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A cardinal searches for food in the winter. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com
Turkeys visit a backyard in winter. / Gary Engberg/For Wisconsinoutdoorfun.com

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So far, this has been a tough winter for wild birds and small animals. The cold weather started in November and basically has continued through the whole month of December.

Before the snow that weíve received recently, many birds found much of their food in what was left over on wild plants, trees and bushes from the summer and fall. Now, things are much different with snow covering up most edibles and making birds scrounge for food.

There are many birds that stay in Wisconsin all winter even with the ups and downs of a typical Midwestern winter. I always find it amazing that there are so many different species of wild birds that stay here year-round and especially with the weather a normal Wisconsin winter brings. Iíve been a serious birdfeeder for many years and find that feeding birds is a great way to enjoy winter for you and your family.

The birds that reside in Wisconsin year-round live on what they can find and salvage in nature and their immediate surroundings. This may include seeds from native bushes and wild plants, nuts, dried berries, old vegetable matter and left-over grains from a farmerís harvesting of corn, soybeans, and other grains. Wild birds can always use some help from man despite what nature has left for them and what kind of weather 'Old Man Winter' brings.

More on birding: Birding news from around the state | Browse birding photos | Share your shots

A winter with above normal snowfall can make foraging difficult in the deep snow for birds including wild turkeys which will come to a feeder during a severe winter.

Feeding birds can range from hanging a feeder or two close to a window to a yard devoted to providing food and cover for our winged winter residents.

If I was a novice who wanted to start feeding birds here are a few tips and suggestions to begin your feeding operation.

Go to the library or Google 'bird feeding' on your computer. Youíll find countless articles and information on the birds that you have in your immediate area and state. These are the creatures that you are targeting. People who work where seed and supplies are sold can help you in your start-up!

Most people who work at stores that cater to birdfeeders like Wild Birds Unlimited, Ace Hardware and Fleet Farm will help get you started in your feeding venture.

Another good idea is to pick up a bird identification book so that youíll know what birds youíre watching and feeding. The Audubon Society has books that can help anyone who feeds birds. It's also a good idea and educational to keep a journal listing the birds that you can identify from your feeding. Children love to keep track of the numerous birds that will come to your feeders year-round and especially in the winter. It wonít take long before youíll begin to recognize the birds and get to know their habits including what they prefer to eat and when they come and go to use your feeders.

As an example, cardinals come to my feeders early in the morning and late in the afternoon just as the sun is rising or setting. Itís important to place your feeders where they provide some shelter and cover and also are where you, your family, and friends can view them from the warmth of your house.

The most important thing to remember is that once you start feeding birds you must continue to do it because the birds will learn to depend on you! You never want to leave a bird feeder empty in the winter!

Tips for the beginning bird feeder:

1. Keep your feeders clean because birds can get sick from ďdirtyí feeders.

2. Have a container of course sand available to help birds digest their food. This is like chickens and pheasants needing grit to digest their food. This is why you see birds picking at gravel on roadsides.

3. Scatter some seed on the ground for ground feeding birds and critters like squirrels and rabbits. Squirrels can waste seed and sometimes eat more than the birds. Use feeders that are as squirrel-proof as possible.

4. Tie bags of suet to trees for quick energy for the birds. Itís also easy to make your own suet using fat, nuts, berries, and peanut butter. The Internet should also have some recipes for making bird suet too. Iíll also hang a deer carcass in my yard for the suet that nuthatches, blue jays, and many other birds will pick at all winter. The deer skeleton will be picked clean by spring.

5. Put out ear corn on long nails from trees for squirrels and scatter shell corn for rabbits, squirrels, turkeys, doves, blue jays, pheasants, and ducks. I get all of these birds and animals because there is food in the yard for them and once you put food out it doesnít take long for them to find it and become a regular visitor.

6. Keep your feeders out of the wind.

7. Try to place your feeders at least 5 feet above the ground and near trees and bushes to protect the birds from predators like cats and even hawks.

8. Keep cats inside because loose and feral cats can greatly affect a wild bird population.

9. Different kinds of seeds are preferred by different bird species, so tailor your feed accordingly. I use some different seeds, but black oil sunflower seeds are eaten by most if not all birds. The other seed that I buy (when I can afford it) and itís expensive is Niger seed which the finches, chickadees and pine siskins love to eat. There are inexpensive seeds available, but much of the seed mix contains things that the birds donít eat and ends up being waste. These cheaper varieties are better than no seed at all, but it isnít a very good buy for the consumer.

Bird seed prices have risen greatly with the cost of grains around the world. I try and find the best prices on seeds and to me the price is well worth the enjoyment I gain from seeing the many birds in my yard.

The birds that frequent my feeders during the winter are juncos, sparrows, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, titmouseís, mourning doves, crows, starlings, blackbirds, thrushes, all species of woodpeckers, grackles, cardinals, finches and the dreaded sharp-shinned and kestrel hawks which can show up in the cold and snowy weather looking for an easy meal. Since Iím living in the country, I also get a few pheasants, turkeys, ducks, and geese that seem to like shell corn and sunflower seeds.

There is not a better way to spend a cold winter day than watching your feeders and adding a new species to your bird list! Have fun and remember that youíre helping native birds survive the cold and snow of winter. Soon, the birds will know to come to your house and yard for food in the winter.

Browse more photos of birds in Wisconsin:

Browse sandhill crane, prairie chicken, snowy owl, pelican, loon, goose, eagle, whooping crane, tundra swan, heron, turkey, cardinal, hummingbird and other bird photos.

Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990ís and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years. Visit http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com for more from Gary Engberg.

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