Bird feeders are priceless in snowy weather

Special to the Gazette

Feeding birds is a passion for 3 million homes in the United States, which spend around $6 billion on seed and feeders annually. By way of comparison, 90 million homes spend around $10 billion subscribing to ESPN to watch sports. Feeder-watchers invest heavily in their pastime, and they reap rich rewards of sight and sound, entertaining action, and the satisfaction of helping their feathered friends. For birds waking up on a snowy morning, those 3 million bird feeders could be priceless.

Birds are well equipped to handle sub-freezing temperatures because they trap warm air in their copious down feathers, store fat beneath their skin for emergency fuel, and tuck in their unfeathered legs and beak whenever they get the chance. Spending their time perched in windless areas such as at the center of a hedge is their best trick, because it is the movement of air that draws away most of their body heat. This is why having messy areas of vine tangles and mature, unpruned shrubs is important for any successful bird habitat.

Some birds migrate to the tropics to avoid snow altogether, but most make shorter migrations to places like Virginia, where the risk of snow is reduced, but not eliminated. Although birds come to your feeders year-round, it is only on those few snowy days that you are really a lifesaver. A study of chickadees found that even those living in yards derive only 25 percent of their food from feeders. But on a snowy day, or even worse, during an ice storm, many birds would die without feeders.

Don’t let the birds down. Feed regularly in good weather so that they know where to go during snow emergencies. Get yourself up and shovel the ground below your feeders before taking care of your driveway. Unless the snow is packed hard, throwing seeds onto it is of little use to famished birds. If you know snow is coming, throw a tarp down under a feeder the night before, and rip it away in the morning to expose open ground.

Whereas you may have elaborate schemes to keep squirrels and blackbirds from eating your seed in good weather, be generous in the snow and throw two-to-three times the normal amount of seed right out onto the open ground you’ve shoveled. Blackbirds will swarm in, but in so doing, they will help keep the area free of snow, will show the other birds where the food is, and will leave the smaller seeds for everyone else. Blackbirds are declining nationwide and need your help more than cardinals and chickadees during snowy weather.

One observation that is fun to make in snowy weather is how birds that normally chase away their neighbors will pack together shoulder-to-shoulder in apparent harmony when times are tough. Enjoy your feeders and the satisfaction of a job well done during these frigid days.

Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary and can be contacted at dacris@wm.edu. To discover local birding opportunities visit http://williamsburgbirdclub.org.

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