Winter can be rough on gardeners. Most of us cope by tending houseplants, starting seeds or designing planting plans for spring. Kids can help with these tasks, but they may not be enough to really sustain their gardening interest through the coldest, darkest months.
Happily, fall and winter are prime times for back-yard birding, an activity that can be exciting and educational for kids while also tying into the garden. Setting up a simple (or elaborate!) feeding station will draw at least a few different kinds of wintering birds in most areas. Kids can identify the birds, read about their feeding preferences and life cycles, make observations and plan changes or additions to the yard that will support these feathered friends in various seasons.
A bird-feeding station might include a dozen feeders, but just one feeder, filled with seed that appeals to many kinds of birds, can get young birders off to a great start. As enthusiasm builds, you might add additional feeders in different styles and with different types of seed, since certain birds have specific preferences.
To choose your first feeder, it may be best to identify a couple of bird species already in or around your neighborhood, then get the feeder and seed that they like. Cornell University's All About Birds Bird Guide is an excellent free resource for identifying birds and learning their preferences.
That said, a tube-style or hopper feeder filled with black-oil sunflower seed has broad appeal among common bird species. Hang it in view of a window, and try to place it within several yards of trees and shrubs, too. Birds will appreciate the quick cover these provide.
It may take several days for the birds to find the feeder and feel confident enough to use it. After a while, you’ll likely notice a pattern in what time of day they visit. Mornings and late afternoons are often high-traffic times at feeders—matching up well with the schedule of school-age children.
To guide your kids in observing the birds, lead them in making a simple journal. Here are some ideas for what to record:
- the days and times that certain birds visit the feeder
- The daily weather and how it may change the birds' activity
- what kinds of birds seem to travel together—certain species tend to flock together, such as chickadees, titmice and nuthatches
- are certain kinds of birds more aggressive, chasing other types away?
- do some birds eat the seed right at the feeder, while others fly elsewhere before cracking it open?
Observing birds in winter might inspire your family to create a garden with bird-appeal all year. Lead the kids in researching what birds reside in your area in spring and summer, along with their warm-season activities—such as nesting and foraging for insects. Then, plan ahead for spring plantings and new design elements that will support those birdy behaviors.