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A birding activity you can do while staying warm

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Mark Faherty
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Eastern Bluebird

As I write on this coldest day of the season thus far, it seems wise to discuss an indoor birding activity almost universally enjoyed by bird fanciers – backyard bird feeding. This time of year there are several lesser known feeder visitors to be aware of. So let’s talk food, feeders, water, and the birds that love them. Try to stay awake all the way to the end, when I give my super duper no-fail rare bird attracting feeder advice.

But before you get too crazy, if you’re just looking to get started feeding birds, get yourself a basic tube feeder and some black oil sunflower seed. I would advise investing in a squirrel-proof feeder, the type where a spring-loaded cage closes over the feeding ports when heavy things climb aboard. I’ve found them to be great at deterring squirrels, though my featherweight chipmunks just laugh and have their way with them.

To get the most action, hang it near some cover, not out in the middle of a big lawn. Add a bird bath and you’ll increase your potential customers exponentially. Things like warblers, tanagers, and other insectivores will visit water but typically not seed feeders. The exception to that rule is hulled sunflower seed, that premium stuff with no shell for the birds to open — on several occasions there have been Western and Summer Tanagers wintering on Cape Cod, always at a house that sprang for hulled sunflower seeds.

Suet is also great in winter, and may attract things like bluebirds and Pine Warblers, or even something less expected like an Orange-crowned Warbler, or other warbler — 23 species of warbler have been recorded on the Cape in winter, believe it or not, many of them at suet feeders. My suet was frequently mobbed by bluebirds and up to 9 Pine Warblers all last winter, though it’s been quiet this year.

As a fairly hardcore birder, I have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with rare birds. So here it is, my recipe for a no-fail backyard feeder array for attracting weirdo birds that get the likes of me excited, things like out-of-season warblers, tanagers, and orioles. First, shell out the cash for the seed with no shells, the hulled sunflower seed and offer it in a squirrel-proof feeder. Include a platform feeder or two, and a tube feeder with millet for buntings. Have at least one heated bird bath and add one or more suet cages. Next, a tray of mealworms, which you can buy locally, order online, or raise yourself. These are great for attracting bluebirds, Pine Warblers, and other goodies. Finally, keep a hummingbird feeder with fresh nectar into at least December, as most rare hummingbirds show up here in late fall and early winter. You could even add a jelly feeder — Baltimore Orioles are increasingly around in winter, and one house in Dennis has five still coming to their jelly feeder, as of late December.

Of course, I don’t do most of that — my kids wouldn’t be able to go to college if I spent that much on bird feeding. But I do have regular sunflower seed, suet, and water, plus some of the cheap millet mix, because things like sparrows and buntings prefer it. I actually had a super rare-for-the-date Indigo Bunting visit my millet feeder the other day, one of just a handful of state records for January. Hell, sometimes you don’t even need a feeder — I know a woman in Sandwich who just throws seed on the deck, which was good enough to attract a male Painted Bunting that is still coming every day.

So there you have it, my somewhat confusing primer on winter bird feeding on Cape Cod. I didn’t get to a lot of things, like submitting your data to Cornell’s eBird or Feeder Watch, taking down your feeders and not using poisons if you get rats, and my favorite topic, landscaping with native trees and shrubs, which is ultimately more important for birds and other wildlife in your yard. Next time for sure. In the meantime, go forth and feed, watch, and report. I’m not a doctor, but I will guarantee this: it’s way better for your mental health than scrolling through news on your phone.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.