Dark-eyed juncos have made their way to northwest Iowa to overwinter. Black-capped chickadees are flocking to feeders. White-breasted nuthatches are looking for nuts to get fat and ready for the cold.
Food is a constant necessity for birds to survive through Iowa winters. Their feathers are wonderful insulators, but the food is what produces a bird's metabolism, creating both heat and energy.
For their weight, birds require more food than any other vertebrate, except shrews. The smaller the bird, the more frequently it must eat.
That's why it's important people help birds find food throughout the winter months. Plus, having bird feeders in just plain fun. In fact, birding ranks 15th on the list of the most popular outdoor activities, just below bicycling and spending time on the beach. About 85 million Americans enjoy observing, photographing or feeding wild birds.
As weather cools in northwest Iowa, it's the perfect time to start thinking about feeding our winter birds. Songbirds like protected areas out of the wind, such as near a shrub or thicket of trees, with a sunny exposure. Having cover nearby also allows a quick escape from predators.
Hanging feeders at different heights and different spacing from each other will also draw in a wider variety of birds.
But what kind of feeder should you use? And what kind of seed? We'll cover a few different kinds of each that will draw in some of the most popular northwest Iowa birds.
Safflower: These seeds come from the annual safflower plant and are high in protein, fat and fiber. A variety of birds love this seed, including rose-breasted grosbeaks, cardinals, doves, goldfinches, blue jays, juncos and chickadees. Safflower has a bitter flavor and a unique shape that grackles, blackbirds and starlings typically avoid.
Black-oil sunflower: Sunflower seed is probably the most popular seed, and the black-oil seeds have a thin shell that easy for all seed-eating birds to crack. Striped sunflower seeds have a thicker shell that is more difficult for house sparrows and blackbirds to open. Black-oil sunflower is not quite as attractive as shelled seed, but it will not spoil as quickly as sunflower hearts or chips.
Nyjer or thistle seed: These black, needlelike seeds are a favorite of goldfinches, indigo buntings, pine siskins and common redpolls.
White proso millet: Ground-feeding birds love millet, and it's often scattered on the ground or put in low tray feeders. It will attract cardinals, juncos, native sparrows, blue jays and tanagers, in season.
Peanuts: Peanuts in the shell attract blue jays and woodpeckers, while shelled peanuts will also attract grosbeaks, nuthatches and juncos. However, shelled peanuts can harbor aflatoxins, so they must be kept dry and used up quickly.
Tree nuts: I am always amazed when we feed out tree nuts that the birds eat better than I do! Walnuts, pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts --- nuts that didn't pass the muster for human consumption are treasured by juncos, cardinals, woodpeckers, nuthatches and blue jays. Throughout the winter, the nut feeder at the nature center is always attracting red-bellied, downy and hair woodpeckers as well as white-breasted nuthatches.
Suet: Suet cakes are made from rendered animal fat and usually have seeds, fruit or insects inside. The fat offers a great source of energy for birds. It will attract woodpeckers, flickers and nuthatches.
As for feeders, look for something that is a hopper style that won't need daily maintenance as well as one that is squirrel proof. Sunflower and safflower can fit in most "normal" feeders, then there are a few specific kinds for each kind of seed or that will attract certain kinds of birds.
Spiral nyjer seed feeder: The small holes are perfect for nyjer or thistle seed so it doesn't spill out on the ground. Nyjer or thistle seed feeders usually have small perches for the smaller birds that will use them, and one with a spiral allows more birds to perch at the feeder. Finches will sometimes walk up and down from port to port instead of flying.
Nut feeder: A feeder with large holes will allow nut-eaters easy places to land and remove larger seeds and nuts.
Wreath feeder: This fits whole peanuts in the shell, but make sure to hang it away from main feeders to keep larger birds and squirrels at a distance.
Platform feeder: The screen on the bottom allows for chaff to blow away, and if it's placed near the ground it will draw juncos, doves and sparrows.
Suet feeder: Put suet cakes in a cage-like feeder at least five feet from the ground, and ideally, close to a tree trunk. Most birds that enjoy suet are cling feeders that cling to tree trunks in search of insects.
Window feeder: Some feeders will suction cup to a window so you can have up-close viewing.
To make your birding area even more inviting, put in a water source that is heated so it doesn't freeze over in the winter. Offer a variety of bird houses in your yard. Plant plenty of trees and shrubs for cover.
Anything that helps your little feathered friends get through the winter a little easier will be greatly appreciated.
I'm sure of it.