Winter Bird Feeding on Wild About Utah

Jan 4, 2019

This time of year, we see a cast of characters flying among the trees and bushes as they search for food and a place to nestle to conserve warmth and energy. 

One of these characters is the Black-capped Chickadee a small bird with a black head, white cheeks and cream colored feathers under its grey wings.  The Chickadees are found in all 29 Utah counties.

Another member of the cast is the Dark-eyed Junco, a medium-sized American sparrow with a neat-flashy look. It has solid slate-grey feathers over most of its body except for its pink sides and white underbody. The Junco is found throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The third cast member is the Red-breasted Nuthatch which has a pale red chest, grey wings and a black feathered head with stripes of white below and above the eyes.  Its tail is short, its bill is long and it’s one of the few birds that climb headfirst down trees.

All three birds find the majority of their winter nourishment from nuts and seeds since most insects are hiding in dormancy or are dead. 

When a harsh winter hits and heavy snowfall covers their natural food source, the birds can rely on bird feeders to find nourishment. 

Although winter bird feeders are beneficial, some Utah residents may hesitate putting out nuts and seeds for the following reasons:

One, they worry the birds may become dependent on the feeders.

Clark Rushing, assistant professor in Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at USU explains, “In a typical winter these birds don’t need the extra food from a bird feeder to make it through the winter, but…when the snow covers up their [natural food source] they rely on the feeders which increase the birds’ survival rate over the winter.  When [snow] conditions [return to normal]… they go right back to feeding on natural sources.”

Another concern some Utah residents have is if the feeders will impact the birds’ migratory behaviors.  They worry species who normally migrate might stick around for the winter because they found food.

Rushing says, “This is not a huge concern because most of these bird species use photoperiod as a queue to migrate, which means they start migrating in the Fall when the days start getting shorter and food is still relatively abundant - so food is not the queue that these species use to migrate.”

When starting the hobby of winter bird feeding, there are a few good tips to remember.

First, is the importance of keeping your feeders clean.  Some diseases can be spread by bird feeders, so keeping them clean is essential.

According to Rushing, “The recommendation is to take [a feeder] down every two weeks, empty it and give it a light cleaning.  [Avoid using] harsh detergents. If you see evidence of mildew or mold then a diluted bleach mixture, which you then rinse off, can be really beneficial.  Let the feeder completely dry before you put bird seed in it.  When [the feeder is wet] is when you have the most problems, so keep it dry.”

Having a variety of feeders and foods is the best way to attract an assortment of birds to your yard during the winter months.

Rushing adds, “The great thing about bird feeding is it connects people to wildlife.”  

It’s one of the few ways you can enjoy watching wildlife out your own dining room window throughout the cold winter months.