I’ve finally conceded that our area’s burgeoning wild turkey population is part and parcel of the winter bird-feeding scene.
While I have never believed in making birds of any ilk dependent on our efforts, winters like this one are a different matter. Black oil sunflower seeds — my choice for all species — provide protein and hearty sustenance for songbirds and turkeys alike, and I am happy to keep them on hand through this frigid time. I do not feed them through summer and fall because they are wild birds and should depend on Nature for their livelihood — whether chickadees, nuthatches, juncos, kinglets, creepers and many others that visit my under-the-eave basket feeders: I do keep them filled through early spring’s nesting season for easy access for on-the-nest mamas and daddies — then the hand-outs stop until late autumn’s adverse weather arrives.
The turkeys, of course, feast on seeds lavishly ground-strewn — as do the ground-feeding Juncos, Slate-colored with black heads, and Oregon, with reddish-brown back and sides. I have seen three species of Chickadees common here — Black-capped, Chestnut-backed and Mountain, and the Red-breasted and White-breasted (and two Pygmy) Nuthatches and a few Brown creepers.
All the basket-feeding songbirds augment their diet with busy checking of the bark on the Ponderosas and big Cottonwoods; the Brown creepers circling their way up the trunks, and the head-downward-moving Nuthatches, all probing for insects beneath the bark. The canny Chickadees don’t have to search, for they have hidden stashes of seeds here and there throughout the season. Many of “mine” live here year-round, augmented by their cousins that fly down each cold season from Schweitzer’s forests.
We have a wonderful winter bird population here in high north Idaho, and I keep my binoculars at hand by the window adjoining the feeders. Shortly, there should be visits from the “passers-through” — as the Grosbeaks and Waxwings. The elegant Cedar Waxwing with its brownish-buff body, pale yellow flanks and belly, black “thieve’s mask” and bright yellow/saffron band at the end of its tail, is the most common here. It’s lesser-seen cousin, the Bohemian Waxwing, is a bit larger, sporting a more obvious crest, dressed in soft grey/ochre with cinnamon undertail and a large yellow band at the end of the tail. All Waxwings have small, black bills.
I’ve previously identified the gorgeous black, white and yellow Evening Grosbeaks and dusky pink and gray Pine Grosbeak — each with their large seed-cracking beaks; all of the afore-mentioned will fly in sudden great flocks into your Mountain Ash trees and Serviceberry or Elderberry shrubs to feast on the dried/frozen berries for a day or so, then sweep away again as suddenly as they came.
If you don’t have feeders out and do have a possible feeding spot (as mine under the eaves), please consider helping the birds out this frigid winter. A high, protected location with nearby tree or shrub cover is best and a roof or overhead protection is needed to guard against snow or rain. I use large, tightly-woven baskets which I hang from bicycle hooks under my eaves. One is on the south side off my deck, and one faces east, outside my upstairs bedroom window so I can easily open it and reach out with a load of seed to dump in when needed. These high locations, with access only to winged visitors, deter cats, squirrels and large, dangerous birds such as crows or hawks, so the little birds are safe from predation under the steep eaves.
Right now is a crucial time for them. If you don’t put up feeders, help out the feathered visitors with suet blocks or even breadcrumbs or crusts. Use good grain-type bread if possible, and never sugared or artificially sweetened items. There are many other things you can do to help: Augment your outdoors by filling that unused birdbath with dried sunflowers, rose hips, apple cores, dried corn on the cob, peanuts in the shell (for visiting jays) — and of course, birdseed. Suet feeders provide needed extra protein, and/or make some (no-salt) peanut butter pinecones with real no-additive peanut butter. With or without peanuts is ok, and one can squnch the peanut butter into pinecones or holes bored into pole feeders — or even scrape it with a spatula into the cracks of heavy-barked trees.
Following are some ingredients for your own “stuffing” mixtures: Whole rolled oats, (cooked, cooled if desired); rendered suet; pure maple syrup; peanut butter (plain or chunky OK). Make your own mixtures of softened suet stirred into the warm cooked oats; maple syrup into the peanut butter, etc. Form into balls to contain in a net bag or press into pinecones or the holes of a suet log. Simple does it: Even plain old “chicken scratch” from the Co-op, stirred into either peanut butter or suet makes a great attractant when pushed into the various “containers”; too, chunky peanut butter alone is very acceptable.
Give the precious birds a hand this winter: It will be one of the most satisfying things you’ve ever done! (Have an easy chair and the binocs at hand!
Valle Novak writes the Country Chef and Weekend Gardener columns for the Daily Bee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 208-265-4688.