|A scrub jay visits a suet feeder in Mission Viejo. Photo by J.J. Meyer|
Here's my column that ran today in the Orange County Register.
Finding enough food to survive winter nights can be challenging for birds when temperatures in Southern California dip toward freezing. With most berry-laden vegetation withered and insects dormant, birds need to shift their diet in winter to survive.
Typically backyard bird feeders are a supplemental food source, but during periods of extreme cold they can be important to their survival.
“Birds increase food consumption during cold weather,” said Dave Brandt, manager of Wild Birds Unlimited in Mission Viejo. “They need more calories to create body heat.”
Watch any backyard feeder and you’ll notice that birds tend to gorge at dawn and dusk. The extra food stokes their metabolic rate in the morning and adds to their fat reserves to help them stay warm through the night. Hummingbirds are often the last to retire visiting nectar feeders just after nightfall.
Offering a variety of high-fat, high-energy foods such as peanuts, suet and sunflower seeds will attract a diverse bird species to yard, Brandt said.
Black oil sunflower seeds attract the greatest number of birds. They’re nutritious and especially high in fat. And the shells are thinner than the striped variety, which make them easy to for small birds to crack.
“Seeds lose oil and become dry over time,” he said. “Birds are like us, they don’t like stale food, so check the seeds for freshness.”
Since most bags of birdseed are not dated, it’s up to the consumer to check the seed. The best indicator of freshness is color. When black oil sunflower seeds and nyjer (often called thistle) dry out they become gray. To mask this problem some manufacturers add vegetable oil to the seed, which makes it appear darker in color and therefore fresh. But vegetable oil can become rancid with age. And when it does, the birds will reject it.
Peanuts are another high-energy food that attracts birds such as scrub jays, crows, ravens and woodpeckers. Smaller birds will eat peanuts chips. And suet cakes, which come packed with nuts, fruit and even insects appeal to many bird species.
Offering live mealworms, which are sold at many pet and nature stores, attract insect-eating birds such as bluebirds, wrens, towhees and black phoebes. Bird enthusiasts who provide the worms find they return frequently for the handouts.
There’s one food to avoid feeding birds at any time of year: bread. Keep your stale bread for croutons; don’t feed it to the birds. Bread expands in a bird’s stomach and offers little nutritional value. And it can be particularly harmful to birds in cold weather.