The cheerful arrival of a chickadee, a vibrant pop of red from cardinals and the distinctive dippy flight of woodpeckers can be the easiest to spot on a winter’s day with bright snowy backdrops and bare branches.
The viewing can get even better for anyone willing to put up feeders that help wild birds get through what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center forecasts to be a wet and likely snowier-than-usual winter.
“Deeper snow is hard on a lot of species,” said Lori Naumann of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ nongame wildlife program. It buries sheltering brush areas, seed pods on plants and carcasses that provide natural fat and protein.
This winter there also is a keener awareness of birds’ vulnerability after the journal Science published a late-October report that estimates one in four birds have disappeared since 1970. Focusing on more than 500 species, the research concluded that nearly 3 billion birds — close to 29% — have disappeared from North America.
No single answer can explain the huge drop but diminishing habitat could play a role. There also aren’t usually state-funded programs to support small nongame bird populations despite an estimated 45 million people who bird-watch at home or while traveling.
In Minnesota, some donations come in through the DNR’s Eagle Cam livestream, in its seventh year, but most support comes from people investing in bird-friendly projects at home: planting evergreens for year-round shelter, native shrubs and trees with edible fruit and native plants with edible seeds such as coreopsis and coneflowers.
If you haven’t fully cleaned up fall leaves and brush, there’s a good excuse to let the rest stay put.
“It’s helpful to leave a brush pile,” Naumann said. “Those are perfect places for little birds to hide within 15 to 20 feet of the feeder.”
Set up feeders
Almost any big-box home or general store sells bird feeders and basic feed mixes. Most experts say it pays off, however, to splurge on the more high-end feeds, such as black-oil sunflower seeds, or custom mixes that specialty birding stores, farm and garden centers or small hardware stores carry based on local sightings at that time of year and what appeals to those species.
Millet and sorghum seed attract mourning doves and sparrows, while goldfinches (wearing their better camouflaged winter grays) like thistle seed in tower feeders. Cardinals favor black-oil sunflower seeds in slider-style or traditional top-loading feeders. Putting corn on the ground will draw wild turkey, grouse, pheasants and animals such as rabbits and raccoons.
Woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches flock to suet cakes and peanut butter, commercial or homemade. It helps birds get the protein and fat they need during the deep cold of winter.
“You can judge how much it’s needed, by how fast the suet disappears,” Naumann said.
Hang feeders near your home or building, she added, which keeps the feeder area sheltered and warmer and also reduces the chance of birds flying into windows and causing injury. A nearby tree gives them places to roost between trips to feeders. If you have a live Christmas tree, put it near the feeder after the holidays for shelter until spring.
Another helpful backyard addition is a heated bird bath. If it has a device to move the water, that sound also draws birds in search of drinking water when most natural sources are frozen.
“There are a lot of birds that rely on that,” Naumann said.
Join research projects
To go beyond casually watching birds, the Schott family of Blaine joined Project FeederWatch, which spans the United States and Canada, gathering information from volunteers for more than three decades. This Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen-science program runs from November through April and typically has about 250 Minnesota participants.
Daniel Schott, who is autistic, excels at recognizing bird songs, identifying birds and knowing all their scientific names. He and his sister, Hannah, participated at the Wargo Nature Center in Lino Lakes and also at home, tracking and submitting their sightings at a variety of feeders.
“It’s a really good way to introduce your family to scientific projects,” said their mom, Linda Schott.
This year they will transition their bird-watching skills to a University of Minnesota program which trains them to help them spot redheaded woodpeckers at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in East Bethel.
Project FeederWatch participants pay $18, which covers a how-to handbook on attracting birds, a calendar for tracking counts and a poster with common birds.
“It’s variable and customable,” said Emma Greig, who directs Project FeederWatch (feederwatch.org). “People can invest whatever time they have.”
That might mean two days a week, or once or twice a winter. Volunteers also can join later in the season or after the holidays.
Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Count, which is considered the longest community science project, begins its 120th season with volunteer bird-counters at designated 15-mile sites throughout the state between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Details on dates and locations can be found at bit.ly/MNbirdcount.
Greig said these kinds of programs with citizen scientists are vital now that there’s research about dramatic drops in the number of birds. Two species in particular, blue jays and juncos, are in decline.
“It’s totally vital information if you want to know what’s happening with bird populations across the continent,” she said. “(Project FeederWatch) is something that takes this bird-feeding hobby that millions of people have and turns it into something bigger because people are contributing to science.”
St. Cloud-based writer Lisa Meyers McClintick has freelanced for the Star Tribune since 2001.