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Flying Colors: Flying Furnaces

Flying Colors is a sponsored column on the hobby of backyard bird feeding written by Michael Zuiker, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store at the Lee Harrison Shopping Center. Visit the store at 2437 N. Harrison Street or call 703-241-3988.

Every Fall, many customers come into my store and ask me what is the matter with the birds. They tell me they do not see them in their yards or at their feeders. They have become concerned that maybe there is some disease that has reduced the number of birds.

If you are new to feeding the birds, it is alarming to all of a sudden see the birds almost disappear. At best the birds only intermittently come to the feeders. And yet this is a perfectly normal event that occurs in the Fall. Some people think the birds have all migrated. Most of our backyards birds do not migrate. We lose the hummingbirds and warblers and some robins (although they seem to be staying around all winter now. We also receive a lot of Winter visitors like Juncos, White Throated Sparrows and Purple Finches. They will be in very large flocks usually bouncing around the ground and on platform feeders, picking up millet, sunflower chips and peanut pieces.

When Fall comes, the bounty of natural food is exploding. In our yards and gardens, in parks, in the forests, in meadows and even in the median area of our highways; there is an abundance of food. Flowers produce seeds. Shrubs and bushes produce fruit. Trees produce nuts such as acorns. And the wild birds in our yards notice and take advantage of the bounty. With all of the different sources of food to choose from, our feeders are visited less often.

That does not mean they are not coming to your feeders. But it will take a little longer for the food to be eaten. It is important to keep the food fresh. It is never a good idea to let the food stay more than a couple of weeks in the feeder if the birds have not been visiting.

But this phenomenon always occurs in the early part of Fall. For the past two months, the natural food has been eaten down. Days are getting shorter.   Nights are getting longer and colder. The birds in your area are eating more to survive.

Twenty-five years ago, I heard someone describe wild birds as flying furnaces. That description has always stayed me and I use it often to help customers visualize the challenges of birds in the wild. They need to fill up their stomachs with enough food to burn off and stay warm throughout the ten, eleven or twelve-hour nights. The more fat, in the form of nuts and suet’s, the more calories the birds can pack in and burn off at night. The longer the night, the colder the night, the harsher the night in the form of ice, snow, wind — the more birds will need the fat to survive.

But it also applies to the day, especially in the winter. You already know this when you see the first flakes of snow and your feeders are crowded all day long. Our triple pane, insulated windows masks very effectively just how different the world is outside those windows. And you cannot invite the chickadees, woodpeckers and cardinals in to watch football on the big screen.

Make sure your fat feeders (suet, peanut, bark butter) are loaded up at dawn so the birds can fill up. Their furnaces will be very depleted and in need of new fuel. This fuel will be needed all day long and if you are traveling out of town for a few days, make sure you have feeder stations up that can last more than a day. Seed and suet cylinders can last from a few days to a week or more. Set them up before leaving and you will be able to know that your birds will have a steady source of high fat food. Now when you come home, you know the flying furnaces will be there, flying and glowing; red, blue, olive, orange, black and white.

We have a great selection of seed cylinders and suet that our trained staff is ready to help you. Stop in soon so we can help you.

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