Melanie Forde,      ​     author

One of the good things about winter, from a human perspective, is the relative absence of bugs.  For a chickadee, that's bad news.  Insects are a staple of the avian diet, along with berries and other kinds of fruit that similarly become harder and harder to find after the first frost.  The scarcity hits at a time when the birds need to boost their caloric intake.  Passerines like chickadees, cardinals, finches and titmice can thus use a little human help in winter.

Weighing in at half an ounce, a black-capped chickadee must fuel a resting heart-rate of 540 beats per minute.  It needs to maintain a body temperature of about 108 degrees.  To accomplish all that, the little dynamo must ingest the caloric equivalent of 150 sunflower seeds per day -- tricky to do with short daylight.

Black oil sunflower seeds are the best all-round bird food for the backyard feeder.  They have twice the calories per pound as their cousins, striped sunflower seeds.  They also have a high meat-to-shell ratio, which means birds expend fewer calories getting at the meat.  Meanwhile, the husk detritus beneath the feeder is minimal.

Fat might be anathema to human weight-watchers, but it's a blessing for small birds.  Suet packs and suet cages can be purchased from the same outfits that sell seed feeders.  Or the backyard birdwatcher can make his own suet cakes by freezing (in an empty can) drained cooking oil.

Thistle seeds are a reputed favorite for finches.  Specialized thistle feeders make it easier for finches to snag the thin seed.  In this birder's experience, however, the thistles receive far less attention than the sunflowers, despite the large numbers of house, purple and goldfinches chowing down in the backyard.

Among the resident goldfinches, the seeds from purple coneflowers rank high on the list of winter treats.  The little birds benefit from a less than zealous hand in cutting out the deadwood at the end of the gardening season.  The erect architecture of the spent coneflowers, standing up through hard freezes and moderate snowfall, facilitates the seed-drying process.  In the dead of winter, goldfinches busily snag the seeds right from the dried cone.

With winter birds in mind, the gardener might also consider letting a patch of soil sprout whatever wildflowers take root.  Ironweed, sneezeweed and tick-seed sunflowers are great food sources for birds, well past the first frost.

Feeding the winter flocks is a small price to pay for their entertainment value.  Watching chickadees and titmice chitter their outrage when a big red-bellied woodpecker clumsily descends on the feeder provides a welcome break from all that shoveling.


Woolgathering, November 2014

The Backyard Birds of Winter