On the Wing

Hungry Birds


It’s early December. Fall is winding down and winter is waiting in the wings, chomping at the bit. Exhausted, the garden is lying low and catching its breath. The tomato vines are a limp, tangled mess. A few desiccated artichokes perch like rusted finials on tall leafless stalks. The dahlias have long given up trying to look their best. Adding to the devastation, the ever-vigilant deer marched in and devoured what was left of the chives, kale and chard one evening when I had accidentally left the garden gate unlatched. They chewed off every single leaf on the new jasmine too while they were at it.

Yet all is not death and destruction; life still stirs here and there.

The pineapple sage, undeterred by the season and passed over by the herb-averse ungulates, shows off its bright green leaves and late-blooming spires of red tubular flowers. Those flowers in turn are a perfect fit for the long, thin bills of Anna’s hummingbirds who, equally undeterred, overwinter here.

In beds and pots, the flowering annuals and perennials I planted a few years back and that spread like gangbusters may be mere shadows of their summer selves, but their seeds are nutritious snacks for dark-eyed juncos, spotted towhees and other ground feeders.

And over in the corner, just outside the fence, a giant huckleberry is home to a couple of the towhees, offering cover but also sweet treats.

Nectar, seeds and berries: those are important food sources for small birds, especially in the winter when long cold nights can challenge survival. While many species migrate to warmer latitudes where food is abundant, a large number are year-round residents in the lowlands of Western Washington, while others extend their range by migrating short distances, from the snow zone down to lower elevations.

Chestnut-backed and black-capped chickadees, song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, spotted towhees, red-breasted nuthatches, pine siskins, robins, golden-crowned kinglets, Pacific wrens, and even some white-crowned sparrows and American goldfinches — the list of winter birds is long. We don’t notice them as much in the winter months, in part because our lives are more focused indoors, but also because many of us stop keeping our backyard feeders stocked. If you don’t feed them –– they will not come.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reminds us that feeding birds is no substitute for the natural habitat they need for winter cover and spring nesting and rearing. Point taken, and luckily for our local wildlife, the Key Peninsula is no concrete metropolis; green space is still the norm. There remain a myriad of pockets, however, where that green space has been replaced by our own habitat — our roads and highways, businesses and parking lots, houses and schools, and that iconic feature of rural and suburban America: the lawn. Planting a garden that morphs into a seed depot in the winter is one way to mitigate the effects of our footprint and keep birds coming.

Whether or not you plant a garden, you can also help birds survive the winter by setting up a bird feeder or two. The practice is recommended by the Humane Society of the United States: “Bird feeding,” they write, “is most helpful at times of when birds need the most energy, such as during temperature extremes, migration, and in late winter or early spring, when natural seed sources are depleted.”

Most birds don’t need our help in the summer, preferring a diet of insects during breeding and when rearing their young. Feeding them during that time is something we do primarily for our own enjoyment and, one hopes, edification. I am the first to admit to spending a substantial chunk of time watching all the avian goings-on at the feeders and avoiding doing whatever it is I should be doing instead.

If you’re going to set up feeders, do it responsibly. Keep them clean and free of moldy seed; the National Audubon Society recommends emptying them and cleaning them at least twice a year by scrubbing them with detergent using a bottle brush, then rinsing and soaking in a 10 percent non-chlorine bleach solution. Air-dry them, in the sun if possible.

My own offerings are simple: nyjer seed, black oil sunflower seeds and hulled sunflower chips in the tube feeders, and, in winter only, suet with bits of fruit and nuts. Suet gets messy in the summer. Fat is an important part of a bird’s diet in the winter when its energy needs are higher. And, of course I keep the hummingbird feeder full as well, bringing it inside on nights when the thermometer will drop below freezing.

Finally, if you have feeders you can be a citizen-scientist by joining the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, which collects data from November to April and helps scientists track long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, naturalist and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.