Ways to welcome birds in winter

Fresh water, as well as food and shelter, are key draws


 This downy woodpecker finds a hanging suet cake to its liking.

 Options include heated birdbaths, suet cakes, dead trees

By James Kinsella

Birds are pleasant companions year-round, but especially in winter, when their color and motion can brighten a bleak landscape.

So if birds are nice for us in the coldest of seasons, how can we be nice to them?

The best way to make a bird friend in winter is to provide it with fresh water.

Food and shelter both are appreciated by our avian companions, say people who operate stores on Cape Cod that cater to bird watchers.

But the best way to make a bird friend in winter is to provide it with fresh water.

Birds not only need to drink fresh water to live, said Mike O'Connor, who owns the Bird Watcher's General Store in Orleans, but they need the water to wash their feathers and coats.

"They have to wear the same things every day," O'Connor said.

Besides helping birds stay clean, fresh-water baths also prevent the matting of feathers, which provide important insulation when colder temperatures set in.

"They have to wear the same things every day,"

  - Mike O'Connor

Linda Vezina, owner of the Brewster Bird House in Brewster, also emphasizes the importance of fresh water.

"More birds die from dehydration in winter than from lack of food," Vezina said.

Tom Thompson, who owns Wild Birds Unlimited in West Yarmouth, said birds will come from miles around to visit a heated bird bath.

People have a couple of options when it comes to providing water for birds.One is to provide them with heated water in a birdbath.

Since solar-powered heaters don't work this far north, the solution is to run an outdoor electric cord to a heating unit in the birdbath.These units range in price from about $20 to $50.

Though the lower-priced heaters may be tempting, O'Connor and Thompson both recommend the models in the $50 range. These models are outfitted with thermostats that allow the unit to come on only to keep the water from freezing.

Figuring in the cost of electricity

"They don't draw power all day," Thompson said. "They save you money on electricity."

In contrast, the cheaper models run every moment that they're plugged in, regardless of the temperature.

The more expensive models also tend to have better warranties. "You get what you pay for," Thompson said.


Another option is to buy a birdbath that comes with a heating unit already installed, such as the Allied Precision 20-inch model at right, which will prevent water from freezing down to 20 degrees below zero.

Heated birdbaths, O'Connor said, can be just slightly more expensive than buying a heater by itself. Some retail around $60. The heated baths also tend to run on lower wattage than stand-alone heaters.

As for electricity costs, O'Connor estimates that a 50-watt heater will cost its operator about $30 for the winter.

For those looking for a more low-budget approach, O'Connor recommends getting a trash can lid, turning it over, and periodically filling it with tap water. The birds will welcome the availability of water before it freezes.

Suet helps birds stay warm

As for food, suet - a mixture of fat and seeds - is an attractive food for birds in the winter. The fat helps the birds maintain their inner body heat. The easiest and simplest option here is to buy pre-packaged suet cakes, which cost about $1 and are shaped to fit into gridded containers that allow birds easy access to the suet.

One of the most amusing features at the Orleans store is Mike O'Connor's daily white-blackboard specials. The editor's favorite was "Squirrels eating all your birdseed? Buy enough for them AND the birds."

Do-it-yourselfers can make their own, buying the fat from a butcher shop and mixing in seed, but should be forewarned that this raw material, unlike the pre-packaged cakes, melts above freezing.

When it comes to seed, O'Connor recommends buying a single variety rather than a blend of different seeds.

People tend to believe that birds, like humans, would like to partake of a mix. But O'Connor said birds seek out particular seeds. They'll eschew the other seeds in a blend, letting the seeds drop to the ground rather than eating them.

O'Connor's top single-seed pick: black oil sunflower seeds, beloved by a range of birds.

Even so, he emphasizes that many birds simply won't visit feeders for food. Except in extremely trying conditions, feeders tend to draw the usual suspects, such as cardinals, finches, chickadees and nuthatches.

Birds, like people, also appreciate shelter in wintry conditions.

Birdhouses, roosting pockets, brush piles all provide shelter

Bird buffs again have a few options.

Birdhouses are one. Unlike in the warmer months, where birds will stay in the houses for about a month at a time to raise a family, birds in the winter welcome being able to stay in the houses now and then during especially cold weather, somewhat like motel guests.

The key consideration here is to ensure that the birdhouses are clean inside, so as to prevent their occupants from picking up any disease.

Another are "roosting pockets," woven cups that offer small birds a way to help stay out of the wind on cold winter nights. The pockets can be purchased for about $5 each.

A couple of low-tech bird shelter options cited by O'Connor include brush piles and dead trees. The latter offer the added advantage of providing woodpeckers with insects for food.

Once you've succeeded in drawing birds to your place, how do you know which species are visiting you?

Thompson recommends "The Backyard Birdsong Guide," written by Donald Kroodsma and published by the Cornell's Lab of Ornithology. Besides providing pictures and descriptions of more than 100 birds, the book also has a mechanism that plays the song of each bird. That way you can tell by sound or sight which birds have accepted your hospitality.

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