Real Estate: How to keep the birds aflutter all winter long

01/05/2014 8:00 AM |

LUKE ORMAND COURTESY PHOTO | The American robin is among the birds locals can expect to see during the colder months. It will usually make its appearance here toward the end of winter.

Entering the deep freeze of a North Fork winter gives year-round residents a chance to enjoy some of the natural beauty that lies hidden behind bushes and brush during warmer weather. That’s the handsomely feathered birds whose colors are all the more vibrant against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

While most residents can spot the red cardinal, are a number of other species are worth catching a glimpse of — some of which flock to our area only during the winter months, experts say.

“A lot of them have distinctive plumage or something unique to them and, if you look closely, they all have their own beauty,” said Tom Damiani, a member of the North Fork Audubon Society for nearly two decades. “You realize that cardinals are not the only bird that’s striking.”

LUKE ORMAND COURTESY PHOTO  |  A Cedar waxwing.

To attract these species — and help them survive winter’s bite — consider the following tips, which start with supplying basic birdseed. Black oil sunflower seed, rich in oils and sized just right, is the best choice for most birds, no matter the season, Mr. Damiani said.

“The oils are good for overall nutrition and because birds have very fast metabolism, a food source high in oil is a good thing,” he said.

Another oil-potent option is suet — rendered beef fat hardened into small cakes. The cakes are often filled with seeds, berries and other goodies and can be hung in small baskets, he said. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, many birds digest and metabolize animal fat easily. Given the likelihood of bacteria growth, however, suet is best served when temperatures are below freezing.

Mr. Damiani said he recommends bringing suet cakes inside at night; otherwise, you may find that creatures of the four-legged type have ran off with them — “basket and all.”

Not all birds are attracted to feeders that hang or perch on a stand, he said, so consider spreading feed across the ground as well. A mixture of cracked corn, white millet and the black oil sunflower seed should do the trick, Mr. Damiani said.

Nancy Gilbert of Jamesport, a former teacher with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s master gardener program, said the season’s chill can create desert-like conditions for birds when fresh water sources freeze over.

“Water is the most important thing, because they need to keep their feathers clean and have a source to drink,” she said, adding that birds need to bathe in the winter, as keeping feathers clean helps maintain body heat.

“If they can’t puff up their feathers and create an air pocket between the feathers, they can’t stay warm,” Ms. Gilbert said.

Both she and Mr. Damiani recommend installing bird baths, which can also be outfitted with small heaters to keep water from freezing. Heaters are inexpensive to buy and cost pennies a day to run, Mr. Damiani said.

Providing both food and water can make your yard a hangout for the flighty bunch, which during the winter includes white-throated sparrows, fox sparrows, cedar waxwings and robins, the experts said.

Ms. Gilbert said those blessed with patience could eventually train one type of bird to eat from the palm of their hand.

The black-capped chickadee, a tiny songbird described by Cornell as having “curiosity about everything,” is very common on the North Fork, she said.

The chickadees have a black cap and bib, white cheeks and a gray back, tail and wings. If you notice them visiting a feeder, stand by patiently with some feed in your hand, she said.

“They will come and sit on your hand. When they do, you realize how insubstantial these little things are,” Ms. Gilbert said. “They are just little bits of fluff.”

Once you’ve attracted the birds to the yard, consider creating a safe haven where they can spend the night, which may make them more likely to stick around. A brush pile or even a dried-up Christmas tree will give the birds a place to hide from predators and help keep them warm, Ms. Gilbert said.

“When the snow covers up a brush pile it creates all kinds of air pockets that will help to keep them warm,” she said. “It’s a great place for them to spend cold nights and provides a place for them to duck into to hide away from predators, like the hawks who are after them.”

Then there are cats.

“People who have outdoor cats shouldn’t try and feed birds,” Mr. Damiani cautioned. “You’re setting the birds up; it’s just cruel.”

cmiller@timesreview.com

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