By Pete Zamplas-Birds are in extra need of food in people’s feeders in these cold weeks, with less snacks around in their natural habitat.
Fatty foods help birds plump up, storing nutrients they draw on in winter. Unlike those area bears that eat enough to hibernate, birds stay active in winter. They need protein and fat from oil sunflower, peanuts, and suet (rendered fat) which subs for dormant insects.
“We feed birds in the summer for us,” as a hobby, said Chris Jaquette who has co-owned Wild Birds Unlimited (WBU) in Asheville with Simon Thompson since 2008. “We feed birds in the winter for them. That’s when their natural food supply has dwindled. We can improve birds’ ability to survive, and do well. It’s very gratifying.”
Priscilla Palmer, who has owned WBU in Hendersonville since 2006, said on a recent, near-freezing day how “keeping them full of food is important, especially in this cold weather when they can’t find much natural food. They need extra food, and water. They’re trying to raise their metabolism, to burn more fat and stay warmer. When birds shake and seem to shiver, they’re actually keeping warm.” They fluff up feathers, creating warmth-insulating air pockets.
Thompson said “birds need to eat a fair bit to keep their weight up and energy levels high, during the cold weather. They will feed strongly at dawn, and again before dusk. They eat throughout the day.” He said they rely on feeders for about 30 percent of daily food intake, more so when temperatures plummet and food is hidden in snow.
Thompson, acclaimed by many as this area’s foremost bird expert, has run Ventures Birding and Nature Tours in Skyland for 15 years — since 1998. Jaquette is co-owner. They have each gone birding on most continents and since their youth, and like Palmer for decades. “Birding always takes us to great places,” even locally, Thompson said. He noted Jackson Park in Hendersonville has nearly 200 bird species, with 30 to 50 around on a given day and nearly 70 species in late April.
The English native grew up in Africa. He saw a shoebill stork gobble a lungfish in papyrus swamps, viewing from a paddle boat in Uganda. He once came within feet of a Southern Cassowary, a large ostrich-like aggressive bird, in Queensland, Australia. His initial birding as a lad, while on a picnic, was seeing a white stork near the Syrian border.
Jaquette saw a rare (fewer than 250) and “magnificent” spatial tail, with peacock-like tail feathers with eye-like dots. This was in Peru, in the lone South American valley it is known to inhabit. Jaquette built a bird house and bath, as a cub scout. He has long liked finding bird nests, and seeing babies feed.
Thompson likes birds for their “beauty, song and movement. We can’t control them, so we only get a quick window into their lives.” Customers “talk about ‘my’ bird,” Jaquette said. Palmer agreed that “feeding a bird is very personal.”
Bird identifying grows with matching birds at a feeder with illustrations in a bird-ID book, Palmer added. Her favorite is the “cute” tiny Carolina chickadee, among the first to her feeders. She likes the “feisty” Carolina wren. “It gets mad at you — ‘get away from my nest and food.’ Jaquette agrees it “scolds you, if you get too close.” This “brazen” wren is his favorite local bird.
The brown thrasher has a “great look and a beautiful song,” Thompson said. “I love its positive nature.” He has seen the cedar waxwing pass berries to each other. He likens the red-breasted nuthatches’ call to a mini “fork-lift truck in reverse.”
Customer favorites also include the cardinal (the state bird), blue jay, American goldfinch, mourning doves, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nut hatch, and Downey and red-bellied woodpeckers.
Among snow birds here in winter, Jaquette likes those juncos with pink bills. Palmer enjoys towhees, another ground feeder. Thompson calls the hermit thrush, on warmer winter days, among the continent’s “finest songsters.” Scauts, sparrows and ducks are also snow birds.
To quench thirst and bathe, birds do not mind water “barely above freezing,” Thompson said. Bird feeders also take on a major role in winter, along with bird houses for shelter from elements or predators. WBU sells these items, also books and fresh bird feed.
WBU feed is species-specific such as deluxe snacks for cardinals or shelled peanuts for blue jays, or generalized blends for various area birds. Many birds can crack open sunflower seeds. Palmer noted safflower is too bitter for most squirrels, turning them away from feeders.
Feeder placement is pivotal. Jaquette suggests they be at least 12 feet from a house, so birds do not accidentally smash into it. “If a bird gets spooked out of the feeder or bird bath, at 12 feet away he has room to pull up.” A feeder within three feet of the house does not allow a bird room to gain smashing speed.
Birds want shelter within six feet of a feeder, to quickly flee to, Jaquette noted. This can be a bird house, roosting box or evergreen shrub. The feeder should not be directly over such “cover,” where a cat can hide.
Weather guards (on sale for a week at WBU) warms a feeder, which hangs beneath it. Feeders should be out of wind, thus east or southeast of the house or near shielding trees.
Bird feeders are ideally within viewing distance at eye level for someone sitting indoors. Thompson finds “most birds will get used to seeing at least some movement inside the house — through the window. Birds get used to someone (quiet) outside, a good distance from the feeder. Cats are tolerated indoors,” but not lurking outside.
“You can sit in your backyard, if you’re quiet,” Palmer said. “If they’re comfortable with your being there, they get used to you.” She added, “once birds get used to where the feeder is, they will come to it.”
Bathing feathers keeps birds in top condition, Thompson said. Research shows a chickadee with well-kept feathers can sustain a 70-degree insulation layer between skin and outside air.
Bird baths equipped with heaters keep water from freezing, even below zero, Palmer found out. Concrete bird baths freeze and crack, if left in cold. Ceramic baths should be empty, and covered in chill. Palmer suggests a shallow plastic bird bath dish, for winter watering. It is “easy to dump out at night.”
Priscilla and Dan Palmer have nine bird feeders at home, stocked with varying seed. Their feeders are six feet above ground. Five feet up, a cylindrical baffle fits atop a feeder post. It keeps squirrels from climbing to the feeder. A second baffle above the feeder keeps squirrels from climbing down to it, Jaquette said.
Raccoons are big and grasp well enough to reach over smaller baffles, but not longer ones, Palmer realized. Feeder poles cemented into the ground need a teepee-shaped, “wrap-around” baffle.
A squirrel-proof or resistant feeder, when activated by enough weight, drops a cage to cover the feed chamber.
It is fun to see each feeding bird’s personality emerge along with a pecking order on the perch, Palmer said. “Sometimes you see a bird become dominant, and a hierarchy develops.” She sees sharing. “If it’s really cold, they might sit on top of the hook, and wait until others move out” from feeding. Impatience rules the roost at times, she said. “Finches might scoot a younger one off the feeder, by fluttering on top or near him.”
Yet, Thompson noted, “It is rare that any individual can dominate a feeder, and hence eat everything. The many comings and goings at the feeder enable most to get food.”
Popular WBU feeder shapes include as snowmen, owls and penguins. Platform and hopper feeders serve cardinals and jays, and chickadees which (along with finches) also can keep gripping hanging feeders that move in a breeze. A ground tray feeds sparrows, towhees and mourning doves.
Seed is on sale at the two WBU stores, starting by March. A five-pound bag can last a regular-feeding bird for two to three weeks, Palmer estimated. Birds instinctively ration portions, she said. “They know when to quit. They’re not like us: Eat, eat and eat” in a sitting. Birds snack several times per day, igniting metabolism with the crucial morning feed.
If birds avoid the feeder or flick away seed searching for more, it signals the feed is stale, Palmer and Jaquette said. Grey or dusty feed is a bad sign. Feed stays fresh for about three months before black oil dries up — which birds detect. Feed is best stored cool and dry in metal seed cans (if in a garage), sealed bags or frozen, WBU owners said. Avoid storing seed outside, where bears and raccoons can get at it.
Monthly bird walks are hosted by the Henderson County Bird Club in Jackson Park on the second Saturday, and on the first Saturday by the Asheville Audubon chapter at its Beaver Lake Sanctuary.WBU in Hendersonville is at 150 First Ave. E. at King Street, next to Papa John’s Pizza. Asheville WBU’s new site off U.S. 25 is in Gerber Village.For more about bird watching supplies, contact Wild Birds Unlimited in Hendersonville (694-0081, www.hendersonville.wbu.com) or Asheville (687-9433, www.asheville.wbu.com). For birding treks, contact Ventures Birding (253-4247, www.birdventures.com).