During the winter months, a flash of color against the white snow or dark tree bark often brings delight to those who enjoy watching for birds. Inside or out, birds can be observed eating, resting, or soaring through the air. Many Iowa Great Lakes residents will place bird feeders in crucial places for shelter and enjoyment.
“My love of birding came from my parents, especially my mom. When I was growing up, we always had bird feeders out our kitchen window. Now, I have feeders off my porch, dining room and office. I love to watch and try to identify everything that comes to the feeders and I love to photograph them,” said Sue Boettcher, a Dickinson County birding enthusiast.
Anyone can enjoy birds out their window, but the habitat will greatly impact a person’s success in finding a larger variety of birds. For those more adventurous, it might mean adding winter gear and trekking through local landscapes like Brook’s Golf Course and Dickinson County Nature Center, Gull Point State Park or Kettleson Hogsback Wildlife Area.
Landscape around a home also impacts the type of visiting birds. Boettcher has shrubs, mature ash trees and maples, evergreens and crabapple trees in her yard, with some being relatively close to her home. She has five bird feeding stations strategically placed around the yard and buildings.
“I have a covered platform feeder that is near both shrubs and trees, so the birds have shelter from raptors, especially a Cooper’s Hawk that visits my yard regularly. I also throw seed under the shrubs for the ground feeding birds, and I throw seed up on the evergreen boughs for many birds and squirrels to eat,” Boettcher shared.
Her evergreen is right outside the dining room window, allowing her to see all the yard’s birding action.
Boettcher also places several bird feeders off her porch, as well as her dining room. She uses thistle feeders, sunflower feeders, peanut feeders for the woodpeckers and blue jays, suet feeders and a platform feeder. Off her office window, she has placed similar feeders, as well as throwing seed under the shrubs nearby.
“The variety in seed brings a variety in birds,” she added. “I get nearly all of my bird seed from Bird Haven here in Spirit Lake. Wendell is a wealth of information for anyone that wants to start up feeding or even for the experienced bird feeder.”
Types of Birds in the Winter
The changing of the seasons and migration brings even more birds through the area, some that stay and some that just pass through. Boettcher finds herself much better at identifying songbirds than the waterfowl and raptors, but always enjoys the challenge with the bird book and binoculars in hand.
“We actually have a nice variety of birds around our area in the Winter months,” she said.
The year round birds flying through her yard are Cardinals, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, White Breasted Nuthatches, Goldfinches (in their olive winter plumage), House Finches, Hairy Woodpeckers, Downey Woodpeckers, Red Breasted Woodpeckers, a variety of sparrows, Mourning Doves, Common Grackles, and Starlings to name a few.
The birds who winter in the area, coming down from up North, include Dark-eyed Juncos and a variety of sparrows like the White Crowned Sparrow, White Throated Sparrows and Harris Sparrows. Other birds that may be seen are the Red Breasted Nuthatch, Red Polls and Pine Siskins.
“This year there is supposedly an “irruption” of Red Breasted Nuthatches. ‘Unlike seasonal migration, irruption years are unpredictable and result from less food (seeded pinecones) availability near breeding habitat and large numbers of nuthatches move south.’ I’ve actually had two of the Red Breasted Nuthatches eating seed in the boughs of my evergreen lately,” Boettcher explained.
She also belongs to two Facebook groups “Iowa Great Lakes Birding” and “Iowa Birding,” where other bird lovers share their observations and where birds are located.
“This lets you be on the lookout as well,” she said.
Feeding the Birds During the Winter
There are a variety of seeds that can be fed and depending on the type of birds you want to attract; it will determine what type to feed.
“My House Finches love Nutra-saff, a high protein safflower,” Boettcher shared. “The goldfinches prefer a 50/50 mix of sunflower chips and thistle seed. Cardinals like both black oil sunflower seeds and the Nutra-saff. Woodpeckers like nuts of any kind and Blue Jays absolutely love whole peanuts. The ground feeding birds like a mixture of seed. I generally buy a less expensive bird mix and then throw in some sunflower and peanut chips to throw on the ground. This also helps keep the less desirable House Sparrows and Blackbirds out of my feeders. Even the “desirable” birds scratch and eat off the ground.”
Water is also an important piece of winter birding. Heated bird bathes can be purchased, or Boettcher uses a heated pet bowl with a rock inside. She places the bowl up in her platform feeder on the porch, so she can ensure there is always water inside.
All Boettcher’s platform feeders were made by a friend but the rest of the feeders were purchased. She has found the ISU Extension and Outreach has a great resource for Landscaping for Wildlife, Building houses, etc. http://naturalresources.extension.iastate.edu/wildlife/landscaping-wildlife.
“Birding and bird watching are for any age and any fitness level. There are avid bird watchers that get out and hike nature areas in search of birds, but you can also sit in the comfort of your home and watch lots of birds,” she shared.
Boettcher also recommends purchasing a bird book to help with identifying different birds seen outdoors or out the window. There are many books available from beginner to advanced. Another great publication from ISU—Attracting Birds to Your Yard is: https://store.extension.iastate.edu/product/Attracting-Birds-to-Your-Yard.
“I also recommend stopping at Bird Haven, as they have a variety of books for any level, and Wendell can help you get the right one,” she said. “It is a treat to see the bird sanctuary Wendell has outside Bird Haven and the variety of birds he attracts. He welcomes visitors to stop by.”
While the winter months can drag on at times, Boettcher recommends adding a splash of color to your life with some bird feeders and bird seed!
“There are many studies that show that bird watching has a positive effect on mental health, helping to lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression. This has been a stressful year, bird feeding and bird watching could help relieve some of that stress. It certainly does in my home,” Boettcher said. “My 88-year-old mom has been staying with me since March, so she wouldn’t be so isolated at her home. Bird watching has kept her entertained, her mind healthy and a wonderful activity we can enjoy together.”
It's easy to see why young and old enjoy birding—ease your winter blues by watching for the splashes of color around your home this winter season.
Bird Photography by Sue Boettcher
Homeade Pinecone Bird Feeders How-To
Great project for families to make together.
- Take a pine cone and tie about an 8" long string to the large end.
- Spread creamy peanut butter all over the pine cone and in between the pine bark.
- Roll the pine cone in a bird seed mixture (can be any mixture
- Hang the pine cone feeders in a tree or near a window so birds can be enjoyed.