Welcoming Winter Woodpeckers

This week’s blog post is written by Nick S., a Drummers alumni and monthly blog correspondent! He goes into detail about birds who spend the winter in Pennsylvania and how we can use feeders and seed to help them. Though the birds are back for spring, this information is great to tuck away and keep for when the weather gets cold again!
Nick S.

When the average person thinks of migration, it’s common to think of birds heading south, to the southern United States, Mexico, the Caribbean, or South America. Most people don’t think about the birds that migrate from up north and end up in our backyards. In Pennsylvania there are approximately 35 bird species that overwinter here. In the winter they have the same needs as they do any other time of the year: food, water, and shelter. In addition, winter habitat has been shown to affect breeding success. Poor health over winter means less energy and more time needed to migrate back north to their breeding grounds. Let’s break down one of the biggest ways someone can help: bird feeders and seed.

There are numerous types of bird feeders and bird seeds. So many that the choices will probably seem overwhelming at first. Different birds prefer different types of feeders and seeds and not one type is liked by all birds that will inadvertently visit your yard. The best all around seed is the small black-oil sunflower seed. It’s preferred by many smaller species, including chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. It has a high oil content that is nutritionally important for birds, and a thin seed coat that is easy for them to crack open. If you are going to provide one seed, this is the one to choose.
If you want to attract a variety of species, try providing a variety of foods. Besides sunflower seeds, other popular seed types include white proso millet, niger, and peanuts. White proso millet is cheap and attracts many species, but it may also attract less desirable ones, such as house sparrows and brown- headed cowbirds. Nyjer or thistle seed is popular because of its attractiveness to goldfinches, house finches, and purple finches. Nyjer seed is very small and usually offered in a special feeder with small holes for dispensing the seeds.
Besides seed, you can offer other types of foods to enhance the attractiveness of your feeding station. Suet is a high-quality animal fat that is highly sought-after in winter. It is particularly attractive to woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice, although some atypical feeder birds like Carolina wrens and brown creepers also like it. Suet is sold at grocery stores in the meat section. It can be hung in a mesh bag (often provided with the suet) or you can buy special suet feeders. Processed suet cakes are available at many stores that sell bird feeding supplies. These cakes may contain other pieces of seed and fruit and are processed so that they don’t turn rancid in warmer weather.
With bird seed out of the way, let’s look at feeders. Hopper feeders look like plexiglass houses, with plexiglass sides upon a platform where the seed is dispensed. One advantage is that the plexiglass makes it convenient to tell when more seed needs to be added. The issue is that these feeders aren’t super effective against squirrels.
Tube feeders are hollow plexiglass cylinders with multiple ports and openings. These hanging feeders attract species that typically feed off the ground, and perch size to some extent influences which species use them. Large birds need large perches, whereas small birds can feed on either large or small perches. You can attach a tray to the bottom to catch scattered seeds and to allow larger species to feed.
Tray or simple platforms feeders are simply flat, raised surfaces on which you can spread seed. Birds that feed on the ground are often attracted to these feeders. A disadvantage of these types however, is that they are neither squirrel or weather proof.
A couple of the various types of feeders my family uses. On the left we have a “dinner bell” or hopper feeder, in the middle we have a suet feeder, on the right we have a tube feeder, and in front we have another variety of hopper feeder.
To reiterate, no seed or feeder works for every bird. If you want to attract the greatest variety of winter birds, try a variety of both the seeds and feeders. Not only will this help the birds, but it will bring nature right to your backyards. Another important note, these same seeds and feeders are just as effective during the migration season, which is a vital time for the birds as well. Happy birding!