The cardinals are beautiful but the bullies of the feeders, when they arrive other birds flee. Later on in the day the male cardinals will be strutting their stuff, the males are supposedly territorial but there are usually three or four perched at the feeders or eating sunflower seeds other birds have knocked to the ground. They tend to arrive later in the morning, as yet there's no sign of them but doves, chickadees, juncos and finches are here in force.
Birds have to be well fed and healthy to make it through the winter. Small birds such as tits and chickadees have to eat food quantities almost equivalent to their own body weight every day in cold weather just to survive the night and make it through the day to forage for food. Bird feeders provide a ready source of nutrition and greatly cut down the amount of time it takes to find food -- however once the local birds become reliant on a feeder, forgetting to put food out in a cold snap can affect their survival of the smallest and weakest in the flock, I'm not usually the one filling our feeders so I have to make notes to myself to keep them full when I'm the only one around.
Feeding birds is a relatively new pastime, a hundred years ago there was less suburban sprawl and birds survived on weed seeds and insects. Billions of pounds of birdseed and tons of suet are now put out in gardens throughout America. Studies have proven that in a cold winter small birds’ survival rates are greater when feeders are put out, though it seems that birds are able to switch back to foraging for natural foods fairly quickly if the food is withdrawn so there doesn’t appear to be any long term dependency.
Our bird feeders are opposite our kitchen window at the edge of the woods, close to a stand of evergreen azaleas and rhododendrons that provide cover to which the birds can easily escape from predators such as cats – though any cats in our garden would be on a suicide mission with the dogs roaming around. To attract birds in the garden, it is vital to improve their habitat through landscaping – this makes more of a difference then putting out feeders. Planting native seed and berry-producing trees, shrubs and vines can provide food for a wide variety of birds as well as cover, roosting areas, nesting places and perches. The birds are also much more likely to eat when they feel safe.
To help reduce the amount of food eaten by squirrels, (whose very presence drives me crazy) we don’t hang the feeders from trees but have them hanging about five feet off the ground from poles – not that effective as the squirrels can jump about six feet. We’ve tried every squirrel proof feeder on the market, after a while they seem to conquer every one of them. Cayenne pepper mixed with peanut butter and spread over surrounding branches is fairly effective (although ugly), attaching a large inverted cone to the feeder pole is meant to work – also ugly. Or you can learn to live with the squirrels and fill the feeders constantly.
We’ve placed a number of feeders in different places and heights in the woods to attract a variety of species, since birds typically feed at different levels. A sunflower-seed tube feeder is the best choice if you are just going to put out one feeder. Small birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches, siskins, and purple and house finches make frequent visits. These birds also love suet feeders, as do woodpeckers.
At the base of the hanging feeders we’ve filled an old handmade concrete birdbath with seed for the cardinals, doves, towhees, sparrows, and juncos that usually feed near the ground. As the ground feeding birds can catch salmonella when seeds and droppings mix it’s a good idea to scrub out any low feeder with a bleach solution once a year. Woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, and finches populate the higher hanging feeders. We have another birdbath for water – also vital for year round drinking and bathing but the creek at the bottom of the garden fulfills most of the birds water needs.
The Cornell Ornithology Lab has a fabulous site with many tips for feeding birds. They also run Project Feeder Watch, a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers and community areas throughout America. The data is used to help scientists track movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance. Anyone with an interest in birds can participate and get their backyard bird population on the map