Wildlife managers have long discouraged the winter feeding of wild animals because such artificial food can easily do more harm than good overall.
Fortunately, maintaining backyard birdfeeders are the exception to that advice, and many folks enjoy providing wild birds with supplemental food sources during the winter.
In order to stay light enough to fly, birds don't have the luxury of packing on fat reserves to tide them over the lean days of winter. Birds also have a high metabolic rate that requires them to eat ample amounts of food each day.
When feeding winter birds, supply food in moderate amounts and do so regularly. Large quantities of food aren't necessary to attract good members of birds, and you don't want them becoming dependent on your offerings. Maintaining your feeding routine becomes most important during periods of extreme cold or heavily crusted snow and ice because these conditions make finding food difficult for most birds.
The types of food you supply will determine what birds will visit your feeders. Some of the birds that will commonly be seen at winter feeders in our region, include black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, goldfinch, cardinal, blue jay, mourning dove, house finch, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, American tree sparrow, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker and dark-eyed junco. While most birds will eat a variety of things, each of these species also has its specific food preferences.
Black-oil sunflower seeds should be an essential part of your feeding program. Not only are they rich in nutrition but also are preferred by most species of winter birds. There are plenty of seed mixtures for wild birds on the market.
Some of these are blended to appeal to specific species while others are intended to attract a variety of birds. Many inexpensive seed mixes tend to contain a high percentage of milo. Apparently, many birds don't find those round, brown seeds all that appetizing, because most of the time they will merely pick around or brush them onto the ground. Millet is a much better component for seed mixtures as most birds find it more desirable.
Woodpeckers, along with chickadees, titmice and nuthatches, are attracted to suet blocks. Blue jays, woodpeckers and nuthatches are fond of shelled, unsalted peanuts. Peanut butter can be special treat for many winter birds.
Simply dab it on the edges of a feeder tray or on nearby tree trunks or bushes or make a simple feeder from a black of wood or tree limb about a foot long and two inches in diameter. Drill several wide, shallow holes all over the piece and attach a screw eye to one end. Fill the holes with peanut butter and hang the feeder where the bird will find it.
While most birds are selective about what they eat and seem to instinctively know what is not good for them, there are a few things that you should not tempt them with. Avoid salty foods like potato chips or corn chips, uncooked rice and dried peas or beans.
Proper feeder placement is important, both for viewing enjoyment and the welfare of the birds themselves. While you'll probably want to locate your winter feeders in places where you can observe them from the comfort of your house, be careful not to place them closer than about 20 feet to large windows to prevent birds from accidentally flying into the glass. Birds will tend to find feeders more attractive if there is some type of cover nearby.
Trees and shrubs give the birds shelter from cats, hawks and other potential predators as well as providing them with a resting place between trips to the feeding station. Species such as cardinals, juncos and song sparrows often prefer feeding on the ground and will readily clean up spilled seeds underneath a feeder. These birds can be accommodated by putting out a feeder tray or two on the ground for them.
I've always had a special respect for the many species of birds that spend the winters with us here in Pennsylvania, often enduring inhospitable conditions long after most of their cousins have migrated to balmy places farther south. Backyard birdfeeders not only can provide much enjoyment from watching their antics and feeding behavior but also in a small way help those remarkable creatures with their survival needs.