Winter Bird Feeding

Winter started slow, yet the birds found their backyard oases. Now that cold, wind and snow have rattled in winter for awhile, a steady stream of feathered visitors will keep checking in, if you keep those feeders stocked. Besides, it provides you a front row seat for the small investment of time. “It’s just the connection people get with something so beautiful, right in their backyards. It’s a great way to appreciate nature”, muses Pat Schlarbaum, wildlife diversity technician with the Department of Natural Resources.

Different feeds attract different birds. As a starter, though, black oil sunflower seeds attract the largest share of ‘desirable’ birds at Iowa feeders. Cardinals, nuthatches, bluejays, chickadees…even hairy woodpeckers…chow down on the winter staple.

If you’ve priced it, you know already that is has been a volatile sales year for sunflower seeds. Chalk that up to high crop prices. “Soy oil is used for frying, cooking in the restaurant business. The price of soybeans on the commodity market pushes up the price of soy oil”, explains Dick Irvin, from Paul’s Discount Store in Iowa City, which devotes an aisle to bird feed and feeders. “Many soy oil users turn to sunflower seed oil, which drove up the demand and price for sunflower oil (and seed).”

A 25-pound bag of black oil sunflower seeds retailed for $14-15 in December; nearly double the cost of four or five years ago. Still, it is scaled down from this past summer. “(With) the harvest season for major sunflower producers; South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas; more seed is available. It drives the price back down”, says Irvin.

There are other sources for specific birds, though. Various finches are partial to nyjer seed. Most woodpeckers zero in on suet. A trip to the bird feeding counter or store can set you up with the particular feeders and foods, to enjoy a colorful show from your window, as the snow flies. “Those who enjoy songbirds, boy, you can draw them right into your picture window”, emphasizes Schlarbaum.

Snowy owl Sightings: A northern visitor is causing a stir among winter birders in Iowa. An irruption of snowy owls yielded December sightings from Johnson County (December 4), to Ida and Woodbury Counties in the west to Fremont in the southwest and Ames/Boone in central Iowa through the first half of December. They were expected to continue through February.

The large Arctic bird rarely ventures this far south unless food supplies are scarce in its home range. They feed primarily on lemmings and voles. Their white plumage with dark bars and flecks make them stand out on a winter landscape. Find out more at www.iowabirds.org , the Iowa Ornithologists Union website.

Great Backyard Bird Count: If you’re still up for tallying cold weather birds, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) offers the opportunity February 17-20. Window watchers and others keep track of which birds they see…for any 15 minute interval they can spare. There’s even an online video with instructions and tips for identifying birds. For details, go to www.birdsource.org/gbbc .

Organizers underscore the ‘Citizen Science’ provided by thousands of participants; helping them make strides in understanding birds; especially winter territories. “Bird populations are dynamic; they are constantly in flux. No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document the complex distribution and movements of so many species”, emphasizes the website.