color to contrast with the otherwise bleak scenery.

This year we put the feeder out when the weather turned nasty just before rifle season, and I can't remember a year when there has been more birds. There are at least a dozen chickadees in addition to nuthatches, cardinals, titmice, juncos, blue jays, mourning doves, goldfinches and woodpeckers.

The big bag of sunflower seeds in the basement is empty, and it looks like I'll be making many more trips to the feed store if this keeps up all winter.

I'll supplement the seeds during the subzero days with some suet and fat I saved when I butchered my deer in November.

Suet is that lumpy stuff that forms around the kidneys and loins, and the fat—something my doe had a lot of—is under the hide.

If I wanted to get fancy, I'd purify it by rendering it and pouring it into some kind of mold, but I'm too lazy. I simply cut it into little squares, put it out along with the seeds, and the birds carry it away. Suet is a high-energy food, which goes a long way to keep their metabolism stoked during the cold nights.

Another nonseed favorite are the bits of black walnuts and hickories that get stuck in a small piece of shell after cracking and aren't worth the effort of digging out. Birds like the nuthatch (how do you suppose he got that name?) are experts at removing them with their bills.

Nuts are also high in fat, and the fragments we put out on the shelf disappear in a hurry.

Just before Christmas, Beth spotted a flicker in the backyard. It was hopping around in the apple tree that, amazingly, still has a number of rather sorry-looking apples clinging to the branches.

The big woodpecker was feeding on one of them and seemed to be enjoying it. Since almost half of a flicker's diet consists of ants and much of the rest of insects, the birds usually disappear before winter sets in.

We were surprised, then, to see one—especially during the big snow we had a couple of weeks ago, even though southern Wisconsin is listed as the very northern edge of the flicker's “year-round” range.

One bird that has a lot of personality is the tufted titmouse. This dapper little gray bird seems to realize where the groceries come from, and if the feeder shelf is empty, he lets us know about it. Whatever room in the house we happen to be in, the titmouse will fly over to the window, perch on the sill, cock its head and look at us with its big black eyes as if to say, “Hey, get over there and put some more seeds out.”

An often-overlooked addition to a feeding station is a winter birdbath. Birds need water, and when most of their sources become frozen over, a bath will attract almost as many birds as a feeder will.

Of course it will have to be heated, but if it's placed close enough to an outside outlet, this is no problem.

One problem I had for years was that the calcium in the water would form on the bath and stick to it as the water evaporated. The scale was very hard to get off, and scrubbing was a task I didn't particularly like doing out in the cold.

I seem to have solved it by saving gallon jugs of rainwater over the summer and then using this naturally soft water in the bath.

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net

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