By Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife
Special to the Observer
Vermont leads the nation in residents who participate in bird watching. Feeding birds in winter is a great way to enjoy seeing wildlife from your home.
Bird feeding basics
With winter weather now taking hold, Vermonters are readying their bird feeders. But before residents put up their avian offerings, Vermont Fish & Wildlife recommends a review of the bird feeding basics.
“Birds of all species have very interesting behaviors, shapes, and plumage, and being close to them to be able to observe this is a great source of enjoyment throughout the winter months,” said John Buck, Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s migratory bird biologist.
According to Buck, birds don’t generally need food from backyard feeders to survive, but the activity is a great way for people to interact with nature and if done properly, won’t harm bird populations. Many local hardware stores sell bird feeders and a variety of seed mixes that will appeal to different types of birds. For an all-purpose food, black oil sunflower seeds will attract many native bird species.
Vermonters who feed birds will have plenty of company. According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, nearly half of households in Vermont feed birds. The state also leads the nation with 39 percent of residents participating in bird watching away from home.
Bird feeding and watching can be a boon to local businesses too, with an estimated $12.4 million in annual bird seed sales, and a total of $65 million in all bird watching supplies sold in Vermont each year.
While the Fish & Wildlife Department generally recommends that people only put bird feeders out from Dec. 1 through March 31, variable winter weather can sometimes dictate that birdfeeders should be removed even during this period if the ground becomes uncovered during a thaw.
Buck recommends that people only feed birds during the winter months to avoid attracting bears. Bears are very fond of suet and bird seed, especially black oil sunflower seed. Bringing feeders in at night doesn’t work, because bears will still feed on seed that is spilled on the ground. Bears that are lured by birdfeeders can become unafraid of people, which can result in the bear needing to be put down.
“A good rule of thumb is that if it’s generally ‘wintery’ out for an extended period of time, with consistent snow covering the ground and temperatures at or below freezing, you can put your birdfeeder out,” said Buck.
Buck also urges people to clean birdfeeders at least once a month to prevent a buildup of harmful pathogens. Bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites can be spread through dirty feeders and make birds ill. Particularly vulnerable species are common redpolls, pine siskins, sparrows, finches and cardinals.
Buck recommends using a solution of one part bleach to nine parts hot water to kill bacteria. Hot water with unscented dish detergent also does an excellent job. Bottle brushes work well in tube feeders. He recommends thorough rinsing and drying before refilling feeders, and cleaning up seeds and droppings below the feeder. Buck also recommends checking feed after rain or wet snow to look for clumping or rotting seeds. And feeders are best placed away from larger windows that birds can sometimes crash into. With some forethought and precautions, bird feeding can be a really rewarding activity on a dark winter’s day.
Vermonters wishing to do more for birds and other wildlife can make a tax deductible donation to the Nongame Wildlife Fund on line 29 of the state tax returns, or by donating to the fund directly at vtfishandwildlife.com.