Back-yard bonanzas

Consider it a gift from Mother Nature.

Maybe there's a winter bird feeder under the Christmas tree this morning.

If so, it needs only to be hung in the right place, filled with a supply of sunflower seeds and, presto, the gift will come alive with feathered friends.

Well, okay, the birds really aren't "friends'' and sometimes it's not that easy.

Not every back yard is fit for a hungry bird and, in truth, many winter bird residents are simply opportunists willing to take a free handout.

I mean, if you're a chickadee, which would you rather do? Flit through a dangerous wood searching for something for your gizzard?

Or, would you like to fly into a banquet of birdie goodies in somebody's friendly back yard, the one where the house cat sits harmlessly behind the living room window?

In other words, winter bird feeding is a win-win experience. For people and birds.

It may explain the most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Surveys that show 41 million Americans will spend upward of $2 billion (yes, billions) on bird feed annually. And the flock keeps growing.

Wanna join?

Here are a few things you ought to know about your "friends'':

A woodsy back yard is important. If your back yard looks like a suburban football field, if the only bird perch for 100 yards is a child's swing set, you might want to plant some evergreens and let the weeds grow before wasting money on good sunflower seeds.

Birds like brushy, woody cover. It's where they live and they like to feel safe. You can make your back yard attractive to birds but you can't do it between now and New Year's Eve.

Let's assume the winter birds like your neighborhood. The goal now is to make them like your winter bird-feeding station.

We'll talk about seeds, but, first, have you considered water?
"Adding heated bird baths is the newest wrinkle,'' said Carroll Henderson, Minnesota's non-game expert.

"You'll find a bird bath will increase the number of species that might show up and that, of course, increases our enjoyment.''

Yes, birds will take a bath in the winter. Very quickly, of course.

Now for the bird buffet:

Seeds of various kinds are important, although some seeds are better than others. For example, black oil sunflower seeds are preferred over striped sunflowers. Millet is nutritious, but white millet is better than red millet.

If you buy prepared seed mixtures, look for combinations of only black sunflowers and white millet. Keep in mind, it's less expensive to buy individual seeds and mix them yourself.

According to an Audubon guide, a mixture of 50 percent black sunflowers, 35 percent white proso millet and 15 percent cracked corn is ideal for most winter bird species.

The Audubon experts also say that winter birds seek foods with high fat content and protein. A well-stocked feeding station should include beef suet and/or peanut butter, although the latter is a rather expensive treat for some whatchamacallit bird.

To reduce cost, melt the peanut butter and mix with suet.

What about table scraps or last weeks dried bread? The experts are divided about bread scraps and such, although almost any bird species will dig into an old bagel or hard roll.
Don't forget, some birds, such as juncos, prefer to eat on the ground. Toss a few seeds their way.

So, who's coming to dinner?

In Minnesota, a dozen or more bird species are apt to show up in a typical back yard, depending on weather and time of the year.

Leading the list may be the black-capped chickadee, followed by white-breast nuthatch, cardinal, house finch, downy woodpecker, slate-colored junco and blue jay.

In a mild winter, don't be surprised to see bird species that normally migrate south, such as robins or mourning doves.

If you're lucky, you might see Americas largest woodpecker, the pileated or colorful pine siskins, redpolls, crossbills, grosbeaks and so forth.

If you're unlucky, your bird feeder will be occupied by English sparrows, starlings and gray squirrel gangs that will wreck any bird feeder, starting with the most expensive first.

Henderson says the species composition at any winter feeder will change from year to year for a variety of reasons, mostly weather related.

It's also possible, but rare, to have total strangers fly in for sunflowers. Consider the case of the tufted titmouse. Now there are two.

Scientists recently decided the tufted titmouse, the one seen in Texas, was something else and, thus, newly named the black-crested titmouse. All of which proves one taxonomists tuft is another's crest.

October through December 2002, Ron Schara's short feature "Backroads with Ron & Raven" airs Saturdays on ESPN2 at 7:55 a.m. ET. Click here to view this week's show descriptions.