TOLEDO MAGAZINE: OUTDOORS

Supplementing bird food critical during a brutally tough winter

2/23/2014
BY MATT MARKEY AND JEFF BASTING
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
A male cardinal enjoys his dinner as a house sparrow flies by.
A male cardinal enjoys his dinner as a house sparrow flies by.

This has been a rough winter on the school schedules, the salt supplies and the utility bills as a conga line of nasty weather systems has repeatedly tortured us with brutal chill factors and snowfall totals threatening to drift over the record.

While we suffer through it, life is even more difficult for our backyard birds. With many of their potential food sources locked up under a mass of ice and snow, their need for supplemental nutrition is critical.

“This has been a very tough stretch for birds, and the snow cover we’ve experienced this winter really complicates their access to food,” said Matt Anderson, a local birding expert. “Any weed seed or anything else that’s on the ground, under all of this ice and snow, their access to that is zilch.”

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Mr. Anderson, who said he has been feeding the backyard birds “just about forever”, said that as the calendar moves later into winter, the more easily accessible food sources are gone. With the rest deeply buried by snow, it becomes more important to put out some feed to help the feathered flock make it through until spring.

“The longer the heavy snow cover and the sustained cold last, this gets even tougher on them, so birds are searching for food,” Mr. Anderson said. “With the weather we’ve had, it has been pretty much non-stop action around the feeders.”


He said that there are many varieties of bird foods available at The Andersons general stores operated by his family in Toledo and Maumee, but providing feed for your backyard visitors does not have to be complicated, or expensive.

Mr. Anderson suggested starting with black oil sunflower seed, cracked corn and suet, which covers the preferred foods of a lot of resident and visitor species.

“That’s a pretty good basic combination,” he said. “After that, the broader the mix, the more diverse group of birds you will likely be drawing in to feed.”

Anderson said that you can expect to see any combination of cardinals, blue jays, morning doves, nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, juncos, flickers and downy woodpeckers using the feeder. Finches would be part of the crowd in most years, but this year the winter finches have not moved into the region, he added.

“The variety of birds you will attract will also depend in part on the habitat around the feeder,” Mr. Anderson said. “If there is decent habitat, there should be a pretty big crowd using the feeder.”

Some of the backyard birds prefer to feed on a platform, or while sitting on a tiny perch, so the types of feeders available vary, too. Anderson recommends using several styles of feeders, plus scattering some feed on the ground, where certain species prefer to feed.

“I tend to spread a lot on the ground, since there is a pretty large group of birds that like to feed there,” he said. “And this winter, those ground feeders are probably really struggling to find enough to eat.”

Bernie Place at Wild Birds Unlimited on Monroe Street said tubular style feeders with attached trays and hopper feeders are the preferred dining arrangements for birds such as cardinals, blue jays and chickadees. The seed that falls from these elevated feeders and is scattered under them will serve the ground-feeding birds, such as juncos and mourning doves.

Place said suet feeders will attract downy and hairy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, white and red-breasted nuthatches, and Carolina wrens.

Whether it’s with fancy feeders and gourmet seed mixtures, or just a few crusts of bread and bits of fruit set out on an old cookie sheet – feeding the birds has become increasingly popular, and increasingly important in this harsh winter.

“And besides helping out the birds at a time when they really need an additional source for food, you’ll get a lot of just pure entertainment from this,” Mr. Anderson said. “You can set up a simple feeder right outside the window, and sit there in the warmth and comfort of your home and watch a parade of gorgeous birds come in just a couple of feet away.”