Sometimes the winter landscape can be dismal for some who love to be in nature and sometimes it is exciting to watch it through the snow framed window. A virtual television screen into nature can be created with the simple act of winter-feeding birds. Some nature enthusiasts leave perennial stems for insects, seed heads, build birdhouses, keep birdbaths and are diligent about providing additional food for the winter yard mates. Goldfinches will hang on purple coneflowers, aster, goldenrod, chicory and even dandelions in search of seeds.
Songbirds enjoy the seeds of our native plants such as little bluestem, big bluestem, prairie dropseed, blazing stars, compass plant, black-eyed Susan and prairie dock. Despite most birds not getting the majority of their nutrition from additional feeding but rather prefer to feast on the landscape, winter bird feeding can bring nature closer.
Retired horticulture educator, Sandy Mason, gives tips on winter bird feeding:
Commercial bird seed can be used to supplement natural foods in the landscape. Place the bird feeder where cats cannot hide and pounce. Birds appreciate a protected area out of winter winds, but allow some open area right around the feeder. Bushes and trees should be nearby for shelter and a quick get-away from tabby.
Begin feeding birds now without interruption until spring. Birds form habits and will come to depend on the feeders for food. The "bully birds" such as grackles and starlings may keep some others from feeding if only one feeder is available. Feeders near the ground will attract juncos and native sparrows. Feeders in higher locations attract some of the larger birds of cardinals and grosbeaks. Suet and fruit can add variety. Keep feeders clean.
Study the ingredients in commercial seed mixes. Many of the less expensive mixes contain milo. About the only birds that eat milo are pheasants and chickens; not exactly common visitors to bird feeders. Feeders empty quickly because the birds are throwing the milo out in search of better treats.
Many birds prefer the small black oil-type sunflower seeds instead of the larger grey-seeded sunflowers. A combination of 50 percent sunflower seeds, 35 percent white proso millet and 15 percent finely cracked corn is a favorite mix for many backyard songbirds. Goldfinches love niger seed, often called thistle seed. It actually is not a thistle. The niger seed that is sent to the U.S. for bird seed has been sterilized. The seed is baked at a specific temperature for a specific time period so it will no longer germinate, but it will still be healthful for the birds. In this way no unwanted weed seeds are introduced.
However other bird seeds may decide to grow. The bird activity and the sunflower hulls will keep plants from growing. Periodically rake and remove the sunflower hulls. The hulls can be placed in an active compost pile.
For more information see the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Landscaping for Wildlife brochure.