Deb Babcock: How to feed birds during the winter

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

Many of us have a soft spot for animals of all kinds and are especially concerned about their care and feeding during our harsh Steamboat winters.

Because so many local gardeners create a habitat for birds in their gardens, what are the pros and cons of continuing to attract birds after snowfall?

According to the Audubon Society, the limited studies done regarding this topic suggest wintertime feeding is not harmful to birds. They do not tend to become dependent on feeders and will not starve if your feeder goes empty while you're away for a few weeks on vacation. They will not stick around the area past their normal migration time, which is triggered by day length, not easy dining. My friend and fellow master gardener Pam Schlenzig suggests the use of a bird block, available locally, that continues to provide seed should you need to be away from home for a long spell.

Because a feeder provides nutrition and a handy place to eat, birds readily will seek them out. The meal we provide in our feeders generally is more filling and easier to get than the small grass seeds still found above the snow or the little insects that must be dug out of tree bark.

Even better than bird feeders, however, is building a wintertime garden habitat for birds. This might include growing berry-bearing shrubs such as viburnums, serviceberry and mountain ash, or perennials such as sunflowers and coneflowers that are not deadheaded at the end of the season. Dense evergreen trees also will provide warmth and hiding places from predators.

When choosing food for your bird feeders, get the good stuff. Black sunflower seeds provide high oil content and are attractive for most of the birds that hang around the Steamboat area. These provide a softer shell than the white- and black-striped sunflowers seeds, making it easier for birds to crack them.

Niger is another terrific seed that is especially attractive to chickadees, goldfinches and pine siskins.

Suet - a bird pudding made of peanut butter, cornmeal and vegetable shortening - will attract woodpeckers, jays, chickadees, nuthatches and several other species of birds.

Cracked corn is popular among ground-feeding birds such as doves, juncos, sparrows, towhees, cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds. Be sure to buy medium-sized kernels; kernels that are too small will turn to mush, and large kernels will be too big for small-beaked birds.

Avoid inexpensive birdseed mixes that contain a lot of filler such as wheat, oats and millet. Most birds simply kick the unwanted filler to the ground, providing an attractant for pesky mice and voles that can carry and spread bird diseases.

Some drawbacks to wintertime feeding of birds include the possibility of predators hanging around the feeder to prey on birds as they visit, as well as the problem of other less desirable animals being attracted to the food source. Avoid placing your feeders near large windows of your home, as this may lead to collisions with your windows. Also, be sure to clean your feeders with a solution of bleach and water to avoid spreading salmonella and other diseases that congregating birds can pass to each other. Clear up any dropped seed so birds don't get sick on moldy or spoiled food.

Then, enjoy the bird activity in your winter garden from the warmth and cozy comfort of your home.

Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825.

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