While meteorological winter has been with us for some time, winter doesn't officially begin until Dec. 22.
That day marks the moment when the sun is the farthest south in the northern hemisphere. The winter solstice, also known as the first day of winter, is almost here.
Winter or not, we have had perhaps among the mildest Novembers and Decembers on record, certainly among the driest. Even so, migrant birds have long vanished from the Northland's pines, prairies and potholes. Indeed, if you haven't already begun, it's time to think about wintertime bird feeding.
Just a few days ago, after filling my tube-style hanging bird feeder, I filled my hand with black-oil sunflower seeds and stood motionless for a spell. It didn't take long for the nearby chickadees to discover the "handout" and begin landing on my hand. Always a thrill, I'll never tire of wild birds in the hand.
As I stood beside the feeder, I was delighted by the activity of other birds, too. There were white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and hairy woodpeckers, too. But the omnipresent chickadees were busily gathering sunflower seeds and flying off with their prizes to either consume or cache them.
It occurred to me once again that watching birds outdoors on a calm morning or evening is so much more enjoyable than watching birds from indoors. All the vocalizations, the sounds of nuthatches cascading down tree trunks and the popping sounds of bird beaks cracking seed hulls are a joy to listen to.
Of all the outdoor activities I engage in, few are as rewarding as attracting wild birds to my backyard. And though many people feed birds throughout the year, many others opt out of year-around feeding in exchange for only attracting birds during the long and cold Minnesota winters. But that's okay, too. Anytime is a good time to feed birds. Indeed, feeding birds is not only a great hobby; it quickly becomes a genuine passion for many people.
Feeding birds provides people benefits that go well beyond just watching them. Birds perched on feeders provide unlimited subjects for photography, art and study. Observing birds is an experience that soothes and warms the soul on the coldest of days. Truly, the pleasure derived from viewing nature's creatures has not gone unnoticed by administrators of retirement homes and hospitals, as well as school teachers and their classrooms and even places of employment. Feeding and watching birds is an activity anyone can benefit from.
As an industry, bird feeding is big business. And it's local, too. One of the most popular and common bird seeds sold is the black oil sunflower seed, much of which is grown by Red River Valley farmers. Nationally, bird lovers spend more than $2 billion a year on bird-feeding expenditures, not including several hundred million dollars per year shelled out for bird feeders and nesting boxes.
A 1991 study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture estimated that more than 75 million pounds of wild bird seed was sold that year to Minnesota bird-feeding enthusiasts. The figure was conservative, to say the least, because it did not include unmixed sunflower seeds or bags of seed weighing less than 10 pounds. Bird-seed companies, store chains and mom-and-pop shops catering exclusively to bird lovers' demands for bird food and accessories help to pump tens of millions of dollars each year into Minnesota's economy.
Obviously, all this fuss is intended to attract our fine-feathered friends to our backyard feeding stations and our window views. Yet despite Minnesota's snowy months, species of birds and other wildlife that frequent our feeders are normally not in short supply.
For example, flocks of common redpolls and pine siskins, pine and evening grosbeaks and red and white-winged crossbills might be locally abundant in some parts, while ever-present black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches are familiar and reliable visitors to most feeders. Plus, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and maybe even pileated woodpeckers and brown creepers, will visit seed and suet feeders alike.
Other wintertime birds that may appear in your backyard include the gray jay, black-billed magpie, blue jay, purple finch and sometimes even the American goldfinch. And depending on your home's location, squirrels such as gray, fox, red and flying squirrels will more than likely find your offerings as well. Other animals that are often drawn to bird feeding stations are birds of prey, voles and mice, cottontail rabbits, weasels, fishers and pine martens.
For sure, whether you fill just one feeder full of black-oil sunflower seeds or provide everything from sunflower, millet and other seeds and fruits to suet, grit and a heated birdbath, too, putting something out for the birds is going to appreciated by a host of wild creatures.
Feeding birds is, after all, not only for the birds -- it's for us, too. From infants to seniors, any and all can gain untold hours of contentment by simply tossing a few seeds outside, sitting back and watching the show as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.