Birds could use a hand, er, a claw


If you are a knowledgeable avian aficionado, you can take a break from today’s column and go refill your bird feeders.

Winter, especially one as prolonged and bitterly cold as this one has been, is one of the two times in the year that bird lovers ask me what birds need to survive. The other is early spring, before berries and bugs mature. Summer and fall needs are easier to answer, with the wealth of seeds they contribute to the birds’ menu.

Actually bird feeders provide only about half the food birds eat, with the rest found in the woods and fields. And city neighborhoods.

We’re seeing more birds this year than usual, most of them old friends. But how do they know they’ll be fed at our house while other neighbors let their feeders go empty? They watch other birds, that’s how.

The most prolific bands of birds we normally have at the feeders on the deck are chickadees, titmice, cardinals, house finches, nuthatches, and Carolina wrens. Red-bellied and downy woodpeckers are regulars too.

But this winter brought in a new tribe of hungry birdies: American goldfinches. A wave of them have been in our yard now for at least a month, and until this year, I doubt if we saw a dozen per season. They eat whatever we put out and come in groups ranging from two to 200, I’m sure. They usually peck at feeders full of black oil sunflower seeds, but last week they descended to our deck in numbers too numerous to count around the base of the sunflower feeders. A lot of seed finds its way to the deck, and on this particular day last week, it looked as though the deck was roiling under a gray-brown blanket. When something or someone alerted them to flee, they arose as one billowing mass and were absorbed by the trees behind our house.

Funny how some years bring a particular species to our deck, and then stop. We have dearly missed our red-winged blackbirds, gone for about three years now. And although they were also pests, we have even missed the grackles. A little. They can sure clean out a feeder.

The best “new” birds we have had for the past couple of years are hermit thrushes and Eastern bluebirds. Yes, of course, bluebirds are common in Georgia, but not at feeders where meal worms are not on the menu. They seem happy with suet and peanut butter as worm substitutes we offer.

The other is the hermit thrush, not very abundant here. You know the song of the wood thrush which migrates south in the fall and comes back for breeding and nesting in Georgia. He has the most lovely song in the woods, close up, but sits very still when you step outside. His cousin, the hermit thrush, is the only thrush that winters in Georgia, and is said to have an even more beautiful song. I’ve never heard it, or didn’t realize what it was.

We’re seeing more robins again, and their plumage announces that romance is in the air. Dave gets excited and repeats old lore that the return of robins signals the return of spring. I hate to bust his bubble, but robins stay here year-round, or else migrate further south, allowing the second shift into their territory. ’Nother words, while it appears there.

Water: Birds need water in winter as in summer, and usually find all they need caught in leaves or in melting ice and snow. The most successful single thing in our backyard is Frankie the Frog’s pad. Landscape designers call it a “water feature.” We call it a birdbath. Ours has a wide shallow bowl shape and a place to store a little electric pump that circulates water. I hesitate to call it a fountain, but that’s what it is, circulating the water back by way of Frankie’s pursed lips. Birds are attracted by the sound of water trickling for just a few inches. We have seen birds stand in line to use the water for drinking or bathing (yuck). You need to keep it filled and running all year, which may mean you carry out teakettles of boiling water to thaw Frankie’s plumbing.

Shelter: Birds are more comfortable when they can come to drink or eat closely surrounded by plantings of shrubs or brush piles for shelter. Except for bluebirds, our avian friends like such shelter. Bluebirds prefer open fields or hedgerows where they can drop to snatch up worms and grubs the mowers disturb when they pass by.

Food: Almost all birds like black-oil sunflower seeds, but the mix of millet and plain sunflower seeds is largely wasted in your feeder. Cardinals are just about the only birds that eat millet. Cheap peanut butter, chunky or not, and commercially prepared suet blocks (often under $1 at Kroger) are really important alternatives for bugs.

So. Sit near your feeding stations in a warm house, with binoculars and a field guide in reach. This is not an expensive hobby, unless you still have to buy feeders. See the guy at the Wild Birds store in Peachtree City.

Commitment is a necessity, however, no matter what you have to spend. Feeding birds for a few weeks and then letting them down when you are unexpectedly distracted by the rest of your life is not a good thing, especially if children or grandchildren are watching you.

To contact Sallie, e-mail her at