It is cold and getting colder. Temps are predicted to be around -20 degrees F (not including wind) and highs are forecasted to be in the low single digits for the next few days. And, on top of that, there is the wind. It is below zero now, and it is only getting colder. This is an important time to think about wildlife in the garden.
While working in my woodworking shop yesterday (where it was very warm, by the way), I spent a lot of time watching birds and what they were up to in the garden. It was a lot of fun and gratifying to see the wildlife garden in action. I even braved the cold and -20 degree wind-chill to take some pictures (maybe “brave” is too strong of a word).
The northern flicker in the photo above has been spending the night in the nest box to escape the cold. This is the same male that excavated the nest box this past spring and raised a clutch in our yard (he has a distinguishable nape crest). Although it is important to clean and fill nest boxes annually, especially ones that you fill with nesting material (see here for information), it is important to leave these boxes empty for the winter and not refill them until February.
Brush piles, bird nesting boxes, snags and rock piles are such important features for a variety of wildlife species in the garden. These elements allow birds and other animals to escape conditions that would otherwise be inhospitable and unavailable in a "clean" yard- that is a yard with only a manicured lawn and some nicely pruned specimen trees.
We don't feed very much, even in the winter by most standards (click here for more information). Our primary feeder is our garden- the seeds, berries, insects and others results of our garden design. For example, downy woodpeckers are spending a lot of time drilling our aspens looking for borers (click here for the fascinating, never ending borer story), and flickers are emboldened by the cold to excavate our anthill in search of cold weary (and defenseless) ant. These are the most reliable and most diverse feeders we have.
Pictured above is a song sparrow sitting on one of our fallen snags eating seeds from an aster. We do feed suet in the winter (click here for directions to build an easy one), and black sunflower seeds though not the latter for some time. Just having suet available for winter birds, seems to attract the fewest pest species.
Knowing what species are likely to visit your feeders is important in determining what to set out as food. Generic “bird food” usually end s up unused or wasted, or attracted non-native or pest species (like eastern squirrel species, European starling, house sparrows or house finches). In our yard, the primary winter birds include black capped chickadees, red breasted nuthatches, northern flickers, dark eyed juncos, downy woodpeckers, and others.
One unconventional feeder that is really effective is a natural suet feeder. Though this might look a little odd to some, a deer, elk or antelope carcass is just what lots of birds love, including chickadees, nuthatches and magpies. This is what store-bought, conventional suet feeders try to imitate. After butchering game, I will usually hang a ribcage in the backyard for birds to peck at and feed on. Yesterday as I watched, the chickadees and nuthatches never went to a typical suet feeder, but rather spent all their time feeding on the deer ribcage. Consider hanging your ribcage for the birds, or if you don’t hunt, and you are interested in adding a conversation piece/ feeder to your yard, stop by a wild game butcher, I am sure they will give you a ribcage.