Birds, squirrels weather the storm

Winter weather might be bad for backs and spirits, but birds and squirrels are most likely doing just fine, according to wildlife specialists.

Birds and animals can adapt and weather the storms that have otherwise crippled the Baltimore- Washington area. The birds can fly to new food sources. And all creatures tend to eat less during colder seasons and can go a couple of days without food if it's buried in snow.

And, in general, feeding wildlife isn't recommended by most experts, though few would tell enthusiasts or the well-intentioned not to put up a bird feeder.

"The cold is not too much of a problem for animals around here," said Tom Bancroft, chief scientist for the National Audubon Society. "We probably won't see much of an effect on most of them. It may be a hard winter. But this won't wipe them out."

Deer, he said, can dig through snow to find food such as berries and greens. Rabbits and squirrels can also scavenge. Many birds can find food in trees and bushes, or, like robins, they will keep flying south. Ducks will find food in open waters. Birds that feed on the ground, such as sparrows, might have more trouble but will endure.

Bancroft says he generally puts out some seed in feeders and on the ground near bushes, which provide cover for birds from hawks, which feed on other birds. Don't feed deer, cats or other animals that will congregate, he said.

That will attract predators as well, said Bob Beyer, associate director of the Wildlife and Heritage Service at the state Department of Natural Resources. It also will allow disease to spread more easily.

Further, leftover pizza and pet food isn't good for most wildlife. It also might attract rats and other vermin. Bread, a popular item for distributing, is nutritionally useless for animals and birds, he said.

A lot of salt, used on icy roads, can be a problem because birds use pebble-like items to help grind their food. But even that isn't a significant issue, Beyer said.

"Is this weather harsh on them? Yes. It affects the weak, emaciated and young that can be out-competed for food," he said. "But will they survive? You betcha."

Most experts agree it's OK to feed the birds, as long as it's food meant for birds.

Bill Thompson III, editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, said many like to watch birds in their backyards and like to give them a hand in cold and snowy winters, even if they don't need it.

The birds typically burn little energy at night and look for food during the day. Cardinals, for example, will eat naturally occurring seeds and insects in the spring and summer. They'll move on to raspberries and wildflower seeds and then sumac fruits once they're frozen in the winter. Almost all wild animals have a strategy.

Thompson says he fills his feeders every morning with sunflower seeds and peanuts out of the shell that he buys in bulk. He also offers suet, the hard white fat found on sheep and cow kidneys, or suet dough that is mixed with peanut butter, rolled oats and corn meal - high-energy bird food.

He puts some on the ground under shrubs for ground feeders. And he also puts cracked corn and mixed seed on the ground for squirrels in an often vain attempt to keep them from the feeders.

It's important to clean the feeders every month and dispose of old feed that might contain bacteria or mold, which is harmful to birds. Thompson hoses off the crud and then uses 10 parts water and one part bleach to scrub the feeders.

"Birds are really built to survive without us," he said. "Any birds not built to survive the winter weather have evolved to migrate. ... Remember, feeding is more for us and our entertainment than for survival of birds."