Snow Birds

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Winter is here. That means that most Ruby-throated hummingbirds have flown south to another whole continent, along with Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings and a host of other feathered friends we won’t see until Spring or early Summer. But that doesn’t mean we can’t longingly peer out our kitchen window in hopes of seeing some other feathered delights!

Winter Visitors


Dark-eyed Junco

Believe it or not, Wisconsin winters are a “retreat” for some birds. There are several species of birds that migrate for the winter south to Wisconsin from Canada. One of these birds is the very common Dark-Eyed Junco. It is a beautiful small gray bird with a white belly. They are easily recognizable at bird feeders, feeding on thistle, cracked sunflower, and other smaller seeds. They are more often ground feeders. They love snow. I have seen them practically playing in a blizzard.

Another winter visitor is the Redpoll, a member of the finch family. Redpolls will not visit every winter. In fact, I only saw them for one season about ten years ago when Canada was experiencing an unusually harsh & frigid winter. In these cases, Redpolls will migrate south to Wisconsin in search of food. When they appear it’s called an irruption. It is almost like they are refugees in a foreign land.

White Throated Sparrows are another favorite sight on a dreary winter’s day. They are


White-throated Sparrow

commonly seen in winter in Wisconsin and at first glance may look like a plain old house sparrow. But not so! Look closely and you will see the white throat, yellow patches near its beak and the black and white stripes on its head. They prefer foraging on the ground rather than sitting on a feeder, so be sure to scatter some seed at the base of your bird feeder.

Goldfinches … “What?” you say. Many people believe that those “wild canaries” leave for the winter and are replaced with brown sparrows. Goldfinches remain in Wisconsin for the winter but lose their summer plumage. Continue to put out thistle seed for goldfinches and come spring, you will have a backyard of sunshine.


Rule number one: all living things need water, and providing a source for birds is critical in the winter months. Many heated bird baths are available from various retailers and can range anywhere from around $30 to over $100 depending on how fancy you want to get. The key if you get a bird bath heater is to make sure it is thermostatically controlled. This will help save on energy bills and only heat the water when temperatures are freezing. I have often looked out my kitchen window on a freezing morning to see birds perched all the way around my bird bath. It’s a wonderful sight to see.


Birds in winter need to maintain as much body fat as possible. So it’s important to provide food that will help keep a bird’s metabolism up to keep warm. One of the best sources of fat and protein for birds is suet. Keep lots on hand in the winter. Woodpeckers love it and their stark plumage adds color to your life.

As far as birdseed is concerned, I recommend not purchasing inexpensive bird seed mix. Check the ingredients! Many mixes contain filler seeds like Milo and millet. A small amount of millet is okay, but Milo is a seed with an extremely hard shell that is almost impossible for most birds to open. Some cheap birdseed mixes contain up to 35% Milo, which is practically all waste material. In addition, it has very poor nutritional value. Personally, I just purchase plain old black sunflower seed for my larger feeder, and thistle seed for my tube feeder. These basics have worked well for me. I have also purchased some nicer mixes and combined them with a larger bag of sunflower seeds to offer some variety.

Remember to shovel away or press down the snow underneath feeders to help ground-feeding birds. Scatter some additional seed on the ground.



Black-capped Chickadee

An important aspect of birding in the winter is to provide protection. Small birds are more vulnerable to hawks and predators in the winter because there is less cover. Some of this may require planning ahead by planting dense shrubs, evergreens and wind breaks. However, a simple way for those who use real Christmas trees is to simply place your tree about 10-15 feet from your feeder after the holidays are over. Another way to provide protection is to make or purchase a roosting box. Smaller birds like chickadees will use them to huddle together at night when resting and to escape the winds. Other possible cover includes wood or brush piles.

Don’t forget your feathered friends this winter! I’ve generally found that the more birds you have, the more birds you’ll get! By feeding them through the winter you’ll have a better chance in the spring of seeing new species dropping in to see what all the chirping is about!


Life Lessons from the Garden: From a Chore to a Delight

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

I grudgingly picked up the rake and began in the corner of my yard, which seemed the size of a small nation at the time. It was overwhelming. Spring had arrived, and the yard was strewn with litter, leaves and pine cones. But I pressed on, determined to conquer my yard. As I inched along I noticed a chickadee in a tree about twenty feet away. He’d swoop down to grab a single sunflower seed from my bird feeder and fly back up to his familiar branch. He’d sit and crack it against the bark to open it, eat the nut, and fly back down. This went on for quite some time, and as I continued to rake, I got closer and closer to my new-found companion. The chickadee didn’t seem to mind that I was now only a couple feet away. He flew down once again, right in front of me, and snatched a seed. I stood there for a moment, admiring his bravery. Curious, I leaned my rake against the feeder and reached inside to grab a handful of seeds. Raising my hand to the sky, I thought, “It sure would be cool if he…” Just then, the little chickadee flew down and landed on my finger. It felt like a whisper and I almost winced at the touch of his tiny feet. He gave a scolding chirp, grabbed a single seed and flew back to his perch. I stood there motionless for a moment with my hand outstretched. But inside my heart leapt with excitement and disbelief.

In an instant, the tedious chore of raking my lawn became a delight. I didn’t have a very willing attitude when I first started raking my lawn. But I obediently did it, despite my reluctance. And I was rewarded with an unexpected treasure. I think that’s true in life too. There are many things I know I “should” do, but I always find an excuse to put it off. Maybe there are areas in your own life where you are reluctant and unwilling because the sacrifice of time, money or effort seems overwhelming. But as is true with working in the garden, a great, and often, unexpected reward awaits you. Honestly, I can’t wait to experience the joy of raking my lawn this spring. But I would not have that willing attitude, had I not… grudgingly picked up the rake and began in the corner of my yard, which seemed the size of a small nation at the time ..

Tammy is a regular contributor to Garden Snips


Hummingbirds in Spring

by OCMGA Master Gardener Holly Boettcher

The arrival of hummingbirds in spring is one of the most anticipated pleasures of the garden! I don’t know about you, but I go out of my way to be ready for these little gems. There is nothing more disappointing than to see them begging at your window for a clean feeder with fresh nectar, but you weren’t prepared. My grandmother always said they arrive on, or near May 15th (and depart around September 15th.) Of course there are some who show up earlier each year, as well as the stragglers in late fall. I often hear people comment how they wish they were able to attract and keep the hummingbirds coming to their feeders all season long, so here are some of my tips.


This is the perfect time of year to inspect your feeders from the previous year. There is nothing more important than starting with a clean feeder. Use ¼ C bleach to 1 gallon of water and soak them at least once a month. Be sure to use a brush to get any leftover mold or residue. Rinse, rinse, rinse with hot tap water when done. I’ve found a dishwasher safe feeder from Dr JB’s Clean Feeder that is easy to keep clean. Another helpful tip is to have an extra set of feeders. One that is clean and ready, and the other hanging outside for them.

Fresh Nectar: NEVER use red food coloring. Studies have shown red dye can sicken the little beauties. They will find your feeder without the red coloring.   I like to make my own nectar and you can make a double or triple batch which can be stored in a glass jar, and ready to use in your refrigerator. Start with 1 C boiling or very hot tap water, ¼ C sugar. Mix well and cool before pouring into your sparkling clean feeder.

Frequency: It is so important to change your nectar every several days and especially in hot weather when the nectar spoils quickly. If you don’t have time to keep up, then it may be best that you don’t start feeding at all. Nectar that is not changed every couple days can develop mold and fungus which can cause hummingbirds to get sick. If your nectar is cloudy, it is SPOILED!

Additional Attractions: If you have a shady area to hang a Fushia, this will help attract Hummingbirds. They also love plants like Honeysuckle, Bee Balm, Red Hot Poker, Beardtongue, & Sage, to name a few, and of course these are all common names.

I hope you make time to get ready to welcome the Hummingbirds this spring. And remember to keep the feeders clean, the nectar fresh, and above all be PATIENT. Enjoy the show!


Holly is a regular contributor to Appleton Monthly magazine

Birdseed Treats

birdseed5Our feathered friends sometimes struggle to find food when snow covers everything. You can help with a few ingredients and cookie cutters. All you need are unflavored gelatin, water and seed mix. Combine the ingredients, spread the mixture onto a cookie sheet, chill and use cookie cutters to make the shapes. Let dry before putting outside or wrapping.

Birdseed Treat Recipe

  • 1/3 cup gelatin6a6c8f56-69f4-40c6-a4f1-ba5d05c345c1
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 8 cups of birdseed

Mix gelatin and water on low until gelatin is melted and clear. Remove from heat and stir in 8 cups of birdseed. Stir until it is well mixed and there is no dry seed. Fill cookie cutters with the seed mixture and pack tightly. Then refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours. Dry on baking rack for 3 days. Recipe courtesy of Angie Dixon.

Birdseed Wreath

To make a wreath, combine the same ingredients used to make the birdseed treats. But instead of using cookie cutters, press the mixture into a miniature Bundt cake pan or another rounded mold. Refrigerate for 4 hours, then carefully remove from the mold. Let it dry overnight, then decorate it with edibles. Or dress it up with raffia, large accents, ribbon or bows.