by Simon Thompson
Winter is an excellent time of the year to familiarize yourself with the more common birds found in the mountains of Western North Carolina. One quick and easy way to do this is to set up a simple bird feeder, fill it with seed and sit back and wait for the action to begin.
Starting to feed birds can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. The rules are simple and the rewards are great. For the outlay of just a few dollars, you can attract many of our seed-eating birds up to the windows and decks of your house, where they can be observed feeding, displaying and protecting their feeding areas.
The main reason that we feed birds is that it is an enjoyable pastime. We like to watch the birds coming to our feeders, and it is definitely fun as well as being educational. There is little evidence that feeding birds enhances the wild populations, but bird watchers spend over a billion dollars a year on bird seed alone. Most feeding is done in the winter months, and this is the time of year that finding food can be difficult for many birds. Insects are either dead or dormant, and for a bird, the choices are to stay and search for food or to fly south where food is still abundant. Seeds from trees, shrubs, weeds and grasses provide much of the winter food for the remaining birds, and this food choice makes it easier for us to provide extra sustenance for many species.
Black or oil sunflower seed is by far the most widely eaten seed. This small packet of energy is the favorite food for many species, including chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, grosbeaks and cardinals. There are, of course, other seeds that are preferred by other birds, and a good selection will ensure that a variety of species will visit your feeder during the winter months. Mourning Doves prefer cracked corn and millet. American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins prefer the fine seeds of nyjer or thistle, and special feeders can be obtained that prevents spillage of this relatively expensive bird food.
As well as providing seed for seed-eating birds, beef suet is another good winter food for woodpeckers, titmice and chickadees. Commercially produced suet cakes will attract the aforementioned species. Even the normally shy Pileated Woodpecker can be encouraged to approach close to the house with a tempting basket of suet. This is best placed into an animal-proof wire basket and either hung from a tree limb or fastened to the main tree trunk. As well as supplying food for birds, it is important to offer water. Even during the coldest winter, birds need to drink, and fresh water may bring in birds that no not normally visit bird feeders. However, during the colder months, the water is likely to freeze over, and a small electrical bird bath heater can be useful in keeping the water open. Again, this can be purchased from a good bird feeding store in your area. Change the water on a regular basis to keep it fresh and scrub periodically with a mild soap solution to prevent algal buildup. The same maintenance should be used to keep the bird feeders clean. Again, these should be cleaned regularly with soap and water or a mild bleach solution. Rinse them well and allow the feeders to dry before refilling them with seed.
None of this basic maintenance requires a great deal of effort, and the reward can be a pleasure to all of us. As well as just watching the different species that visit the feeding station, we get the chance to have some insight into the often hidden world of bird behavior, and that is a real treat.
Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 20 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours. birdventures.com. If you have birding questions, please drop him an e-mail at the above site.