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Cardinal hanging out

Bare branches in winter make for easier-to-see birds, such as this cardinal.

The months of November and the first two weeks of December were not difficult for the numerous birds that stay in Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest.

Birds were getting much of their food from what was left over from the crops, wild plants, trees, and bushes of last summer and fall. We’ve had little snow, so birds could peck at anything that they could find from natural foods on the bare ground.

I find it amazing that there are so many different species of wild birds that stay here year-round and especially with the weather of a “normal or typical” Wisconsin winter.

This year, the last two weeks of December and the first week of January have been extremely cold with below temperatures every day. The extreme cold brought more and more birds to my feeders.

What was an erratic job of keeping my feeders full has been a daily ritual. I’m feeding more than a hundred pounds of seed a week since the onslaught of frigid weather.

All wild birds can also use some help us despite what nature has left them and what kind of winter weather we have in the area. Deep snow can make foraging difficult for birds even wild turkeys will even come to a feeder in a snowy winter. Besides helping birds survive, you get the enjoyment of watching the many and diverse birds that you’ll see at your feeders.

Feeding birds can range from a feeder or two located close to a window or numerous feeders spaced around your yard and devoted to providing food and cover for these “winter residents.”

If I was a novice who wanted to start feeding birds here are a few tips and suggestions to begin your feeding operation. Go to the library or Google “bird feeding” on your computer. You’ll find countless articles and information on the birds that you have in your immediate area and state. These are the creatures that you are going to target.

Employees at stores that cater to “birders” will gladly help you in your feeding venture. They will you help in choosing the right feeders, food, and accessories. Most people who work at stores that cater to “birdfeeders” such as Wild Birds Unlimited, Fleet Farm, and McFarland’s True Value Hardware will help get you started in your feeding venture.

Another good idea is to pick up a bird identification book; so that you’ll know what birds you’re watching and feeding. The Audubon Society has books that can help anyone who feeds birds with great photos.

Then, it’s a good idea and educational to keep a journal of the birds that you are feeding. Children love to keep track of the numerous birds that will come to your feeders year-round and especially in the winter. It won’t take long before you’ll begin to recognize the birds and get to know their habits including what they prefer to eat and when they come and go to feed. As an example, cardinals come to my feeders early in the morning and late in the afternoon just as the sun is rising or setting. It’s important to place your feeders in a location where they provide some shelter, protection, and cover and also are where you, your family, and friends can view them from the warmth of your house. The most important thing to remember is that once you start feeding birds you must continue to do it because the birds will learn to depend on you. You never want to leave a bird feeder empty in the winter.

Here are a few more tips for the beginning birder: 1) Keep your feeders clean because birds can get sick from “dirty’ feeders. 2) Have a container of course sand available to help birds digest their food. This is like chickens and pheasants needing grit to digest their food. This is why you see birds picking at gravel on roadsides. 3) Scatter some seed on the ground for ground feeding birds and critters like squirrels and rabbits. Though, squirrels can waste seed and sometimes get more than the birds. Try and find feeders that are as squirrel proof as possible. 4) Tie bags of suet to trees for quick energy for the birds. It’s also easy to make your own suet using fat, nuts, berries, and peanut butter. The Internet should also have some recipes for making bird suet also. I sometimes will hang a deer carcass from a tree for the fat that nuthatches, blue jays, woodpeckers, and many other birds will pick at all winter. The deer skeleton will be picked clean by spring. 5) Try putting out ear corn on long nails from trees for the squirrels and scatter shell corn for rabbits, squirrels, turkeys, doves, blue jays, pheasants, and ducks. I get all of these birds and animals because there is food in the yard for them and once you put food out it doesn’t take long for them to find it and become a “regular” visitor. Once they starting coming to eat, they’ll continue to come and depend on your feeding. 6) Keep your feeders out of the wind. 7) Try to place your feeders at least 5 feet above the ground and near trees and bushes to protect the birds from predators like cats and even hawks. 8) Keep any cats inside because loose and feral cats do greatly affect a wild bird population. 9) Different kinds of seeds are preferred by different bird species, so tailor you feed accordingly.

I use some different seeds, but black oil sunflower seeds are eaten by most if not all birds. The other seed that I buy (when I can afford it) and it’s expensive is Niger seed which the finches, chickadees, sparrows, and wrens love to eat. There are inexpensive seeds available, but much of the seed is things that the birds don’t eat and end up being waste. These seed blends are better than no seed at all, but it isn’t a very good buy for the consumer or the birds. Bird seed prices have risen greatly with the cost of grains around the world. I try and find the best prices on seeds and to me the price is well worth the enjoyment I gain from seeing the many birds that frequent my yard.

The birds that regularly use my feeders during the winter are; juncos, sparrows, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, titmouse’s, mourning doves, crows, starlings, blackbirds, thrushes, all species of woodpeckers, grackles, cardinals, finches, and the “dreaded” sharp-shinned and kestrel hawks which can show up in the cold and snowy weather looking for a quick easy meal. Since I’m living in the country, I also get a few pheasants and lots of turkeys, ducks, and geese that seem to like the shell corn and even the sunflower seeds.

There is not a better way to spend a cold winter day than watching your feeders and hopefully adding to your bird list of visitors. Have fun and remember that you’re helping native birds survive the cold and snow of winter. Soon, the birds will know to come to your house and yard for food in the winter for the food that helps keep them alive this time of year.

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Contact Gary Engberg, a freelance outdoors writer from Mazomanie, at, 608-795-4208 or visit him at