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Flying Colors: The Darkest Day

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.

We have just ended the darkest day of the year. With it comes the longest night. In our region of the country, this night comes with cold temperatures. And who is sitting out in the dark on cold nights like this? Cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers, titmouse and many other species. To make it through the night, there are two very important things these birds need. They need water and high fat foods.

Why water you say? It is cold. Why would they want water? All birds need water during the entire year. Winter is extremely critical time to provide water for the birds to bathe and drink. I am sure you have noticed that we have been extremely dry for the past three months. So many natural areas of water have dried up or are very low. Many of us have turned off our outside water faucets. Gardens and lawns are dry and gone to seed. So, very little moisture is retained in these areas. Yet the birds need to find sources of water to bathe and drink every day.

Bird baths, especially in Winter months becomes a magnet for many species of birds. Birds that may not frequent the bird feeders, will come to the bird baths. Filling up the bath every day is critical. Cleaning the bath is also very important. This is especially true if the bath is used heavily by many different birds. You should not see much mildew or algae on the bath. But a strong brittle brush will help knock off any bird droppings that may accumulate on the edges.

The biggest challenge may be trying to monitor the temperature swings that occur this time of year. A small amount of water in the bath, over the course of a 10-12 hour night of freezing temperatures, will freeze up rock hard. One of the best ways to prevent that is to use a thermostatically controlled bird bath heater. These heaters are set to turn on when the water temperature goes below 34-35 degrees. The small amount of current will prevent the water from forming ice. If the temperature starts to rise during the day, the heater will turn off and not use electricity. There are also some good bird baths that have the heating element built into the bath. A simple outdoor extension chord from the house to the bath gives your birds a sauna for the Winter.

A birds’ clean feathers will help it to insulate its body from the cold of the night. To retain warmth though, a bird needs to have its body fueled up with high fat foods. Suet cakes with tree nuts and insect and peanut pieces are excellent means of fat for the birds.   There are many suet types to choose from and putting up a couple of suet feeders will allow the birds to stay a while and get their fill. Bird food blends with tree nuts consisting of walnuts, almond, pecans and other nuts are high in fat. Birds will fill up their stomachs with these foods and slowly burn them off and create heat. Clean feathers on the birds will help retain the heat with good insulation.

When we are cold, we reach for another layer of clothing and hats and gloves. Sometimes we just stay indoors. The beautiful birds in our backyards do not have those options. We may have just past the Darkest day, but Winter has just started. There will be many more dark and cold days. Make sure you give your birds the best opportunity to survive during these months with a good source of water and high fat foods. Make sure you spend sometime outdoors watching and listening to the birds. Winter can be a beautiful time of the year. Get out and enjoy it.

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