You can help wild birds survive the winter – or an extremely cold winter night – by providing a variety of rich, high-energy foods for them. A study in Wisconsin found that when chickadees had access to bird feeders, they were much more likely to live through the winter. (With feeders, almost 70 percent survived. Without feeders, only 37 percent survived.) But once birds become used to finding food at your feeder, it’s important to keep feeding them through the winter because they will depend on the food you give them.
Favorite winter foods for wild birds:
Suet and bacon grease
Sunflower seeds (they are high in fat)
Greasy crusts and crumbs, donuts
Small birdseed, such as millet, canary seed, chicken feed, and cracked corn
Large birdseed, such as sunflower seeds, wheat, oats, corn, buckwheat, and soybean
Peanut butter, nuts (high in fat)
Fruits, such as chopped apples, bananas, and raisins
COOL experiments for young birdwatchers:
Collect several disposable plastic containers, such as margarine tubs. Fill each container with a different kind of bird food and label each one with the name of the food. Fill one container with water and try to keep the water from freezing solid. Remove ice from the surface and add more water as often as you can. Place the containers outside for birds. (You might want to nail the containers to a board to keep them from being tipped over.)
There are lots of experiments you can do with this setup:
Watch how much food is left in each container to see which kinds of food are most popular with your winter birds.
Watch one container at a time to see which birds eat what.
Watch one bird at a time to see if it will try more than one kind of food.
Watch the container of water. How many of the birds that come to the feeder drink water? Are more birds attracted to the water on frozen days when puddles and ponds have turned to ice?
Keep a written record of your observations. Include the date, the time of day, and notes about the weather. What did you learn about the birds that visit your feeder?
Nature activity from A Kid’s Winter EcoJournal by Toni Albert.
Extreme fun in extreme cold
Guess the temperature
The next time it snows, see if you can guess the temperature by observing the snowfall. If the snowflakes are large and sloppy – like falling popcorn – the temperature is probably near the freezing point of water, 32 degrees. If the snow is like fine sugar, glittering and dry, the temperature is probably much colder. Check an outdoor thermometer to see how well you guessed the temperature.
Experiment with freezing things
On a frigid day when the temperature is near zero (on one side or the other), put a variety of things outside to freeze. What happens when you freeze a raw egg? Try one in the shell, one out. What about freezing a rubber band, a plastic cup filled to the top with water, a wadded-up piece of wet cloth, a wet piece of paper, a banana? Fill several plastic cups partly full, each with a different liquid – water, milk, coke, vinegar, etc. Is there any difference in the way they freeze? Try adding something to each of several cups of water before freezing them – sugar, salt (at least 1/4 cup), corn starch, honey, lemon juice. Keep experimenting.
As you walk in snow, listen carefully. Do you hear a crunching sound or do you hear a squeak? Snow squeaks under your weight if the temperature is around 14 degrees F or colder. Scientists haven’t yet found an explanation that fully explains why this happens.
Is this a good day for snowballs?
You probably already know that it’s harder to make a good snowball on a very cold day (when there is less moisture in the snow) than on a warmer day. Try making snowballs on different days with different temperatures. Write down your observations. What did you conclude?
Look for ice
Look for ice in icicles, puddles, creeks, or ponds. Look for other frozen water. How do the different forms of ice compare? If you observe a frozen pond, look for animal tracks, especially if the ice is covered with snow. Don't walk on the ice!
Winter statistics at minus 3 degrees
Date: Saturday, January 6, 2018
Morning temperature: Minus 3 degrees
With wind chill: Minus 15
My outdoor clothing: Heavy cotton cami, long underwear, knee socks, heavy wool socks, jeans, sweater, padded jacket with hood, wool scarf, heavy mittens, knee-high boots
Jazzy’s outdoor clothing: Purple dog sweater, plaid dog coat, long belly hair and amazing toe tufts
Time it took to dress us both: 15 minutes
Bird food: 2 scoops of dried corn, 2 scoops of wild bird seed, 2 scoops of sunflower seeds, 1 suet block, 2 apples that froze in the garage
Cost of bird food: 50 lbs of dried corn from local feed mill, $6.75; 25 lbs of black sunflower seeds, $14.75 from feed mill; 40 lbs of premium bird seed, $19.20 from feed mill; suet blocks, $.89/each from Ollie’s
Time it took to feed birds: 3 minutes
Time it took for birds to arrive and begin eating: 2 minutes!
Time it took Jazzy to remember why we were outside: 3 more minutes
Total time outside at minus 3 degrees: 8 minutes
Time it took to undress us both: 4 minutes
The nature of nature
Renewal: The nature of nature
All my life, I’ve loved the idea of new beginnings. I like the first day of a year, or the first day of a season or month, or even the first day of a week. I make resolutions and plans and design elaborate projects for renewal. I daydream about going away for a week alone just to focus on new ideas and progress -- a week that I imagine would transform every aspect of my life. But right now that isn’t practical.
Couldn’t I find moments in each day to cherish renewal? Wouldn’t one step lead to the next? Could I resist working from a “List of Things to Do” and just let life be an adventure, which will unfold on its own? We don’t have to travel extensively or explore exotic places (although that’s certainly fun!) in order to renew our sense of wonder. We can discover new aspects of ourselves, try new activities, read new books and listen to new music. Just when I think I know our woods and its wildlife by heart, we discover something new: miniature bird’s nest mushrooms with spore packets that look like tiny eggs; a hummingbird moth that looks just like a little hummer; the tangy taste of a spicebush twig. It’s our nature – and the nature of nature – to be constantly renewed.
Happy New Year to you all!
Toni Albert, M.Ed., is an award-winning author of more than 40 books. Her lifelong love for nature, children, and books inspired her to commit her publishing business, Trickle Creek Books, to “teaching kids to care for the Earth.”