Feed the Birds: Onset of Winter Means It Is Time to Get Out the Suet

You don't need a fancy bird-feeding station to entice wild birds to the table. A simple dish scattered with seed will draw them in, as it did this black-capped chickadee.

By Kimberly Mason / For The Chronicle

As the temperatures begin to dip to just above freezing and are threatening to dip even further, we are reminded that it’s time to get back into the habit of feeding our backyard wild birds.

Although natural foods such as insects and fruit are still abundant and easily found, this time of year also places great demands on little bird bodies because it is the time of migration, the time to put on weight to get through the winter and time for new fledglings to finish feathering out their winter coats.

Early fall is also the best time of year to plant the trees and shrubs to attract wild birds to your backyard. The reasons are twofold.

“If you plant now, the root system has the rest of the year to get established,” said Patty Kaija, of Kaija’s Garden and Pet, Chehalis. “Then once the weather does warm up again, they’ll be ready to grow.”

Secondly, you will probably find a great bargain at your local garden center.

“The plants may look a little scraggly now, but they won’t look that way for long,” said Kaija. “You can’t beat half price.”

Fall is also a great time to put up new nesting boxes that can double as roosts over the winter. The wood will also have a chance to weather to a more natural color and will already be in place for the first spring migrants’ return.

Placing a new bird feeder near already familiar yard art and trees will shorten the length of time it takes wild birds try their new outdoor seed diner. Providing a variety of seeds and suet will attract a larger variety of species.

Feed the Birds
When you set out a new bird feeder, don’t expect to have guests right away. The birds will remain suspicious of the new addition to their habitat for at least a few days, or maybe even a few weeks.

Give it time.

Place new feeders near familiar perches to allow birds to get a close look at the new object in relative safety; this will help shorten the time of adjustment.

If you only have the room or budget for one feeder, an all-purpose feeder with a screened bottom to allow air circulation and to drain off water is the best buy.

“If you don’t have a screened bottom on your feeder, you can drill a few small holes in the bottom of the feeder. That will help,” said Kaija. “In the Pacific Northwest, bird seed is going to get wet, there’s no way around it.”

Wet seed will quickly mold, Kaija said, “and if you’re feeding moldy seed, you’re doing more harm than good.”

Cheap bird seed isn’t a bargain, according to Kaija.

“The cheap mixes will have a lot of filler, like milo, that the birds won’t eat,” she said. “Russ (Mohney) would come in and buy his seed and mix his own.”

Mohney, also known as the Backyard Naturalist to Chronicle readers, who died in August of last year, left behind a legacy of love for wild birds and the outdoors.

“I really miss Russ this time of year,” said Kaija. “He’d come here every year and give a talk on feeding the birds. He mixed his own bird seed. He also bought extra and would go around to the retirement centers and fill their bird feeders.”

Mohney’s mix, according to Kaija, was a 40-pound bag of black oil sunflower seed, 40 pounds of a no-milo mix and 25 pounds of safflower seed.

A suet cage, either attached to the feeder or bought separately, will increase the variety of species you can attract to your feeder. Suet on the feathers is just the same as an oil spill to the bird involved, so the use of a cage or screen to contain the suet is really very important, Kaija said.

“Suet is one of the most important things you can give the birds,” Kaija said. “Just like the bears, birds are looking to bulk up at this time of year.”

Suet is high in fat and calories, essential for wild birds looking to put on winter weight.

“Russ said that he tried making his own suet one time to try and save money,” Kaija said with a remembering smile. “But after a long day’s work, he said that 99 cents a cake wasn’t so bad after all.”

Keep bird feeders clean by giving them a monthly scrub with simple dish soap and water, then soak in a 10 percent solution of bleach and water and hang until dry.

"Squirrel Away" can be added to a 25-pound bag of birdseed that will help deter the squirrels from raiding the bird feeder. "Squirrels don't like hot peppers. You can sprinkle this into the bird food or mix your own," said Patty Kaija, of Kaija's Garden and Pet in Chehalis.

Keeping the Squirrels at Bay
Kaija said there are two camps of wild bird feeders: those that work hard to keep squirrels away and those that don’t.

“Keeping the squirrels out of your bird food is a constant battle,” Kaija said.

There is a new product out on the market, aptly named “Squirrel Away,” that you can sprinkle into the bird food to keep the squirrels from bellying up to the banquet table.

“It has a mix of hot peppers that squirrels just don’t like,” Kaija said, “but the birds don’t mind it at all.”

Kaija said she also mixes dried hot peppers into the soil in her garden around newly planted bulbs to keep the squirrels out.

Winter Hummingbirds
The Anna’s hummingbird is a fairly recent year-round resident in Western Washington.

“There are a lot of little hungry hummingbirds out there,” Kaija said. “So keep your hummingbird feeders going all winter.”

Kaija said you can keep the feeders less full than you normally would during the summer, to cut down on wastage, “but you still need to change the food at least once a week to keep it fresh.”

Use pure cane sugar, one part sugar to four parts water, bring to a boil and then let cool. Store the extra in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Don’t Forget the Water
A birdbath will entice birds into your yard and a heated birdbath will be especially appreciated as the weather turns icy cold.

Keep the water clean, fresh and not too deep and you may be rewarded with a bevy of backyard bathing birds to enjoy.
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Kimberly Mason is a freelance writer based in Cinebar. She can be contacted at kz@tds.net.