Tips for Deep-Winter Bird Feeding

It’s been wicked cold here in southeast Ohio since Christmas. I’m writing on January 8. The cold has finally broken; it’s above freezing for the first time in two weeks, but it’s still snowing big white goose feathers and grackles. I’m happily snowed in with both kids home. They’re watching some vampire movie on television while I schlepp to and from the feeders with buckets of seed and grain for the birds. My columns have to be written as much as five months in advance. I just wrote my May/June column—in January! Because I am a creature of the moment, this is a difficult thing to pull off. So, I thought I’d write next January’s column in January, when the snow is flying and the sting of cold is still on my cheeks.


A blue jay and a northern flicker share a heated dog dish.

A blue jay and a northern flicker share a heated dog dish. Photo by J. Zickefoose.

My First Tip for deep-winter bird feeding is: Have a Backup Heated Bath. I wrote a column about “The Best Thing I’ve Ever Bought,” the heated 1½-gallon dog dish that I use to provide winter water to my backyard birds. It’s a simple deep plastic dish with a heating element in the base. It plugs into an extension cord and a GFCI protected outlet, and kicks on only when the temperature is near freezing. One thing I learned this winter is to plan for having it conk out in the middle of the coldest weather. My dog dish waterer went from providing unlimited water for scores of birds to, one fine morning, being wreathed in disconsolate mourning doves, each one pecking at thick ice with an ineffectual rubbery bill. Blue jays did a little more pounding on it, and one managed to open up a small hole through which it could drink, but soon even that failed. I immediately got on the phone, calling local farm and fleet stores. They were all sold out and back-ordered indefinitely. Amazon promised delivery in 7 to 14 days. I finally located one an hour and a half west, asked my friends there to hold it, and made the drive to pick it up. It’s worth it to me: I don’t like watching sad birds pecking ice.

Doing a little online review reading and talking to retailers, I discovered to my disappointment that these heated dog dishes can be relied upon to conk out in only two to three years, no matter how lovingly they’re cared for. Water gets into the heating element, probably through the freeze/thaw cycle, and that’s the end of the heated water dish. So, I’ve bought another one to hold in reserve, to plop into the middle of my next disconsolate wreath of mourning doves. I wish there were an affordable, more durable option, but I’m working with what I have.

Creative reuse: A sheltered feeder. Photo by J. Zickefoose.

Creative reuse: A sheltered feeder. Photo by J. Zickefoose.

Tip Two: Shield Seed from Snow. Structures that shield seed from snow are generally called bird feeders. But I’m talking here about dense evergreens, concrete benches, repurposed Christmas trees, and even old cinder blocks. I’ve pressed all these things into service as impromptu feeders for snowy conditions. It’s wasteful and discouraging to trudge out every hour or so to dump new seed for all the ground-feeding birds, only to have it covered with snow within minutes. It’s here that my Colorado blue spruces really shine, as I scatter seed in the relatively snowless circle beneath their sheltering boughs. Our Fraser fir Christmas tree went out this year, still in its stand, to provide cover near the feeders. It’s an instant tree and instant shelter for seed and birds. I throw seed under the bonsai bench, up against the house under the eaves, and under concrete benches that in summer are either sat upon or used as supports for potted plants. But my favorite discovery is an old cinder block, stood up on end. I fill each square hole with seed and enjoy watching the jays, grackles and towhees reaching in for food.

Tip Three: Make Your Own Seed Mix. Seed prices are only climbing. Something in me hesitates at spending $35 on a 20-pound bag of mixed seed. I’ve got a lot of birds to feed, so I’ve hit on something that works better for me: I buy my seed in bulk at feed stores. I can get 50 pounds of cracked corn for $7.99; 40 pounds of black-oil sunflower runs around $18.99; 50 pounds of whole corn (a favorite of jays and grackles) runs the same as cracked: $7.99. I mix it all up in a galvanized trash can. I can make 140 pounds of custom-mixed seed, without millet, wheat, milo, or other filler seed that my birds don’t consume, for about $35, which works out to $.25 per pound. A comparable “wildlife mix,” which contains cracked and whole corn as well as black oil sunflower, runs $9.49 for 20 lb., or $.47/lb, nearly twice what my home-mixed seed costs. Of course, one must be willing to haul 50-pound bags of grain and seed and have a couple of spare galvanized trash cans in which to store it. If you’ve got a lot of birds depending on you and access to a farm/fleet/feed store, it’s a far cheaper way to go.

Which brings me to Tip Four: Choose Heavy Metal. I store my seed in the garage, where it’s fair game for white-footed mice. I’ve learned over the years that even tough plastic garbage cans are a poor option for seed storage; mice will eventually chew through the lids to get to the seed. Nothing gets through galvanized metal. And metal trash cans are cheaper and seal better than plastic ones, anyway. A 31-gallon galvanized trash can costs about $20 and lasts forever if you treat it well. A 35-gallon trash can made of plastic costs $25 and will last only until a mouse chews through it, which, in my detached garage, might be a year.

The Fifth Tip of Deep-Winter Bird Feeding is a lesson relating to both the third and the fourth: Buy in Bulk. You would not believe how much you save on the same product bought in bulk. Cracked corn is a perfect example. A handy 9-pound bag of cracked corn in the wild bird feeding section of my farm/fleet store retails for $4.99. Perfectly affordable, and you might not think a thing about it, until you step a couple of aisles over to the livestock feed section of the same store and price the 50-pound bag at $7.99. Per pound, that convenient little 9-pound bag is $.55, while the 50-pounder works out to $.16 per pound. That’s a lot to pay for convenience, and nowhere is the price break more obvious than on cracked corn. Now, I know that not everyone needs 50-pound bags of corn—not everyone is laying out food for flocks the size of the ones that come to my nature sanctuary, but the savings principle applies.

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The Sixth Tip is: Thaw Time Is Cleaning Time. Every once in awhile, it’s a great idea to step back and take a hard look at your yard. Feeding great flocks of birds has a price, and that price is a whole lot of hulls and droppings. I was delighted to see a blazing tangerine sunrise on January 11, and I opened the door to a positively balmy breeze after three weeks of deep cold. The snow had all melted, leaving in its wake a concentrated mess of seed hulls, droppings, wet corn, and sunflower heart detritus (a unique gray sludge of the papery coverings of the seed that smells sickly-sweet if you let it build up). I gritted my teeth, got out the big plastic leaf rake and a bucket, and raked up great piles of the mess under the feeders and birches where the birds perch. The stuff is all biodegradable, but I don’t want it rotting in my yard where the birds are concentrated for feeding. It’s a vehicle for disease and mold, not something that should be left where the birds gather. I hauled bucket after bucket of sludgy mess deep into the woods, where I scattered it to rot in peace.

Next, I got an old broom (the kind that’s good for scrubbing), and dashed water on the sunflower sludge on the front stoop, using the water and the scouring broom to loosen it and carry it away. I decided at that point that I no longer wanted a feeder hanging over the front stoop and moved it so the papery debris could fall onto the lawn for raking. Next, I attacked the starling droppings that covered the back deck near the peanut feeder. I loosened them with buckets of water and scrubbed with the broom. It felt so good to get rid of all the mess that had been frozen tight for weeks. By the time I was done, four hours had passed, and I was in shirtsleeves. It was a good January thaw day!

I hope these tips have been helpful. If you’ve got the gumption and strength to lift the bags and the galvanized cans to store the seed, it behooves you to buy in bulk. I like the feeling of satisfaction I get when it starts to snow, and I have a refrigerator full of food for my kids and two trash cans full of grain and seed for the birds. Planning ahead for any exigency is part of living in the country, but city or country, it just makes good sense to save money wherever you can.