Wintertime Birdwatching

Wintertime Birdwatching

Compleat Naturalist

By Laura & Hal Mahan

As we write this, we are watching the approach of a major, potentially record-setting snowstorm in WNC. As our busy lives of commerce most likely will come to a screeching halt, we have a sense of welcome relief at the impending forced relaxation. Just as our normal routines are interrupted, the birds at our feeders will turn out in force to provide hours of entertainment. For it’s in the dead of winter that we see birds that are rare visitors.

One important thing to know is that wild birds do not need to be fed. Studies show that even in areas with many bird feeders, birds obtain only 20 percent of their diet from feeders. They are adept at feeding on their natural wild foods. Bear in mind that you are feeding the birds for your own pleasure, so be sure to place your feeding stations where they give you the most opportunity for viewing.

Feeding birds can be as simple or as complicated as you make it. Expensive feeders are unnecessary; you can sprinkle seed on the flat surface of a turned-up log or on the porch railing. Feeders do help contain the seed, and a variety of feeder types will attract the greatest variety of birds.

What kinds of food are birds attracted to? Since wild birds eat a variety of wild food, seed preferences are also varied. The most attractive food we offer to seed-eaters seems to be black-oil sunflower. Another excellent option is sunflower hearts, the meat of the seed without the hull, which leaves your yard or deck free of messy leftovers. If you buy seed mixes that contain millet, keep in mind that this seed is preferred by ground-feeding birds, so using it in a tube feeder or other hanging feeder will not be as attractive. But sparrows, juncos and other ground-feeding birds will enjoy the seeds that are pushed out and discarded by the birds at the feeder!

Birds that naturally eat insects prefer protein and fatty food, such as suet. Back in the old days, you could get suet—the fat cut from meat—free from your butcher. Nowadays, you can get specially rendered suet cakes, mixed with other food ingredients that will not melt or spoil even during warm weather. We leave our suet feeder out year-round. Here’s a great recipe for “Marvel Meal,” a food you can make yourself that is irresistible to chickadees, titmice, Carolina wrens, woodpeckers and even bluebirds:

  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening, melted beef suet or bacon drippings
  • 4 cups cornmeal (yellow is higher in Vitamin A)
  • 1 cup white flour

You can press this into a shape that will fit into a typical wire mesh suet feeder or smear it on the bark of trees or into holes drilled into a log to make a “suet log.”

Feeding birds does not come without responsibilities. It is important to keep feeders clean and seed fresh. Each time you fill a feeder, remove any seed that is moldy or stuck together. Clean feeders regularly with a solution of water and bleach; rinse and allow to dry thoroughly before refilling. Remove any accumulated seed hulls and droppings from beneath your feeders. Also, make sure that you thoroughly wash your hands after handling and cleaning your feeders and bird baths.

Most of all, have fun! Get yourself a good identification guide, relax and enjoy the show!

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 828.274.5430.

Leave a Comment