Photo of Red-headed woodpecker by Bob Tooley
As winter approaches in the Midwest, the bounty of bugs and wild seeds diminish greatly in harmony with the seasons changing. Long before suburban and city neighborhoods paved over a landscape rich with bluestem and switchgrass, birds have made their home in Nebraska. Those that remain or migrate into the area during the colder months have historically been able to find food among mostly barren trees and snowy plains. However, over the course of the last century food scarcity has become an increasingly pressing problem for Nebraska’s winter loving birds, due to destruction of habitat for human settlements and agricultural combines leaving very little feed grains left in the fields. The widely accepted social expectation to keep residential yards manicured and “clean” looking throughout the year has also contributed to food scarcity concerns regarding winter feeding birds, as dried out flowers and other plant debris left over from the summer are manually cut and cleared out by homeowners. While human intervention may be complicating the lives of many bird species, it is vital that we recognize we can just as easily modify our yards to benefit their means for survival rather than limit it.
As all bird lovers know, there is a certain joy that comes with putting out bird feeders and feed. During the winter all of the trees have shed their leaves and it might be necessary to relocate the feeders in your yard. It is important to have your bird feeders hung in a location that is sunny and shielded from the wind with plenty of cover to protect your feeding birds from any predators that have adapted to an urban environment. The most common of these predators include the Cooper’s hawk and red-tailed hawk, which use an ambush style of hunting. These birds like to perch themselves high off the ground on the branches of tall trees, where they can swoop down on unsuspecting prey. Birds such as cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves, sparrows, robins, juncos, and chickadees are some of those most targeted by predator birds.
Another cause for concern is nuisance birds such as the European starling. While all wild animals must eat to survive and maintain a balanced ecosystem, European starlings are very aggressive towards native North American birds. They pose the highest threat to those who are crevice nesters during the winter months when they attack and take over the roosting places of birds species such as wood peckers and sparrows. Cracked corn appears to be a favorite food among starlings who are opportunist ground feeders that gather in large flocks. However, during the winter months they will aggressively peck and claw at other birds to drive them away from feeders and water sources. Flocks as large as 150 birds are not uncommon and once they have landed, they can devour fully stocked bird feeders in less than an hour. My attempts to scare away starlings have been unsuccessful, as banging pots and pans together only serves to scare all birds away. To keep starlings from eating the native birds’ food, I put around 32 ounces of cracked corn in an open, isolated area on the ground of the yard as far as possible away from the feeders. If all works as planned most of the starlings end up leaving the area as they have become predator birds’ main source of prey. I put the corn out each morning until the flocks have dispersed into much smaller flocks of around five or six birds.
A good way to set up your feeders and water source is to locate it in a sunny spot, shielded from wind with cover. I locate my feeders inside and below a large burning bush that is positioned in the far right corner of my yard; they are shielded from wind from the back side, but receive ample sunlight from the front. I do not trim any of the bushes in my yard until just before spring (trumpet vines, honey suckle, weigela, and clematis). This way the birds can use the bushes as protection as they travel to the main feeder throughout the day. If needed I will also cover some of the openings with some small limbs that have fallen from the trees to block incoming predators’ flight.
The type of feeders that you choose will depend on the types of birds that mostly frequent your yard or those that you wish to attract. Also, do not worry about feed that falls to the ground, because there are plenty of ground feeding birds that will clean it up. The Audubon Society of Omaha website has listed preferences for what feeds certain birds prefer. However, you will know when you are overfeeding when the ground feeders do not fully consume the food that has fallen on the ground. When this happens, you may unintentionally attract pests such as mice and raccoons. It is also wise to periodically pick up the bird droppings while wearing sanitary gloves and dispose of them in the trash as to avoid spreading diseases among birds.
It is also important to provide the birds with an alternative source of water, as natural sources such as lakes and streams may have frozen over. While an electric heated bird bath is nice, it may not always be the most cost-effective option. If you have a regular bird bath, place it in a sunny spot and remember to fill the water in the morning light and empty it at sunset. You can utilize a dark-colored plastic garbage can lid as an insert in an empty bird bath located in the sun. This way, the water will have a lessened chance of freezing because the dark colors absorb rays from the sun. At the end of the day, I just go out and dump the water out onto the ground near the bushes, putting it back empty to fill the next morning.
In the Midwest we have seen a dramatic decrease in many local populations of bird species, such as the Lapland longspur, vesper sparrow, and grasshopper sparrow, which primarily eat a diet of prairie grass and insects. I have planted prairie grass to help support our local population of the prairie grass sparrow, but they also enjoy millet and the seeds from dried flowers such as goldenrod flowers, sunflowers, zinnias, and prairie asters. I have also noticed the blue jay and tanager populations have decreased locally in recent years. They enjoy the fruit from bushes such as blackcurrant berries, current berries, elderberries, service berries, black chokeberries, snowberries, and also wild honeysuckle berries. All of these bushes produce berries in the fall and birds will continue to eat them during the winter until they are all gone, as the cold weather keeps the fruit from spoiling.
However, you do not necessarily need bushes in your yard to support local bird populations. Anyone with the time and interest can enjoy supporting their local bird populations during the fall and winter months so long as you remember to fill your feeders appropriately and change water daily. If need be, you can purchase feed from your local Audubon Society of Omaha chapter, or other distributors in the area. Knowing that you are providing birds with the sustenance needed to increase their survival and time to adapt in a changing environment is something that we should feel proud about. I like to think that with our combined efforts, my grandchildren and future generations will be able to enjoy watching the birds just as much as we have.