As gardeners, we observe many things in our gardens. Even as the winter solstice approaches, we notice, despite the bareness of the trees, that birds are far less conspicuous in our gardens at this time of year than they were during the warmer weather.
For one, the natural enticements for birds are gone from the winter garden. The plentiful food supplies produced by blooming annuals and perennials have disappeared, dead and dormant. Trees no longer have fruit, and the vegetable garden has long since been turned under. Plus, the nearly frozen ground and frigid air offer few, if any, tasty insects to snatch up. Then, too, some have left for warmer climates.
It doesn't matter if you don' t know a starling from a blackbird or a chickadee from a towhee, if you maintain a habitat conducive to their survival, birds will visit your garden.
The four key elements to attracting and keeping birds in the garden are food, shelter, water and nesting habitat. These basic ingredients provide the ecological balance necessary to sustain wildlife. The garden will come alive with the color, movement and song of birds, no matter the time of year.
Americans typically are generous when it comes to feeding birds. According to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife, more than 65 million Americans reported feeding birds at a cost of $2 billion annually.
Catherine Mor-len, director of corporate outreach for Pike Family Nurseries in Georgia, is an avid birder. She gardens in north Georgia and en-courages gardeners to feed birds, with one caveat.
"If you want healthy birds, clean your feeders regularly," she advises. "A good tight-fitting roof keeps rain out and prevents seed from rotting."
She recommends feeders with multiple perches to satisfy the appetites of several birds simultaneously.
Bird feeders come in a variety of styles; each style is fashioned to accommodate the feeding technique of various birds. Platform feeders welcome ground feeders such as doves and sparrows. Even sprinkling seed on the ground or a short tree stump will suffice for them. An unusual upside down thistle feeder is best for those acrobatic chickadees and finches.
Small agile birds, such as nuthatches, easily handle feeders that swing in the breeze. Traditional hanging feeders, easily suspended with an S hook from a wrought iron post or tree limb, accommodate a whole host of birds, including robins.
Opt to hang an array of feeders throughout the garden. Hanging several feeders allows small, shy birds to feed at one station while larger more aggressive birds can eat at another.
Fill the feeders with a variety of quality seeds. Morlen suggests buying individual bags of peanuts, corn and black sunflower seeds, which are higher in oil content and have a softer shell than the kind people eat.
Other seeds cherished by birds in winter are niger, safflower and white millet.
Once you have collected all the seeds, mix them yourself. This allows you to customize the bird food to the preferences of the birds in your garden and eliminates filler seeds that birds find unpalatable in packaged products. The filler seeds are what birds seem to scatter out of the feeder when packaged seed is put out for them. They are in search of tastier morsels.
Suet feeders are an excellent source of high-calorie winter food.
Be sure to store the birdseed in a container with a tight lid to prevent spoilage and theft by squirrels and other rodents. It's a good idea to purchase only as much seed as can be used in one season.
"Placing feeders in clear areas provides greater protection from predators," Morlen notes. "Position feeders at least seven feet from the ground to ensure safety from cats."
Shelter for birds may be natural or manmade. If you decide to purchase a birdhouse, keep in mind that those with perches may look cute but can encourage predators. Nature provides its own shelter and cover for birds in the form of evergreen trees and shrubs. Even deciduous shrubs, like the cotoneaster with its wild tangle of branches, make a perfect winter dwelling. Discarded Christmas trees placed about five feet from a feeder makes a wonderful temporary shelter for birds.
Natural shelters with succulent berries are a bonus because they also provide food. Deciduous and evergreen bushes alike, such as viburnum and sumac, have brilliant berries in the fall and winter and provide a delicacy for birds in search of food.
Fresh, unfrozen water is scarce in the winter. Nonetheless, birds savor every last chilled drop they can find. Keep fresh supplies of water handy for them. Almost any container will do, preferably one that is no more than a few inches deep. .
The time it takes to provide food, shelter, water and habitat for our avian neighbors is repaid in hours enjoying their presence in the garden during the winter. Besides, they' ll probably still be around when the insects return.
Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital and garden writer for the Journal-World.