A very nice transitional thaw ushered us from January into February. I for one was very happy to see the snow melting off the roof and pathways of more-or-less green grass where I had been shoveling since mid-December. The ice that had plagued us for weeks finally broke up and disintegrated. Once more my deck and porches are clear and I can even see the flower beds closest to the foundation. It’s not spring and I would not even want to wish for such a thing at this point in winter but it is good to have a break from all the snow and bitter cold we have endured thus far. The weather geeks insist that we are more than halfway through this winter and the worst is behind us. I’ll reserve judgment on that for the moment because, as we all know, February and even March can bring with them some serious winter weather.
I am not the only one in my neighborhood who is enjoying the temporary relief. One morning, with nothing better to do than drink tea and watch the feeders, I counted 72 mourning doves (they were lined up on both porch railings and the oaks in the yard were full of them), 44 blue jays, 22 wild turkeys and close to 100 slate-colored juncos – more than I’ve ever seen before. My squad of five blue birds was at the suet feeders well before sunrise and stayed all day, while a flock of 20 goldfinches and a half-dozen flickers took their turns as well.
I knew the warm temperatures were sure to bring the half-hibernating critters out from under the shed and, sure enough, my nighttime cameras caught raccoons, gray foxes, porcupines and a herd of deer that has now grown to eight. Only a month ago there was one nice 8-point buck that visited briefly every night, then a doe here and a doe there until the herd has become a crowd. Two gallons of sunflower seeds and cracked corn barely satisfy their hunger. I put the food out at sunset and by 9:30 p.m. it and the deer are gone. Other critters stop by to glean what they can from the leftovers but by daylight there is nothing left but frozen remnants, and not much of it.
One might rightly wonder how much it costs to feed the birds and animals during the winter and I can say with authority that it ain’t cheap! Last fall I was buying 40 pounds of sunflower seed for $14, but now, for some miraculous reason, it has gone up to $18 and more. Cracked corn has held steady at about $10 for 50 pounds, and suet runs anywhere from $1 to $2 per block. When I run my errands I also do some comparative shopping and find that I can save as much as $5 per bag on seeds and corn, and when I do find such a bargain I’ll stock up with all that my SUV can carry.
While “the experts” advise against feeding the birds unless you plan on doing so without fail all winter, I have always included the cost of their upkeep in my budget. I have several feeding stations set up around the house so that I can observe some sort of wildlife out every window, but I’m able and prepared to do so. If cost effectiveness is an issue I would recommend setting out just one small feeder and make the birds work harder for their share. No matter how you feed there will be spillage and scatterings (some birds can’t seem to hunt and peck conservatively for their sustenance; they must scratch and scatter as much as they can. Doves, blue jays and cardinals have a penchant for wasting seeds, while chickadees, juncos, finches and most other small birds pick and choose with care. Some are perch feeders and some are ground feeders, so I don’t begrudge them their wasteful habits. I do draw the line at squirrels and raccoons. They seem to think it’s all theirs and they can waste every bit of it if only to keep it away from the other critters.
I actually bring many of the hanging feeders and suet in at night to keep the marauders from destroying or wasting it all. When I forget I am usually awakened at 2 a.m. to thumping and bumping on the porch and then a tangle of chewed and twisted feeders somewhere in the yard. The prize goes to a raccoon that, last fall, dragged a suet feeder all the way across the yard and into the garden, a distance of at least 100 feet. There’s where the cost-per-pound for bird seed goes sky high!
One trick I played this year was to leave all of my dwarf sunflower plants out all winter. They look rather stark and leafless hanging over the snow, all black and twisted, but the seed heads have given the chickadees, nuthatches and finches something to eat on the worst of days. One cold, dreary morning I looked out and saw at least one bird on every seed head, all merrily pecking away at the remaining seeds.
Most of those “natural” sunflower seeds are gone now but I’m sure it took the pressure off the other birds for a while. The experiment was successful enough that I might decide to plant more, thicker rows and leave them out next winter, too.
Another subtle change I’ve noticed is that the flocks of doves, jays and juncos that had spent most of the winter under my porch have moved roosting operations to the wood shed. Except during snow storms I leave both doors and the only working window wide open, albeit to let air circulate so the firewood stays nice and dry. But, occasional light dustings of snow have revealed a plethora of bird tracks under and inside the shed. I have covered up my important tools and equipment with tarps so they are free to ride out inclement weather in complete safety.
If only feeding them would be so cheap!