Posted in Conservation, Creatures, Plants

Late Winter Wildlife Feeding

It may be ingrained in folks to tidy up the garden when things start to die back in the fall, but many bits if not all of those plants are useful to a broad variety of wildlife as shelter and/or food in the colder weather to come.  They may spend their winter in a curled up leaf; use browned milkweed stalks as a resting or observation perch on your lawn away from the cold snowy ground; feed from seeds of goldenrod; or many other possibles, depending on the visitors in your garden.

Some folks do put out various store bought food for at least birds in the winter.  They might to so to get them in close view to see them from their home’s windows; take a picture or sketch them; to give their cats something to watch (and possibly curse at); or they simply like feeding them and contributing to their survival.

In colder climates like we have here in New England, native plants can do some or most of that work without the added time and financial costs associated with bird feeding–meaning the purchase and maintenance of the various types of feeders themselves as well as what goes into them.  Because some or even most of what is bought would already be there had the well meaning humans encouraged the natural volunteer growth of or deliberately planted native habitat oriented plants.  Suet is a bit of an exception because of the extra fat it affords that is much less likely to be present in a food form in winter in sub/urban landscapes.  Yet depending on your plantings, even that can be readily available as well with various berry types.

Even if you do encourage/plant native habitat plants, the time most wildlife likely may still need some extra help foraging is late winter, when what little food might have been wildly available has been depleted. This is often compounded when folks simply stop filling feeders once their initial purchase for the winter runs out, and they do not buy/make more because they don’t want it sitting around in warmer months when they don’t put it out and while sitting in storage might attract pests. (I only recently learned this is more common than one would think, and likely was worse than usual this winter thanks to the pandemic cutting into many household’s buying power.)

When we had the sudden temperature drop here combined with the heavy snow, that’s when I finally put a mix of bought unhulled sunflower seed and a small fruit mix of raisins, cranberry, blueberries and cherries.  I did so by scattering the mix a bit on top of the snow on the lids of our two weed burning bins (aka metal trash bins), and also hauled out the old small metal birdbath I found at my local second hand shop but had not yet had a chance to refinish prior.  (As seen above.)  I essentially treated them as makeshift temporary platform feeders.  The sudden fall in temperature was what reminded me that it had been a bit since I’d seen birds feeding at the plants still blowing in the wailing wind outside–meaning they likely had been depleted of seed.

Both birds and the Acorn Bomber Brigade (a.k.a. squirrels) took to them immediately, and I thought, “Welp, my job is done.”  I wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t a perfect solution.  I think our wildlife was a bit hungrier than I’d first guessed, and that made for some competition I had not anticipated, though there’s a happy end to that temporary dilemma.

My mistake at first was not realizing that our Acorn Bombers–well, one in particular at least–would chatter aggressively and scare off both birds and even other squirrels when it was eating at the birdbath if it thought them too near.  This didn’t seem as much an issue with the weed bins–and that might have been due to there being more food there since two bigger surfaces compared to the smaller bowl of the birdbath, or how much higher off the ground the lids were, adding more distance…not really certain.

As any bird feeders know, squirrels are a notorious headache in trying to keep them away from bird specific feeders.  I don’t mind them eating, but the not sharing bit was something I needed to resolve.  After some experimenting, I realized that if I also scattered some of the feed near to the metal birdbath, the birds would feed nearby at the same time as the squirrels when the especially mean one was hogging the birdbath.

I fretted about this at first, worried some of the local wandering cats might find the birds easy prey as they were pecking away on the ground, but my fears proved unfounded.  If only because other birds perched nearby in shrubs and trees would sound their respective alarm calls if one came near, and all the feeding birds would flee to safety far before the cat in question made ground towards them.

Getting back to my initial dilemma, once the creatures realized the pattern and steady amount of food wasn’t going to stop, the overly aggressive behavior (in particular with the squirrel we quickly named Bluto due to its size and meanness) ceased to be an issue.

If you don’t have even a few shrubs or trees nearby, perhaps the warning might come from birds perched on your home or garage roof or even on stair or porch railings.  I can only speak from what I’ve observed so far this winter.

One of the things I plan to write about more when I can fit it in is what kinds of native plants will help you feed your local wildlife in the colder months.  I’m not sure exactly how I’ll approach this yet, whether to write up posts based on animal species, or as specific notes within other plant postings, but no matter what sort of post the info appears in, I will definitely use the Conservation category to make them a bit easier to find.  If I ever get around to further breaking down the Critters Page, I’ll likely add links to posts that apply per critter.  (Time will tell!)

Care to share thoughts on this?