Although winter doesn’t officially begin in our section of the country until solstice (December 21, 2012), meteorlogical winter started one week before Halloween when we recorded five inches of snow and winds of 50 mph that denuded the trees. The colors of autumn were blown away to reveal stark brown-and-grey timber skeletons that will be with us until April, relieved only by the icy blue and frozen white of precipitation.
Already, my bird feeders have become magnets attracting migratory and year-round feathered visitors. It is hard to keep the containers filled. If the animals and birds could talk – and in a way, they can – this would be their way of warning about a long and very cold next five months.
Many folks can’t believe one of my hobbies and great pleasures is making bird feeders and preparing special mixtures of seed and grain with which to feed my feathered friends. I don’t buy the store-packaged bird food. It is cheaper and better to make your own.
My ingredients include sunflower seeds, wheat, cracked corn, millet, red milo, unsalted peanuts, popcorn (popped), thistle, sorghum, oatmeal, safflower, breadcrumbs, dried fruit, apples and oranges, bacon rinds, cornbread, suet – you name it, and within reason there are birds and wild critters who will find and enjoy the banquet if made available to them.
I prefer platform feeders to the tube type. Wide, flat surfaces allow a smorgasbord of treats to be arrayed. This, in turn, attracts a variety of birds. On a cold December morning, it’s quite a spectacle to watch cardinals, blue jays, house finches, chickadees, titmice, downy woodpeckers, dark-eyed junkoes, Carolina wrens, nuthatches, wild sparrows and the occasional mockingbird gather at the feeders.
My wife and I sip hot coffee and watch the feathered parade. Much of the action is below the feeder on the ground. The greedy titmice and chickadees are messy eaters, throwing seeds to the ground in their search for choice morsels. In the dry grass and leaves under the platform is where the wild sparrows and junkoes prefer to forage.
Because we live on a farm surrounded on three sides by woods, the bird populations are large, even in winter. In a week’s time, our feeding can easily exceed 50 pounds of seed, not counting the assorted special foods such as suet, peanut butter and popcorn balls, stale bread, raisins and fruit. When snow lays heavy on the ground, our feeding also attracts additional welcome – and some unwelcome – visitors.
Whitetail deer and wild turkeys have been known to frequent our yard stations. I try to keep them away with corn feeders up in the pasture, but the deer are addicted to our peanut butter concoctions and can smell them a mile away. The wild turkeys are no problem and can be counted on to clean up what the other birds have left on the ground.
The unwelcome guests include brazen raccoons, crows and hawks. I will suffer squirrels to share in the bird bounty, but not coons or crows, which have robbed me blind during the gardening and corn-growing months. Enough said about them.
But the hawks and owls present a conundrum. My wife and I love to watch the raptors, perching in nearby trees. We know, however, there is potential for bloody murder whenever they are lurking.
I don boots and coat and hurry outside. Usually, this is enough to cause any bird of prey to take to the air. Not always, especially with the sparrow hawks. I’ve had those little savages glide past my head to snatch a small bird off the feeder.
The other birds have a hawk and owl warning system. The linchpin in announcing danger is one of the most diminutive and outspoken species: the Carolina chickadee. I’ve heard the warning trill countless times, and when it sounds the other birds race for cover. Seconds later, a shadow flits over the snow, sometimes followed by the screech of a frustrated hunter.
I once read that hummingbirds and chickadees recognize or imprint on human faces. I believe this. When the feeders and platforms have been scrounged of the last morsels, the chickadees seek me out. They’ve even flown inside my tool shed where I’ve been working to alert me.
My wife says they are “cussing” me for not filling up the feeders. She might be right, because they don’t exhibit the same behavior toward anyone else.
Well, this is my confession that I get a lot more pleasure out of wild birds than I do from some people. So if you know someone who could use a wildlife hobby, give them a gift of a bird feeder and bag of good seed mixture. Or get into backyard bird feeding yourself.
Winter’s a tough time for our feathered friends in Appalachia. You’d be helping them out while discovering the quiet pleasure of watching marvels of nature through a pane of glass.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.