Photo by Willow Simmons.

February 1, 2024

Birding in Your Backyard

Winter is here and with it comes colder temperatures, less cover and fewer food resources. Now is a great time to aid our wildlife friends, and one of my favorite ways to do so is by feeding my neighborhood birds.

I’m not alone in my interest in feeding and watching birds. The 2022 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation produced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, reports that wildlife watching is immensely popular, with more than half of the U.S. population 16 years of age and older enjoying watching wildlife in 2022. That equates to 148.3 million people—57 percent of the U.S. population—viewing wildlife, with 146.5 million viewing while at home and 73 million traveling to watch wildlife. A large majority of the wildlife watchers—91.1 million—observe birds around their homes, spending an average of 78 days doing so in 2022. In the region including Illinois, the participation rate was above the national average.

In wild, untouched places, natural food sources are readily available for birds. But in developed landscapes—many of which prominently feature non-native and exotic plants—food can be scarce. Birds are a vital part of our ecosystem and putting up feeders is a way to help them through winter. Backyard bird visitors burn calories fast and need plentiful, high-quality food to support them during these cold, brutal months. Assisting our local backyard birds helps to increase their survival rates, and success in migrating and reproducing.

Choosing Bird Seed and Feeders

A tan and reddish bird with a crest perches on a snow capped bird-feeder.

I adore all of my backyard bird visitors, but did you know that by selecting certain seeds and feeders you can attract various species? Like people, birds have certain food preferences.

Beak shape often plays a role in what kind of seed birds prefer. Cardinals, sparrows and finches have strong, cone-shaped beaks and prefer hardy seeds such as safflower and sunflower. Their beaks are designed to crush open the hull of the shell and extract the meaty content. I pair this seed mix with about any feeder that has holes large enough for the thick sunflower seeds to pass through.

The noisy blue jay and adorable chickadee have all-purpose beaks, so they will take to any feed offered.

My favorite backyard visitors are the woodpeckers. Woodpeckers have a long, chisel-shaped beak that allows them to probe for insects. To entice woodpeckers into my yard I like to put out seeds that are covered with suet. Suet is traditionally rendered beef fat with an assortment of seeds and nuts added to attract birds such as nuthatches, chickadees and woodpeckers. I place suet in a metal suet cage.

The variety of bird seed and feeders on the market can be quite overwhelming but bird seed bags will have a spotlight section highlighting the species of birds that it attracts.

Feeders May Attract More Than Birds

When feeding backyard birds you may attract other animals. Not only are birds enticed by seed, but so are many other creatures, including squirrels, raccoons and deer. Some people appreciate the variety of wildlife visitors that enter their yard. Others not so much.

A gray and white squirrel sits on a bird-feeder and eats sunflower seeds.

Squirrels are the hardest creatures to keep out of feeders. They are athletic and manage to somehow find a way to feed, whether it be climbing up feeder poles or jumping onto a feeder from tree branch, fence or building. Some bird feeders are specifically designed to exclude squirrels, but other alternatives exist. Using PVC piping as your bird feeder pole is one option, as squirrels have a hard time gripping and climbing this. Just be sure to place the pole feeder far from trees or areas where squirrels could jump to access it. Alternatively, you can always feed the squirrels, too! Setting up nut and corn stations may distract them from the birdseed.

For further information on handling unwanted squirrels, visit the Squirrel Damage Prevention and Control Measures page on the Wildlife Illinois website.

You cannot legally make available food, salt, mineral blocks or other products for ingestion by wild deer or other wildlife with some exceptions, as identified on page 8 in the 2023-2024 Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations. One exception is to allow for elevated bird/squirrel feeders that provide seed, grain, fruit, worms or suet for birds or squirrels and are located within 100 feet of a dwelling devoted to human occupancy. Feeders for wildlife other than deer are allowed so long as deer are excluded from the feed in and around the feeder by fencing or other barriers. For additional information, visit the White-tailed Deer Illinois website page on Management.

Cleaning Your Bird Feeders

If you have bird feeders in your yard you must regularly clean them. Feeders can harbor bacteria and mold, especially if old seed is not properly removed from the feeder. Bird feeders can also be a hub for spreading illness, congregate birds into a small area in higher number than would naturally occur. This puts sick birds into close contact with healthy birds. Learn more from the Wildlife Illinois website section on Feeders and Disease.

When cleaning, I first like to scrub the feeder clear of debris. Soap and scrub brushes make this process a lot easier. Once the feeders are cleaned of old seed and other debris it is time to sanitize it. Mixing a 1-part bleach to 9-part water ratio will do the trick. I like to soak my bird feeders in the solution, but a spray bottle will do. Be sure that feeders are rinsed with clean water and fully dry before refilling with fresh seed.

Even Better Than Bird Feeders

Feeding birds from feeders may aid in their survival over the winter, but an even better way to support our avian friends is to plant native plants.

When establishing or expanding your landscaping, make it a priority to utilize native plants. Not only will these add beauty to your surroundings, but those plants are adapted to the Illinois climate and will provide food and shelter for native wildlife. The Conservation Inclusive Construction and Development Archive (CICADA) website provides extensive resources for enhancing the natural bird foods available on your property.

I hope you join the 91.1 million people who enjoy viewing birds in their backyard this winter. Bird feeding may help connect you with your local wildlife.

Willow Simmons works as a veterinarian technician, and in her free time, she practices wildlife photography. Her photography primarily focuses on southern Illinois wildlife where she is based. Simmons is also a volunteer at Carlyle Lake.

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