For the Birds Radio Program: National Bird-Feeding Month

Original Air Date: Feb. 21, 2000 Rerun Dates: Feb. 10, 2003

Time to get serious about bird feeding. (Recast from 1996-02-28)

Duration: 4′02″


Days are getting longer, the sun is growing brighter and higher in the sky, and suddenly our thoughts are turning away from winter as we anticipate spring.

Birds seem to be thinking the same thing–chickadees are getting into full song and Downy Woodpeckers beat their drums first thing in the morning. No wonder people start getting a little careless about their bird feeders this time of year–birds just don’t seem all that desperate for food anymore.

But in reality, this is when the least amount of natural food is available. Redpolls have pretty much cleaned out their birch seed supplies, and more and more are turning to feeders to sustain them. Frozen insect eggs and pupae grow fewer and fewer by the day, as nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, and creepers find them one by one. By now, only the most well-hidden bugs remain in tree crevices. Food hidden under snow gets harder and harder to reach as thawing and refreezing snow develops a hard crust. February and March are truly the hardest months for finding food out there, so sometimes bird feeders that went without birds all through December and January start attracting dozens or even hundreds of winter finches.

That’s probably why February was named National Bird-Feeding Month. This is a great time to make sure your feeders are clean and filled. Suet is just as important now as it was when the temperature hit 60 below–birds shivered so hard to stay alive then that they’ve pretty much depleted their fat reserves, and will be grateful for anything we can offer. This time of year, I would guess that raw suet from grocery stores is the most nutritious fare, but as the weather gets more and more above freezing, it’s better to use rendered suet. You can render your own by cooking and straining it, or buy suet cakes at gardening stores and bird feeding outlets.

If you have juncos or white-throated sparrows, you might also set out white millet, one of their favorites. Black-oil sunflower is better than the striped variety in winter because it has a higher fat content. We humans may consider a food high in cholesterol to be junk food, but birds metabolize fat very well, and never develop fatty deposits on heart or artery tissue.

On nice days, you might try to entice chickadees to come to mealworms. I set them in a margarine container in my window feeder, and since I bring in the container once it’e been emptied, now chickadees come to it as soon as they see it. If you’ re just teaching your chickadees about mealworms, don’t bother setting out a container of them unless it’s mild enough for the mealworms to wiggle or the chickadees won’t even notice them. You can buy mealworms at pet shops, or order them by mail. The newest fad for people with bluebirds is to build special mealworm feeders that let bluebirds in but keep out voracious pests–imagine getting bluebirds at your feeders!

Once the snow starts seriously melting, make sure you start raking those old sunflower shells-­ otherwise mold and disease organisms will flourish. It’s the height of rudeness to invite birds to dine at your home just to poison them. Keep them safe and happy and they’ll return the favor with beauty, song, and warmth.