Oct 30, 2013 | 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 have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018