Jan 20, 2021 | Featured Web Article

Supplying Skulkers and Wallflowers

Our most widespread sparrow in North America, the song sparrow prefers dense cover such as brushy field edges, hedgerows, and brambles, but it's also common in backyards, parks, and cemeteries.
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As winter settles in across our part of the world, we prepare. We check, clean, and fill our seed feeders. We mix up homemade suet dough in enormous batches that don't last nearly as long as they should. We set up heated birdbaths that offer winter visitors an oasis at which to drink. Winter may be the best time of year for backyard feeding stations, as wild food sources become scarcer. In our yard in northwestern West Virginia, we also take an extra step that is often undervalued: We spread some handfuls of mixed seed on the ground in sheltered spots where we know skulking birds hide. (Some folks spread a bit of cracked corn for the wild turkeys to find.) Although towhees and some of the shy sparrow species may not be regular feeder visitors, we know they take cover under our spruce and in the vine tangles along the edge of the woods. These are species that only rarely venture from such protected places across our open yard to the main feeding station. We've also noticed that skulking birds tend to congregate in places like these when the weather turns inclement. Providing birds with a cache of food in these covered shelter spots further encourages them to stick around.

Sure, the resident mice, squirrels, and chipmunks will undoubtedly take some of the food left on the ground for the birds. It's a small price to pay. Our efforts bear fruit with the first snow of the year, when most of the natural sources of food become buried and the weather is harsh. Suddenly that sheltered alcove under the bush is one of the few places left uncovered by snow—and the food inside is a welcome discovery. We've watched eastern towhees and Lincoln's, tree, swamp, and fox sparrows crowd into the protected spaces, scratching at duff and uncovering the morsels we've scattered for them. We've even had late-lingering gray catbirds, brown thrashers, pine warblers, and wintering hermit thrushes visit these "secret" feeding spots.

And when an accipiter jets through the yard, the regular feeder visitors (chickadees, titmice, cardinals, mourning doves) zip into these same protective habitats seeking, well, protection. While they are in hiding, most of them drop to the ground to forage on the food we've scattered for their shyer cousins.

Tossing a handful of mixed seed, sunflower hearts, peanut bits, old fruit, suet bits, or even crushed eggshells into deep cover around the perimeter of our yard makes us feel like we're also offering a bit of sustenance to the "wallflower birds" that visit us during the winter months.

About Jim Cirigliano

Jim Cirigliano and his wife live in Parkersburg, West Virginia, alongside an undeveloped wooded tract of bird heaven.


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  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021