Keeping the birds happy in winter

More people love to feed the birds in winter than care to admit.

If you love to garden, you probably enjoy birdwatching too, even if it’s just a couple backyard feeders situated close to a window for easy viewing.

I have feeders just outside the window of my desk and they are close enough that I don’t generally need the binoculars I keep in one of the desk cubbies, but like to have on hand anyway.

In the top of the desk on a shelf are numerous field guides. Two in particular that I refer to most often are “The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region” and “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America.” There are others, but these are used the most and it shows on their worn bindings.

I can’t say I am an avid bird watcher. I don’t join in on annual bird counts and you won’t see me donning a camo outfit wandering the woods and fields with my binoculars around my neck and a field guide sticking out of my back pocket. (Although I did once make a special trip out of town to a huge parking lot where I circled a parking lot light post to get a good look at a nest of Peregrine falcons).

I will admit to having spent time with my computer linked to the Cornell University webcam watching blue herons with a clutch of hatchlings. Some will say I was wasting my time, but I like to think it was a learning experience.

(If birds aren’t your thing, another great time-waster is the website,, where you can spend hours watching elephants, giraffes and water buffalo).

Birds and gardens go hand in hand. Plants provide seeds and insects, which are 75 percent of a bird’s diet. Our meager offerings of commercially packaged seeds, greasy suet cakes, and from the crafty birdwatcher, pinecones stuffed with peanut butter, only provide 25 percent of what it takes to keep our bird friends happy. If your feeders go empty, don’t worry, the birds won’t starve.

I haven’t always been a backyard bird watcher, but in the 1980s, when I used to frequent a message board computer network called Prodigy, I spent time discussing birds with other backyard watchers, some more serious than others.

I would read postings that included recipes for “no-melt suet,” a recipe I still use and tales of birdwatchers who, to keep the sparrow population under control, would steal the eggs from the nest and boil them before putting them back for the parents to sit for weeks and weeks attempting to hatch. Perhaps cruel, but these serious birdwatchers really hated sparrows. Another post left us all in sadness when a Cooper’s hawk carried off one of the birdwatcher’s favorite pet chickens.

I know that watching birds has made me more aware of what else goes on in nature. Before I cared about what was flying overhead, I probably wouldn’t have stopped to notice when I heard a ruckus over the trees one spring day and watched as a hawk took off with a baby blue jay in its talons while adult blue jays squawked and chased the predator in an attempt to get it to drop the hatchling.

Just yesterday morning, I watched a hawk perched in a tree on the edge of my yard while two large Grackles squawked nearby until the hawk flew off. They also took chase but kept their distance.

To attract birds to your garden, the best plants to provide are those with seeds and berries that the birds will love. Many spring flowering shrubs provide berries later in the summer and into the winter for birds to enjoy, such as cranberry viburnum (red berries), red-twig dogwood (white berries), eastern white cedar (blue berries), and beautyberry (purple berries).

Plants that are prolific seeders that birds love include catmint, sunflowers, thistles, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod and coneflowers.