While winter brings cold and snow, Mainers with bird feeders know that the season can also attract a busy and colorful spectacle to their backyards. In a year when many of our routines have been disrupted, there is comfort and reassurance in watching our feathered friends going about their business as usual, finding the necessary food, water, and shelter to endure the state’s coldest months.
Birds thrived for millions of years without backyard feeders, but in the winter, a tube of birdseed or a pad of suet can provide a welcome supplement to their diets. And when the harshest blizzards and ice storms hit, feeders provide calories when birds most need the energy and warmth.
Americans began feeding their table scraps to birds as part of the conservation movement that evolved at the turn of the twentieth century. By World War II, bird feeders were common in backyards around America. Magazines such as Popular Mechanics offered advice to do-it-yourselfers on designing and building their own.
Down Easters have long had a warm spot for birds. Studies in the 1970s concluded that about 20 percent of US households purchased some 60 lbs. of birdseed annually. In Maine, however, one-third of households purchased nearly 125 lbs. annually.
It’s natural to worry that bird feeders might disrupt a specie’s normal rhythms or attract birds to places where they do not belong. And there is evidence that species such as the Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, and Red-bellied Woodpecker have expanded their ranges thanks to readily available backyard food.
But birds are smarter than that. Ornithologists agree that most feeder birds enjoy the bounty of a backyard buffet while retaining their instincts for feeding, nesting, and migrating. Forget to replenish your feeder or depart on a two-week vacation? No worries. Your flock will find a feeder next door, across town, or head back into the woods to find plenty of seeds, insects, and fruit.
One experienced New England birder we know begins filling his feeders on Labor Day and keeps them stocked until Mother’s Day. This period covers the spring and fall migrations as well as the chilly winter months.
Other friends feed the birds all year just to have the song, color, and ever-changing company.
Feeders come in all shapes and sizes to accommodate different kinds of food. In winter, seeds, nuts, suet, and mealworms all make for an attractive selection. Peanut butter can be a welcome addition. Work with your local retailer, research online, or just have fun experimenting with attracting various species.
The truth is, while bird feeders bring birds to us, their real power is to bring us to birds.
Perhaps Frank M. Chapman said it best in his 1919 Our Winter Birds. “The twittering Juncos at our doorstep, the Nuthatches and Woodpeckers at our suet-baskets, the Chickadees that take food from our hands, are not only our welcome guests but our personal friends.” In a time of pandemic, lockdowns, and sheltering at home, we can learn much from the steadiness, resilience, and good cheer of our feathered companions.
Some Birds of Winter
Maine boasts more than 200 nesting species. Here are just a few that might visit a well-stocked backyard feeder.
Nine species of woodpeckers call Maine home. Backyard feeders will attract beautiful Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, the males with bright red patches on their napes. But lucky feeders will also be visited by two of the larger woodpecker species, both magnificent in their color.
The northern flicker has a conspicuous white rump patch and presents a golden flash when it flies from feeder to tree, thanks to golden-yellow underwings. The flicker favors dining on the ground and on suet feeders as it seeks nuts and seeds to supplement its diet of insects.
The red-bellied woodpecker can also become a regular at a Maine bird feeder. Its name may confuse beginners because there is a red-headed woodpecker whose range is south of New England. (A check online will demonstrate the differences.) With the right twist and turn, however, the red on the belly of a red-bellied woodpecker is visible. This species will grab a single nut in its powerful beak, fly onto a branch to consume it, and repeat this circuit nut by nut until satisfied. The closer a backyard is to a forest, the more likely flickers, red-bellies, and other woodpecker species will find a home at your feeder.
Northern cardinals can create instant holiday cards when their black faces and magnificent red crests and feathered bodies light upon a snow-covered pine tree. Seven states have named the northern cardinal their state bird, more than any other species. Females are often more muted than males but are still beautiful, and the sexes pair up during the winter months. Cardinals are mostly non-migratory and comfortable in Maine winters. Rarely seen in the state before the 1950s, they are a species that has expanded north because of feeders and climate change. The more cover surrounding your backyard, the more likely you will have regular visits from cardinals, who will sometimes appear at a feeder in small flocks.
Pine siskins are another year-round resident of northern Maine and winter resident throughout the state, often making their first appearance at backyard feeders in October. They breed in the spruce and fir of the Boreal Forest as far north as Alaska. As diners, pine siskins prefer sunflower and thistle seeds. They are what ornithologists called an “irruptive” species; in years of good breeding and food shortage, they participate in a mass exodus south. In irruptive years—and this winter is one such period—it is possible to see thirty or forty pine siskin draped around a feeder at once. Even larger flocks, often mixed with Goldfinch, can look down expectantly from the treetops while a feeder is being restocked.
Dark-eyed juncos are another species that make their home in Maine year-round. In fact, there are few places in America that this slate-gray, white-bellied sparrow does not visit. John James Audubon called them “snowbirds,” a name still used in many parts of the country where their appearance in October means the arrival of winter. Both males and females have distinctive ivory-colored bills and flashing white tails. Juncos prefer to dine on the ground, vacuuming the seed knocked off the feeder by other species.
Climate change and suburban sprawl have also expanded the range of eastern bluebirds, where they have become regular wintertime visitors to backyard bird feeders in southern Maine. Bluebirds dine on fruit and insects, with a love for (dried or live) mealworms. The species nest in cavities, but only those made by other creatures so that a Bluebird house might make for a beneficial addition to your property along with a mealworm feeder.
White-throated sparrows breed in Maine’s North Woods. Larger than the common song sparrow, their call is among the most distinctive, a “Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.” Common to Maine feeders in the migratory months, a greater number are now expected during the winter, especially along the coast. A yellow splash between the eyes and a pure white throat are distinctive field identifications. Christmas tree farms are a great place to spot white-throated sparrows, who will make their homes in the brush and sun themselves like ornaments in the pine branches. Individuals at a feeder usually prefer to dine on the ground.
Mourning doves are pigeon-like birds that also dine mostly on the ground, though they will sit for long periods on a feeder or sunning themselves in nearby trees between feedings. Their cooing is why they are considered mournful, and beginners can mistake the sound of a mourning dove for an owl. Uncommon in Maine a century ago, a summer-only resident in the 1970s, they are now year-round residents found throughout Maine within forty or fifty miles of the coast. Prolific breeders and popular game bird, more than 20 million are shot annually in 42 states. Their low density in Maine prohibits their being taken in the state. Buff colored with black spots, they can explode with color in the sunshine.
Some Advice and Good Sources of Information
How to make the most of your backyard feeder? While we all love cats, they are among nature’s most deadly predators, killing hundreds of millions of birds every year in the United States. Cats are especially hard on ground-feeders, of which there will be plenty at a typical Maine bird feeder. For more information, the American Bird Conservancy hosts an online site. (abcbirds.org/program/cats-indoors/cats-and-birds/)
Placing your feeder requires planning. If the seed and suet are placed too close to the surrounding woods, certain birds will avoid the feeder for fear of being attacked by predators from above. Placing a feeder at least 30 feet from the house will help prevent birds from colliding with windows.
And finally, there are squirrels, which enjoy eating anything a bird enjoys eating. YouTube is filled with videos of the ingenious ways people have tried to discourage squirrels from robbing their feeders—and the even more creative ways squirrels have of overcoming those obstacles. Baffles work, though it may take a little experimentation to succeed. Any feeder placed within a squirrel’s-leap from a tree branch or a patio wall is fair game.
Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology is a global leader in bird science and preservation. Their material on feeding birds (www.allaboutbirds.org/news/browse/topic/feeding-birds/) is a good place for beginners to learn more. Cornell also hosts a FeederWatch program (www.allaboutbirds.org/cams/cornell-lab-feederwatch/) for those interested in seeing activity at bird feeders around the country.
Maine Audubon (maineaudubon.org/) is the state’s oldest and largest wildlife conservation organization. The organization does outstanding work on behalf of birds, conservation, and biodiversity.
Any field guide prepared by David Allen Sibley, Roger Tory Peterson, or National Geographic will be money well spent to help identify backyard birds. And for the simple pleasure of reading and learning more about the thousands of species and billions of birds that inhabit our state and our world, Kenn Kaufman’s A Season on the Wind and Scott Weidensaul’s Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere With Migratory Birds are both wise and beautifully written.