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Master Naturalists: Winter birds need food, water to survive

Jan. 5, 2012 at midnight
Updated Jan. 4, 2012 at 7:05 p.m.

Wintering American goldfinches eat mainly small seeds. They love thistle seeds and will entertain you if you fill a cutoff panty hose or other fine mesh bag with purchased thistle or nyger seed. They'll hang all over the bag pulling out the seeds. The seed-balls of Sweetgum trees also contain tasty seeds. They attract flocks of goldfinches, which pluck the seeds from the balls hanging on the trees.

By Paul and Mary MeredithPaul had a "gee whiz" moment Tuesday. Looking in the yard for wintering buff-bellied hummingbirds, he saw small birds bouncing around in our sweetgum trees. Too far away for identification among the foliage, he went out as a neighbor drove down our alley. The tree seemed to explode; 50 birds streaked away. Later, the birds returned, most of them disappearing into red and yellow foliage. But some bounced from branch-to-branch for some reason.

Paul set up the camera, and the "gee whiz" moment occurred. They were American goldfinches, and they were landing next to, grabbing onto, and sometimes hanging upside down from sweetgum-balls on the trees, busily extracting tiny seeds, one at a time.

Ro Wauer's reminder

Ro and Betty Wauer no longer live in Victoria, but he taught us winter bird-feeding is important.

If you're one of the 65 million Americans who feed birds, do it now. No, it's not as cold here as is it up North, but our winter birds can still use supplemental help, especially under drought conditions.

Feeder, feed options

The kind of feeder you use is less important than what you feed with your commercial feeder, a log with holes, pantyhose leg, or any other bird feeder. Different birds have different diets; there is no one-type-fits-all seed assortment.

Read labels before purchasing. Some seed assortments waste food and can create yard or patio problems. They're blends of striped sunflower, milo, millet, oats, wheat, flax and buckwheat seeds - seeds not palatable to small birds.

Most throw them out of a feeder, getting to the good stuff. That wastes your money, looks trashy, and may attract ants and vermin.

So, what's best?

Number one, black-oil sunflower seeds; they're nutritious and high in fat, have thin shells and come in small sizes - easy for small birds to handle and crack. They are more expensive, but you get more birds fed for the buck.

Number two, sterilized nyger (commonly, thistle) seed, is necessary if you want to help tiny birds like siskins and a range of finches, especially if you do not have sweetgums around.

Use a thistle feeder, or put the seed in a cut-off pantyhose leg hung from an eave or branch. Little guys will land on it every which way and pull the tiny seed through the mesh.

Homemade feeds

Birds like unsalted, dry-roasted peanuts and peanut butter. Mix corn or oatmeal with the peanut butter. This combination prevents small birds from choking on sticky peanut butter. Wauer placed gobs of it into holes drilled into small logs hung from a wire in a tree.

Seed eaters, and even non-seed eaters, like warblers and wrens, like this highly nutritious food. To feed robins, thrushes, bluebirds and waxwings (non-seed eaters), offer fruit, like raisins softened in water, on a suspended tray or bowl; or offer sliced fruit - bananas, pears or citrus slices.

Finally, don't forget to keep at least one hummingbird feeder going all winter. With that and fresh water for wildlife, you'll be surprised what you see, too.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at



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