Last updated: January 06. 2014 8:00PM - 1747 Views
By - tvenesky@civitasmedia.com

A northern flicker feats on a sumac in the winter.
A northern flicker feats on a sumac in the winter.
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For us, the bitter cold that swept through the area is a hindrance. We can limit our time outside and escape to a warm house when it gets to be too much.

But for wildlife, there is no escape.

Birds are especially vulnerable to frigid cold and deep snow. Add in a bit of wind and the conditions can turn downright deadly.

“This time of year they also have a shorter day in which to feed, and some birds just don’t make it,” said Doug Gross, an ornithologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

But plenty do survive the harsh conditions, and Gross said they do so by sticking with two main components of survival — food and cover.

Some of the most important natural food sources for birds are wild fruits and berries found on trees and bushes such as multiflora rose, poison ivy, staghorn sumac, viburnum and dogwood.

Even weed seeds found in overgrown fields are crucial.

“Those areas that weren’t mowed over the summer are now allowing many species to survive,” Gross said.

Another food source that is common in the winter are bird feeders. Gross said it’s important to use a variety of seeds to appeal to a wide range of species.

“Mix it up with some millet and smaller seed for the ground feeders, and put some suet out. Carolina wrens love it,” he said. “But the most important thing with a bird feeder, once you start it, it’s not good to stop. Birds become dependent on it and they’ll start foraging right at daylight.”

When it comes to cover, Gross said birds like to have overhead protection so placing a feeder under a tree is a good idea. He cautioned not to place feeders to close to windows — keep them about 20 feet away — because if birds are flushed while feeding, they can easily fly into the glass.

Birds also seek out thick confer limbs for thermal cover in the bitter cold, and some species utilize cavities to survive the winter.

And one of the best habitats, according to Gross, are those un-mowed areas.

“A field that has goldenrod, tall grass and brush offers both food and protection,” he said. “Birds are well-adapted to survive these conditions, but when it gets extremely cold, they really need to keep eating to supply the furnace.”

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