winter bird feeding – to feed or not to feed?

It’s always been more or less conventional wisdom that feeding wild birds in winter ups their survival rate because their normal sources of food – seeds and insects – are greatly diminished. But is this wisdom correct? Some challenge this thinking, saying that feeding the birds makes them overly dependent on human handouts and weakens their ability to find food on their own. So what’s a bird-lover to do?

These questions aren’t easily answered, but a three-year study of black-capped chickadees by the University of Wisconsin found that during harsh winters, survival rates were higher when chickadees have both feeder and natural food options; where winters were more moderate, there were no significant differences in survival rates.

Since the late 1800s, many species including tufted titmice, northern cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatches have been expanding their range northward (following the settlers), some making it as far as southern Canada. Evidence bears out that bird feeding played a role in that expansion. Clearly, in these colder climates, supplemental feeding can be important, if not critical, to bird survival.

Nuthatches visit both suet and seed feeders

Tufted titmice are also regular visitors to our feeders

While it would seem “free” food would be irresistible to birds, some of our Virginia resident species, such as mockingbirds and phoebes, tend to shy away from seed feeders, choosing natural food sources instead.

This mockingbird is warning intruders to stay out of his winter food territory. He is protecting several berry bushes nearby.

These species, however, don’t shun feeders altogether. Phoebes have been known to visit mealworm feeders and mockingbirds occasionally come to suet feeders; however, I’ve never had either species come to my feeders. How about you? What atypical visitors have you seen at your feeders?

It’s true that feeders can put birds at risk by increasing their exposure to predators like cats and hawks. But it’s also true that birds that visit feeders eat more in less time than they would in the wild, giving them more time to watch for predators. In addition, birds that frequent feeders where they know cats are nearby keep a watchful eye for the felines and send out the danger signal to other birds when any predator is spotted. You can minimize the risk by keeping cats indoors or placing feeders where they are inaccessible to cats.

Feeders can also cause bird collisions with windows because they lure birds closer to houses and other buildings. One way to minimize collisions is to add tape or decals to your windows so birds won’t fly into them. Distance also plays a role, so place feeders far enough from windows so there is less chance that startled or frightened birds will fly into them.

If you choose to feed the birds this winter, remember that they will be relying on you when the weather turns harsh. The consequences can be disastrous if you suddenly stop, so once you start filling the feeders, continue through until winter’s end. If you are away over the holidays, ask a friend or neighbor to fill your feeders while you’re gone.

What am I going to do? Although I don’t start supplemental feeding until the first snow or hard frost (usually around mid-November), I’m going to feed the birds, as I always do. During periods of heavy snow, ice, or extreme cold, birds have a difficult time finding food and bird feeders can mean the difference between life and death. For me, it’s a no-brainer.


worth the wait

We missed our morning walk yesterday because of on and off thunderstorms throughout the day, and it’s amazing how much around the farm can change in just a couple of days. Moth mullein, for example, is just breaking out in blooms. This European import is common in our fields. Its delicate blooms are lovely and quite popular with pollinators.

Common milkweed (shown below), another flower popular with pollinators, is starting to form the seed pods that will dry this fall and expose layers of seeds with tufts of long silky hairs.

The berries on the autumn olive bushes are turning red. One of the blogs I follow suggests picking the berries for eating now or preserving when fully ripened ( I’m definitely going to try some of their suggestions.

Swamp milkweed is finally blooming in the low area of the front field. We’ve been waiting for the flowers to open and they are gorgeous! This picture shows the flowers in various stages of bloom. The flowers don’t last long, but they are appreciated by all the bees, butterflies, wasps, and other pollinators that visit them.

On the way back, we stopped to see if we could find some ripe blackberries, which are usually scavenged by wildlife before we can pick them. I guess the storms kept the berry-lovers at bay because there were a few ripe berries here and there, and Autumn and I scrambled to see who could get them first! (I managed to get a few and we enjoyed them in our cereal for breakfast.)

The saying that ‘some things are worth waiting for’ couldn’t be truer. The gorgeous blooms of the swamp milkweed, the red berries of the autumn olive, and enjoying blackberries with our breakfast were definitely worth the wait!

very berry summer

I’m excited that the wild berries around the farm are almost ready to harvest. With all the rain, the blackberries are big and plentiful. We’ll be picking them in a few days for blackberry jam and a pie or two.

Autumn loves blackberries, too. She plays a little game where she watches me and if I make a move toward a big, fat ripe berry, she dives in and tries to get to it first! Callie, on the other hand, is much too interested in rousting rabbits, skinks, and voles from their hiding places to pay attention to berries.

The wineberries won’t be ready for a couple of weeks, but they promise to be very tasty. Of course, we’ll be in competition with the deer, snakes, birds, and other critters once they ripen – I know the animals have been keeping a watchful eye on their progress by all the little trails beneath the vines!

We’ve had a lot of thunder storms this summer and one is closing in as we make our way back to the house. We got high winds from the last one, so I’m hoping this one will be more benign.

Today, I spotted this tiny hummingbird egg at the edge of my rock garden in the front yard (that’s a quarter next to it). For the life of me, I can’t imagine how the mother bird feeds babies that are no bigger than the tip of my little finger!

One more interesting tidbit – the seeds of sweet woodruff from our old house must have been attached to the bottom of this goose when we moved. We had a bunch of it in our front yard and somehow it survived the move and sprouted from underneath the statue.

Here’s the mascot of AutumnSong watching over the farm.

“Discovering this idyllic place, we find ourselves filled with a yearning to linger here, where time stands still and beauty overwhelms.” — Unknown