Off the Clock: New Hampshire winters are for the birds

It’s often said that in order to love winter in New Hampshire you have to be a winter sports enthusiast — you have to have a reason to get bundled up and face the frigid air and snowdrifts head on.

Not true. There are ways to bring the beauty of a New Hampshire winter indoors, ways to embrace nature from the warmth and comfort of your home. One favorite for many who choose to remain in the Granite State during our coldest months is winter bird feeding.

“Keeping my feeders full and my bird bath gurgling through the winter gives me something to look forward to,” says Marge Reneux, a Goffstown resident who has been feeding birds in her backyard for more than a decade. “Seeing my little friends feeding and having fun at my feeders has really helped me fall in love with our New England weather.”

Last year, 73 different species of birds were spotted as part of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire’s Backyard Winter Bird Survey that took place in February. From dark-eyed juncos to tufted titmice and cardinals to chickadees, the variety of feathered visitors to backyard feeders can capture the attention of a new bird watcher straight through the spring thaw.

Add to that the beauty of snow falling behind a red cardinal as he perches in a nearby tree and you’ve got a whole new perspective on winter in New England.

The winter diet

For most birds, the onset of winter brings with it a change in diet. Insects are gone and the rest of their natural food supply is often hidden beneath the snow. Water too is in short supply.

Warm-blooded and faced with a constant battle of maintaining a normal body temperature, birds puff out their feathers, creating air pockets to act as added insulation. They also seek out high-energy foods needed to maintain the increased metabolic rate that keeps them warm. Filling your feeders with food high in protein and calories will not only attract a wide variety of birds, it will provide them with the nutrition necessary to stand up to Mother Nature.

It’s important to increase the amount of oil sunflower seeds and peanuts to your mixture of niger, millet, cracked corn and safflower, as both are high in calories and protein. The oil sunflower, while containing twice the calories as stripped sunflower, also has a smaller shell which leaves less of a mess come springtime.

Just like seeds, suet cakes also come in a wide variety and are a wonderful source of protein and calories for birds in the winter. Buried within each cake are different concoctions of berries, seeds and nuts.

Variety of feeders

Supplying your feathered friends with appropriate food in a variety of feeders will add to the attraction and to the number of species making daily visits to your backyard.

Feeders come in so many shapes, sizes and prices that choosing one can be overwhelming. The one thing to keep in mind is that they don’t have to be elaborate or expensive. A homemade feeder constructed from an empty soda bottle or a pinecone coated in peanut butter and rolled in seed is as welcomed by a hungry bird as one constructed from copper and cedar.

“I have a mix of feeders,” says John Watson, who began feeding his birds at the urging of his 6-year-old son Mitchell. “I’ve got one beautiful feeder that looks like a church and sits on this wooden pole. It cost a fortune and looks nice, but the birds are just as happy, maybe even more happy, with the one we made from an empty milk jug.”

Platform feeders, which can be covered or not, attract cardinals, wrens, chickadees, titmice, jays and grosbeaks. Even mourning doves will visit on occasion.

Hanging feeders, good for offering a steady supply of tiny thistle seed, will attract birds like finches that are capable of hanging on in a light breeze. These tube-like feeders come with the advantage of offering the tinier birds a place to dine without competition from our larger feathered creatures. Stumps and porch railings are just as effective in providing a place for birds to dine.

Whatever type of feeder you choose, remember to locate it out of the wind and close enough to standing trees or shrubs to offer the birds protection and a place to perch while surveying the feeder prior to their visit.

And if you’re not a fan of squirrels you’ll need to make sure your feeder is at least eight to ten feet from the nearest tree or ledge. Squirrels are capable of climbing up the smoothest poles, jumping at least four feet straight up and leaping up to ten feet across.

In addition to feeding stations, food can be scattered on the ground, where it will be foraged by dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves and sparrows. Again, make sure the feeding ground is nearby some sort of shelter from wind, weather and predators.

In addition to food, a water supply also is a great way to attract birds. Again, the container doesn’t make a difference to the birds, as long as the water is melted. Many hardware stores and home centers sell birdbath warmers, which will keep water ice-free. There are even baths on the market that have built-in warmers.

While a constant supply of food is surely appreciated by backyard birds, studies have shown that birds establish numerous feeding sites, so there is no need to worry if you will be away from your feeders for a few days. Just remember that it may take a few days for your backyard feeders to return to the daily flight path of your feathered friends.

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