This may surprise you: Not only does bird-watching not end in winter, but this season can be one of the best for observing birds.
Admittedly, many fewer birds are around at this time, after something like 90 percent of them migrated away in autumn. But those that remain with us all winter are now easier to spot. Without leaves to hide them in tree canopies, and no longer engaged in summer’s mad round of parenting duties, birds simply are easier to see as they go about their daily lives.
At this time of year, sitting indoors at a window that looks out on bird feeders can be very rewarding. Just as night is changing into morning, juncos and cardinals dash in to feed, the small charcoal-colored juncos skittering over the ground as they search for seed pieces and standout red cardinals sitting at feeders or hopping on the ground. A tray or dish stocked with peanuts in the shell draws a crowd of flashy blue jays, swooping in on visit after visit until they’ve stashed every last nut around the neighborhood.
Nuthatches, chickadees and woodpeckers snatch seeds to eat off-site or hide around the backyard, while finches sit at feeders to consume nyger, safflower or sunflower seeds until they’re full.
Winter birds have to be tough, resilient and savvy to go up against the season’s challenges. There’s a reason they now spend so much time at our feeders: To survive cold days and especially nights, they need to consume at least 25 percent more calories each day than in summertime. But the days are shorter, so they have less time to forage for calories to keep their inner furnaces going. Hence, they’re in a hurry.
Feeder foods make up only about a quarter of a wild bird’s diet in winter, but sometimes these morsels provide critical calories. They’re especially important to provide an energy boost to start the day, or a last meal before heading to a roost for the long night. While an easy meal is welcome at other times of the day, too, birds rely more on wild foods, even in winter. The insect eaters (woodpeckers, chickadees) probe bark and twigs for hibernating insects or their eggs, and the seed eaters (finches, sparrows) pluck seeds from nature’s seed heads.
A British study has found that songbirds with regular access to bird feeders in winter had greater nesting success in spring. Apparently, the extra food from feeders helped make female birds stronger and healthier, so they laid their eggs several days earlier in the season and more of their chicks managed to leave the nest as fledglings.
Bird feeding is good for birds, but it’s good for people, too: A different study by British researchers concluded that people living in neighborhoods with more birds and shrubs and trees are less likely to suffer anxiety, stress and depression. Even if they couldn’t identify all the birds they saw, the study participants enjoyed better mental health than people who ignored the natural world.
Offering meals for birds helps them survive the darkest days of winter and helps us maintain a sense of well-being. With benefits like these, isn’t it time to hang up a feeder and fill it with seeds?
For the birds
• Keep feeders filled, and check after storms, tossing clumpy or moldy seed.
• Provide a reliable source of water and refresh it daily.
• Offer suet, either raw or in pressed cakes, for quick energy.
• Build a brush pile for shelter.
• Plant evergreen trees and shrubs for roosting during the day and at night.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at email@example.com.