Did you get a bird feeder for Christmas? If so, don't store it away in some closet and forget about it. Instead, fill that feeder with birdseed and attract colorful creatures during the gray days of winter.
Feeding birds is no longer a hobby just for the enthusiastic birder watcher. Roughly 60 million people in the United States feed birds and we spend about $2 billion per year doing it. Besides, it's cold outside and our feathered friends need food to stay warm.
In reality, most birds do just fine without assistance from humans. But we feed them regardless. When we peer out a window to watch a colorful cardinal dexterously use its heavy beak to remove the heart from a sunflower seed, we know we are feeding the birds more for our benefit than theirs. Watching birds like a cheery little chickadee with feathers fluffed against the cold on a subzero morning makes the long winter a bit more bearable.
To draw the greatest variety of bird species you'll want to present them with several food options. A well stocked back-yard feeding station should include sunflower seeds, thistle seeds, safflower seeds, cracked corn, millet and suet. In order to dispense an array of feed, several types of feeders should be used. Suet can be placed in a wire basket, sunflower seeds in a standard gravity feeder, thistle in a tube feeder, and corn and other feed in a tray-like feeder placed on the ground for sparrows and other ground-feeding birds.
With a spread like this, you can expect to attract black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, cardinals, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and American goldfinches this winter.
Lucky birders will spot red-breasted nuthatches, red-bellied woodpeckers, evening grosbeaks, purple finches, pine siskins, tufted titmice, and common redpolls. And the luckiest ones will see pine grosbeaks, pileated woodpeckers, crossbills and brown creepers.
Those species, of course, are just potential visitors. The habitat surrounding your home will dictate, to a certain extent, which birds will frequent your feeders. Early and late winter will see the addition of many more species that pause here during migration.
Try including the whole family in bird feeding. Get children involved by making it their responsibility to keep the feeders filled. Buy them a field guide to birds and challenge them to identify as many species as they can. Soon they might be teaching you a thing or two.
Much can be learned about the natural world by observing birds at back-yard feeders. Best of all, it can be done from the warmth of your home on a cold winter day.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.