DALLAS TWP. — A bright red cardinal lands in a tree and chirps a signal to his mate, alerting her a bird feeder is full and the coast is clear. She swoops in and is soon followed by smaller songbirds.
The scene is common at residences with backyard bird feeders, but the benefits go beyond helping our feathered friends through winter, according to Gary Kostrobala, co-owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited franchise.
“Feeding the birds can boost your spirits during the gray season, or winter months,” Kostrobala said. “Bird feeding is very addictive; it perks you up.”
Avid birdwatcher Bruce Troy, of Franklin Township, agrees, adding the activity and color that songbirds bring to his backyard during the winter months is “relaxing” to watch.
“I counted 17 species at my feeders the other morning,” Troy said Monday. He saw Morning Doves, Cardinals, Chickadees, Blue Jays and Sparrows, to name a few.
“A Cooper’s Hawk caught a dove one morning,” Troy said.
Kostrobala and his wife Joann have owned the Wild Birds Unlimited Dallas Township franchise since 2012 and noted there is a steady growth of nearly six percent a year of people entering the bird feeding hobby.
Bird feeding is an inexpensive hobby to start, Kostrobala said, adding that, for $15 to $20, a novice could obtain a feeder, seed and a bird identification book.
“More people feed birds in the winter because they feel sorry for the birds,” Kostrobala said. “People think there is more food available to birds in the summer.”
When he hears people voice this misconception, he often asks customers if there are any new houses built in their neighborhood.
New construction reduces the birds’ natural habitat and eliminates food sources and nesting areas, he said. This creates a need for not only bird feeders but also bird baths and nesting boxes.
Regular maintenance of bird houses, feeders and baths require regular cleaning with a bleach and water mix to reduce fungus and bacteria, Kostrobala said.
“Birds lifespan skyrockets when they have access to bird feeders,” he said. :Winter bird feeding does provide about a fifth of a bird’s diet.”
Some birds do store seeds for the winter months, he added.
“The Black Cap Chickadee has a hypothalamus in their brain that allows them to remember where they store seeds,” Kostrobala said. “Blue Jays forget were they store half of their seeds.”
Menu options are numerous for bird feeders and feature everything from peanut pieces, sunflower seeds, millet, thistle, cracked corn, milo and much more.
Troy, who has been bird watching for nearly 28 years and leads bird-watching hikes at Frances Slocum State Park in Wyoming, suggests sticking with a sunflower mix that contains millet, sunflower seeds and sunflower chips to attract a variety of birds.
Unfortunately, besides attracting songbirds, feeders can also lure in squirrels, deer and bears.
“Some people like to watch the squirrels’ antics,” Kostrobala said., while other bird enthusiasts do not appreciate having their feeders robbed by the furry seed-thieves.
There are various ‘squirrel proof’ feeders on the market, but Kostrobala also suggests using hot pepper products to deter other critters.
He also recommends switching seed to safflower, which squirrels and Starlings do not like, or to Nyjer seeds, a thistle seed that deters bears and attracts finches.
“There are pole systems and baffles to prevent squirrels from reaching a feeder,” Kostrobala said.
For birds, the hunt for accessible water in the winter can be a challenge, Troy and Kostrobala said.
“Many water sources freeze,” Kostrobala said. “Birds use a lot of energy to find water.”
Troy and Kostrobala suggest providing a heated bird bath during the winter months. A bird bath heater is a small device placed in the water to warm it.
“A healthy bird population is a good indicator of a healthy environment,” Kostrobala said.