As I batten down the hatches for a coming-any-minute winter storm, with heavy rain and wind expected, and as I read about the very cold weather happening this minute in most of the midwest, I am also thinking about all the birds that overwinter in our regions. While they are biologically equipped to handle the climate they spend their winters in, they could still use a little extra help from us. I do feed the birds in winter, though I don't any other time of the year (at least, not from feeders - I do let a lot of my flowers go to seed, just for the birds) .
This habit may have been ingrained in me from my grandmother in Ohio, who every morning in winter threw a few cupfuls of seed out her back door onto the snow. A huge crowd of birds would form, and she knew them all. It seemed like a great magic she had with the birds. Of course I now know that the birds became accustomed to her feeding them every morning and began to expect it, and even rely on it, so it wasn't really magic, just habit. Still, it seemed then so miraculous that wild creatures would willingly come so near to a human, and wonderful that we could watch them through the sliding glass door and learn all about them.
It still is miraculous to me, in many ways, and feels like a blessing bestowed by the birds. We have a great variety of them in our yard, many of whom I only glimpse flitting about in the bushes in summer, but can watch for minutes at a time at the feeders in winter.
I only keep two feeders going at the moment, though I may add a few more kinds to attract different varieties of birds. I have a cage feeder that houses a suet cake, which is visited mostly by chickadees and nuthatches (and an occasional squirrel), and a nectar feeder which attracts the hummingbirds. Both are easy to fill and maintain, either with store-bought feed or homemade. Of course I prefer homemade.
Hummingbirds like a 1:4 ratio of sugar to water. I like to use Baker's Sugar for this purpose (or caster sugar if you're overseas), which is very fine and dissolves easily in very hot water. I use a pyrex 2 cup measure for this, add 1/4 cup of the sugar, then fill the rest of the way to the top with water I've heated in my kettle, just under boiling. Stir with a spoon and the sugar will dissolve easily. Use right away (after cooling) or store for several days in the fridge. Nectar feeders should be cleaned and refilled every week.
Suet cakes can be bought cheaply at any store, but you can make your own healthier version quite easily with little effort. You'll need to visit your butcher and ask for lard - tell them you're making suet for the birds, and they'll give you the right stuff. When you bring it home, melt it in a big pot. (Prepare to have all your dogs and cats sit hopefully right at your feet.) When melted, stir in peanut butter and whatever birdseed you like. Pour into a casserole dish and let harden at room temperature. Cut into squares, wrap in plastic, and keep in the fridge (or freezer) and dole out when needed.
Of course, the most important thing you can do for the birds is have a source of clean water. In climates that are very cold, that means making sure you have some unfrozen water available. There are heaters you can get for ponds that keep a small portion from freezing, or you can have a running fountain with a pump, or you can put out fresh water a couple of times a day.
We have a store near us called East Bay Nature that is filled with bird supplies, and the owners and employees are very knowledgeable about the local wildlife. I love supporting small, privately owned stores like this one, and taking advantage of their expertise. Look around to see if you have a place like this near you, or maybe there is a wildlife museum that can help you get started. It's especially fun for kids to get involved in this kind of nature-watching. I remember when Kate was very young, first or second grade, she did her science project on the goldfinches who visited our nyger seed tube feeder. She wanted to know if more finches visited on sunny days or rainy days, so she picked consistent time to spend watching each day for several months, and it was interesting for all of us. (The result? Sunny days, though initially I was sure the answer would be rainy days.) When kids get involved in nature at a young age, they'll love it always. Now that doesn't mean that Kate isn't, as a 13 year old, more often in her room watching youtube than she is outdoors watching the birds. I only wish! But it does mean that the foundation was laid for her to appreciate nature her whole life. I truly believe that kids don't get enough opportunities anymore to be outdoors, alone, experiencing nature. Birdwatching in the backyard is the kind of activity that is safe enough to satisfy those who fear for a roaming child, and cheap enough that anyone can participate.