The clouds are “low’r’d upon our house” today and not “In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.” Low gray clouds sit over us and bring to mind Shakespeare’s opening lines of Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.” Or, as we once saw in a humorous sale advertisement for a tent, “Now is the winter of our discount tent.”
But it is hard to be discontent on a cold, gray winter’s day if you have a flock of House Sparrows entertaining you at the feeders. A few House Finches are out there too but mainly we have sparrows today. Often we get out the binoculars in the hope of spotting a native sparrow but House Sparrows are usually about all we see in our backyard. House Sparrows are not native to North America but they compete for food and space quite well. Too well in some instances. They are known, for example, to boot bluebirds out of their homes. Many attempts have been and are being made to design a bluebird birdhouse that defeats the ubiquitous House Sparrow and some of those tries will be the subject of a later post.
But House Sparrows need to eat too and today they are hard at it, providing fine entertainment not only to the humans but also to the Border Collies who love to pick up after them, much to the distress of the Rock Pigeons who prefer to do the job.
House Sparrows are non-migrants around here which brings us to the subject of humans feeding wintertime non-migrants.
Non-migratory birds can use extra help during winter from non-migratory humans. Providing food and water contributes to birds’ health and survival during the cold time. A recent study in England of the English Blue Tit (no jokes please, this is British science we’re talking about) found that non-migratory birds for which humans supply seed during the cold of winter do better than those which lack supplemental food. (Stay tuned for more about the long-term ec ological impace of humans feeding birds.)
During winter, the abundance of berries, fruits, and insects upon which birds rely dwindles to the point where their diets depend on seeds to survive.
Black oil sunflower seed or a premium seed blend containing primarily black oil sunflower seed are the best winter-time food to use in your feeders. High in protein and fat content, black oil sunflower has twice the calories per pound of striped sunflower seed. Its thinner shells make it easier for smaller birds to open. A seed blend containing other smaller seeds also helps ground feeding birds which will clean up the seeds dropped from your feeders.
Another favorite wintertime food for birds is suet. It too is packed with calories and can be bought in small blocks which contain seeds and fruits mixed into the suet. Nuthatches and woodpeckers are attracted by suet.
Peanuts, shelled and unshelled, are useful, especially if you have jays visiting your yard. Be sure to purchase peanuts specifically processed for birds. Don’t feed salty peanuts or those from the grocery store.
Finally and most importantly, put out water for your birds. Birds’ summertime sources of water may be frozen or non-existent. A daily supply of fresh, unfrozen water will bring birds to your yard faster than anything else you can do.
Which means that you’ll have sprightly House Sparrows for entertainment even if you don’t get more interesting birds to watch.