A popular and favorite hobby among people is watching and feeding birds during the winter. Millions of Americans feed birds around their homes, with many maintaining natural areas and plantings for birds as well. Bird feeding is especially popular in Alabama, where winter migrants, as well as local birds, readily flock to feeders and provide many hours of watching pleasure for backyard birders.
Bird feeding is generally believed to be a winter activity, but it really can be a year-round hobby. Fewer songbirds will use feeders in the summer, but those species that do will reward their human hosts by bringing their new off-spring to the feeders, too.
In Alabama, a few resident seed-eating bird species that regularly visit feeders year-round include: American Goldfinch, Blue Jay, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Brown-headed Cowbird, Northern Cardinal, Chipping Sparrow, House Sparrow, Mourning Dove, White-breasted Nuthatch, Rufous-sided Towhee and maybe pigeons that reside in urban areas.
In addition to these birds, during the fall and winter months you can expect to see migratory birds such as: House Finch, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco, Song Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow.
Other permanent resident Alabama birds occasionally have been seen feeding in backyards near or on feeders, including: Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Carolina Wren and Eastern Bluebird. All of these are insect-eating and/or fruit-eating birds. You could see them in the yard year-round.
Other migrating species also may be seen at birdfeeders or in backyards briefly during the fall and spring as they pass through our state. Keep an eye out for rare visitors like Evening Grosbeak and Cedar Waxwing.
Winter feeding is probably more appreciated by the birds than summer feeding. This is especially true of those species that would normally migrate farther south but instead stop briefly here in areas with feeding stations. So in all fairness to the birds, fall and winter feeding, once begun, should not end until well into the spring months, when other food sources are plentiful or until the birds have begun to migrate to northern breeding areas.
Many different feeders are available and should be chosen according to the birds you wish to attract. Basic platform feeders are favorites because they generally hold a lot of seeds and provide a perching area for several birds at a time. Covered platform feeders are recommended because they protect the food from rain. Many types of hanging feeders, including tube feeders and bowl feeders, attract the smaller songbirds and are used less frequently by larger birds, such as cardinals, that rarely feed on swaying feeders.
When it comes to birdseed choices and feeder types, there are four basic types: sunflower, mixed seed, thistle and safflower.
Sunflower seeds attract the widest variety of birds and are the recommended choice for hanging and pole-mounted feeders. The smaller, black oil sunflower seeds seem to be most preferred by all songbirds. In my opinion, you cannot go wrong buying and feeding exclusively sunflower seeds.
Mixed seeds and cracked corn make excellent feeds to spread on the ground or on platform feeders. Mixes containing sunflower seeds, white prose millet, peanut hearts, cracked corn and safflower are preferable, but they are generally more expensive.
Avoid mixes containing milo, wheat, oats, rye or rice. These types of seeds do not appeal to most songbirds and will attract nuisance birds like pigeons and starlings.
Ground feeding will attract a larger number of birds, such as doves and juncos, than hanging or platform feeders.
Thistle seeds placed in special hanging tube feeders with tiny openings are relished by goldfinches and pine siskins. This type of seed can be expensive and tends to be available for purchase only in the early winter months.
Safflower is an herbaceous thistle-like annual plant that is in the sunflower family. Its small white seeds are high in protein and fat. The same birds that love sunflower seeds also relish safflower seeds. There are claims that squirrels in particular do not like safflower’s bitter taste.
Regardless of the type of seed or mix used, feeders should be cleaned regularly with hot water and detergent. All wet and moldy food, which can poison birds, should be removed immediately from feeders.
Many species of birds that are not attracted to seeds will be drawn to suet feeders. Suet, a hard type of beef fat, which can be obtained from your butcher, provides birds with a high-energy winter food. Suet can be dispensed in cages, baskets, onion and orange bags, logs, pine cones and other imaginative dispensers and will attract birds that normally eat insects. Mockingbirds, thrashers, flickers, woodpeckers, wrens, juncos and sparrows are a few of the many birds found locally that will feed regularly at suet feeders.
Placement of the feeders can be tricky, and positioning may be something to experiment with. From my experience, bird feeders need to be placed in open sunny areas but near trees, shrubs and protected areas. Placing them close to porches, windows, or houses is desirable for bird watchers, but it really makes birds nervous. They always keep an eye out for predators and competition. Some species like to come and go when eating while others like to hang out or perch and munch. Definitely have more than one feeder, type of feeder and method of feeding them. When the birds show up, they may arrive hungry and in large numbers. Allow them room to congregate.
If you wish to draw birds into your yard on a regular basis, make sure that plenty of fresh water is available. Birds frequently visit areas that consistently have water in which to drink and bathe. Water is especially important in Alabama during the summer when rainfall is reduced. Bird baths provide excellent sources of water year round and are even available with heaters for colder climates.
One final note: Bird watchers often become anxious and discouraged as to why there are no birds coming to their well-stocked feeders. Remember Nature always provides and takes care of the little birds, so they do not have to rely on human provisions. In some years and seasons, there may be more weeds, seeds and berries to eat in the wild than offered in your backyard. Birds also often only come to feeders for just very short periods of time. They typically come early in the morning – at daybreak – and return in the evening just before dusk. Weather and temperature patterns also can influence birds’ feeding habits and pressure to find food.
Whether it is their majestic songs, beautiful colors or simply their ability to fly, birds are one of the most fascinating animals. And, although it may be hard to explain why people are so intrigued by them, it is easy to understand why so many people love feeding and watching birds.
For help on other home and garden questions, contact your local county Extension office or visit us online at www.aces.edu.
Shane Harris is the County Extension Coordinator for Tallapoosa County.