Winter Bird Feeding

A female pileated woodpecker eats Marvel Meal at the special feeder that Roy built. Photo by Roy Lukes.

I watched a male pileated woodpecker carve out a large hole in one of the tall basswood trees south of my front yard. It was big enough for him to get his entire head and neck inside. There were probably some tasty insects hidden there.

Birds that are nonmigratory know where to find natural food in the “off-season.” There are few insects flying around now that winter weather has come five weeks before the solstice, but trees hold lots of insects and insect eggs for birds to feast on.

However, many birds that we enjoy seeing at our feeders are seedeaters. Chickadees are one of the most popular and avidly take our handouts. They and the nuthatches also glean tree branches to find insect eggs.

My two platform feeders have black oil sunflower seeds scattered on them, and the dark-eyed juncos are some of the first to alight there each morning to hack away at the hulls. Another feeder hangs near the platforms and is filled with hulled sunflower seeds. The chickadees and nuthatches use that feeder, too, but it’s mainly occupied by American goldfinches.

Many birds feed on the ground, so I scatter millet seed and cracked corn under the feeders and at the edges of the cedar trees nearby. Juncos and American tree sparrows are most likely to eat there, and it’s also a favorite spot for gray and red squirrels.

I’ve noticed that cardinals sometimes eat the cracked corn on the ground. They are one of the earliest to come to eat at dawn, and they are often on the platform feeders at dusk. There has been a sharp-shinned hawk swooping into the front yard recently looking for food. These accipiters are especially adept at catching small songbirds, and it may be the cardinals’ strategy to avoid flying predators by coming to the feeders when the day-flying hawks are gone and before any great horned owls are hunting. 

Each winter, we await the arrival of birds from the far north to show up in our yards and at our feeders. Several reports of evening grosbeaks have come in from Washington Island. This species used to be much more common here in Door County 35-50 years ago, but its worldwide populations have decreased dramatically during the past few decades. Now that an insect called the spruce budworm has increased, so have these grosbeaks.

Another wintering grosbeak that people look for is the pine grosbeak. They are circumpolar in their breeding range and migrate south to the Great Lakes and western mountains when the northern food supply becomes scarce. They often eat crabapple fruit, mainly for the seeds inside.

Pine siskins and common redpolls are smaller birds that frequently dine at the feeders. Last winter, I had both brown and pink purple finches on the platforms. I remember my late husband, Roy, telling me that the brown purple finches cannot really be called female when seen in the winter. The males retain their brown plumage well into their second year.

Cedar waxwings nest in our state. Some may stay here during mild winters, but many others fly south for the winter. The Bohemian waxwings – which breed in central Canada, from the southwest side of Hudson Bay, all the way through the western mountains up to Alaska – are wanderers. They, too, look for trees with fruit that endures during the winter and may show up in large flocks.

Beef suet is often put out for birds, but I prefer to make Marvel Meal: a combination of lard, peanut butter, quick oats, yellow cornmeal, sugar and white flour. It’s a favorite of all the woodpeckers, as well as chickadees and nuthatches.

During the terrible, heavy snowstorms of mid-April 2018, after many spring birds had arrived, several unusual species – yellow-rumped warblers, brown creepers and some yellow-bellied sapsuckers – ate the nutritious Marvel Meal. 

I also buy nutty butter suet cakes to provide an alternative for hungry birds when the pileated woodpeckers dominate the Marvel Meal. I have noticed during recent weeks the different plumage and eye color of these huge birds and have realized that I have six different pileateds coming to the feeders.

One more item to have for birds is clean, heated water. A simple bird bath that can be scrubbed clean regularly, and where an electric heater can be placed, helps a lot of birds and squirrels. Check your local bird food store for help with this.

When you provide clean water and lots of good bird food, you can enjoy watching the array of winter birds that live here or are visiting from far away.

Marvel Meal Suet Mix

The nice thing about this blend is that it doesn’t melt in hot weather the way suet does.

2 cups lard (I buy a one-pound container)

2 cups chunky peanut butter (I use a whole 16-ounce jar; get the house brand on sale)

4 cups yellow whole-grain cornmeal (I get a five-pound bag)

4 cups quick oats (The cheapest store brand is fine)

2/3 cup white sugar

2/3 cup white flour 

Stovetop method: Slowly melt the lard in a medium pot on the stove, stirring frequently. Use a low heat setting so that it doesn’t burn. When it’s very hot, stir in the peanut butter until it’s melted.

Microwave method: Put the lard in a heatproof glass container (4- to 5-cup capacity), and cook for 2 minutes at full power. Stir and cook for another 45-60 seconds until it’s melted. Stir well again. Add the peanut butter, and cook for 60-90 seconds. Then stir until both the lard and peanut butter are melted and blended.

Pour this mixture into a large, stainless-steel or enamel bowl, and mix in the rest of the ingredients. (I have found that 2 cups of white flour, as the original recipe calls for, makes the mixture too crumbly and difficult to push into the feeder.) 

Spoon the finished mixture into several rectangular freezer containers with tight-fitting lids. Store them in the refrigerator or some other cold place. When I need to refill my feeders, I use a small, metal spatula to scoop the mixture from the storage containers and press it into the holes in the slab of wood that my late husband, Roy, made. 

You can also cut this Marvel Meal into slabs, put them into mesh bags and hang them outside for the birds. Just place them where squirrels, blue jays, dogs and raccoons cannot get to them.