How to keep the birds in your backyard warm and well-fed in winter

from Pasadena Star News
PUBLISHED: February 3, 2019 at 7:55 am | UPDATED: February 3, 2019 at 7:55 am

Bird enthusiasts may shiver at the thought of their favorite backyard birds enduring long winter nights outside in the cold.

While Southern California enjoys more moderate temperatures than most of the country, periods of chilly wet weather can still deprive our local birds of their ability to stay warm.

When temperatures plummet, birds will fluff their feathers, trapping a layer of warm air against their body. They may also tuck their boney legs and feet into their breast feathers to keep warm. Physiological adaptations help birds generate internal heat. But these mechanisms and behaviors alone are not enough to get them through the night. Keeping warm takes energy.

“Birds tend to eat more when it’s cold,” said Diann Tomb, assistant manager at Wild Birds Unlimited in Mission Viejo. “And high-fat foods, such as sunflower seeds, nuts and suet are critical.

“Songbirds utilize fat reserves for fuel,” Tomb said. “And these fat stores must be replaced every day because birds can use up to 70 percent of their reserves and lose up to 10 percent of their body weight in one night. It’s a survival challenge.”

Normally feeder birds get about 20 percent of their daily calories from bird feeders, while the rest comes from natural sources, she said. But during periods of cold weather, birds may load up on calories at feeders as a means of survival.

“Studies have shown that bird feeders can make a difference, and customers are flocking to the store to help out. Sales of suet have definitely increased.”

Suet provides high-energy fats and proteins with added nuts, fruits and insects to make them attractive for the birds, she explained. “We also have a new seed cylinder this season, called Winter SuperBlend, which provides the essential energy and fats for survival during the cold months. It includes sunflower chips, safflower, oats, nuts, rendered beef suet and other nutritional ingredients. And they’ve been flying off the shelves.”

If you’re going to feed the birds, please offer quality bird food, she said. “Don’t feed birds bread. It doesn’t provide the fat they need to stay warm.“

Bread, crackers, chips and other processed foods are bad for birds and other wildlife because they offer little nutritional value. It also creates a toxic mess in ponds and waterways.

“And don’t forget, even in cold weather, birds need a source of fresh water for drinking and bathing,” Tomb said. “Birds need to keep feathers clean or they can lose the insulation they provide.”

In spring and summer, insects and spiders provide an abundant source of nutrition for many songbirds. But insect-eating birds, such as Western bluebirds and black phoebes have a difficult time in winter because many types insects have either died off or become dormant. Offering live mealworms can assist with the protein they need.

Backyard bird enthusiasts may consider participating in Project FeederWatch, a joint research and education project of Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. The idea is simple: count the number of birds by species in your yard, tally the numbers, record other needed criteria such as the weather and signs of illness in the birds and send it to a database for scientists to analyze. Participants can count birds weekly or as infrequently as desired, the schedule is completely flexible. All that’s needed is a bird feeder, birdbath, or plants that attract birds.

From the information collected, ornithologists can get a picture of winter bird abundance and distribution and track important trends such as a decline of a common species, the spread of an invasive species and the spread of new diseases. The data also helps researchers to investigate the impact of diseases such as House Finch eye disease and the West Nile virus.

Project FeederWatch is supported almost entirely by its participants. The $18 participation fee includes a handbook on attracting birds, a bird identification poster and a copy of “Winter Bird Highlights,” an annual summary of the study’s findings. Sign up at Data collection ends April 6.

Photo by Jennifer J. Meyer