Frigid February Feeder Frenzy

A male Cardinal perched on a tree with frost-covered red berries and branches


Woodlands fell silent as winter’s grasp tightened and temperatures plunged to single digits. However, blue sky mornings added beauty as birds hunted for frozen berries and feasted at feeders while our coldest weekend of the year approached. Birds actually manage quite well on their own without human handouts, but bird feeders offer never-ending sources of entertainment, enjoyment, and education. They become center stage for kaleidoscopes of brilliant colors, insight into the ways of nature, and sometimes fast-moving drama.

Bird feeders also dispel long-held myths. One of my favorite Henry David Thoreau quotes is, “The bluebird comes and with his warble drills the ice and sets free the rivers and ponds and frozen grounds.” The Journal, 1837-1861 (Thoreau, 2009). Perhaps that poetic quote held truth back in 1859, but many Eastern Bluebirds now overwinter in Oakland County. I have bluebirds at my window feeders all winter, with suet being an excellent substitute for the grubs and bugs of spring. Earlier this week, Jay Popp graciously shared this photo of an Eastern Bluebird sipping water from his heated birdbath.

Well stocked bird feeders and spillage from feeders attract numerous creatures, and some species care nothing about sunflower seeds, cracked corn, suet, and thistle seed. Wild Turkeys meander up from woodlands and deer approach reachable window feeders. Red foxes and coyotes come in at night, and occasionally in the day, in hopes of capturing rabbits that feast on spillage. Tracks in the snow reveal February feeder scroungers that sometimes include opossums and skunks.

Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks are stealthy “bird watchers” and they look at bird feeding stations as smorgasbords of opportunity. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the hunting behavior of the “sharpie” this way:

Sharp-shinned Hawks are “pursuit hunters,” often surprising their prey on the wing by bursting out from a hidden perch with a rush of speed. They are versatile: small birds may be taken in the air or on the ground; they may pounce from perches as little as 3 feet above the ground to catch rodents; and they catch some insects on the wing. Sharp-shins make great use of cover and stealth to get close to their prey, surprising it at close range rather than diving from great heights.

A Sharp-shinned hawk perched in a tree
Photo Credit: Taylor Reynolds

The slightly larger Cooper’s Hawk looks almost identical to the Sharp-shinned Hawk and is also a skilled pursuit hunter that is very much at home in Oakland County. For the past few days, I’ve had a Red-tailed Hawk patiently perched near my feeder with an eye out for squirrels.

A Red-tailed Hawk looks down while perched on a branch in winter

Looking for adventure and secrets of nature’s way in these frigid February days? You may find the answers at bird feeders. But remember this first: If you want to attract a variety of species, try providing an assortment of foods in different types of bird feeders. Place the feeders in clear view of your window near shrubs or a tree –  birds like escape cover –  and the action will be non-stop. There is no need to get a fancy feeder; a simple platform or tube feeder will get you started. I think back to my little kid days when I would make a feeder out of grapefruit, half-filled with peanut butter and sunflower seeds.

The type of seed you offer will influence the species that appear, but the best all-around seed for the remainder of the winter are black-oil sunflower seeds. They have high oil content that is nutritionally beneficial and attract some of our most “feeder friendly” species, including Cardinals, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice, White-Breasted Nuthatches, and Black-Capped Chickadees. Squirrels love them too and sometimes squabble over the spillage.

Add thistle seed to your mix and American Goldfinches, House Finches, and Purple Finches will feast. A suet block is always a treat for our Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and provides hours of viewing pleasure.

The suet may even lure in our red-crested forest giant, the magnificent Pileated Woodpecker. I’m still waiting for a Pileated Woodpecker to land on my suet, but for now, I am more than happy photographing them in my woods as they pound away on dead trees in search of hibernating insects during these frigid February days.

Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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