Given the recent snow, it's a bit late to write, as I’d originally planned, about getting bird feeders ready for winter; it’s already here. But there will still be time to prepare for a long season of feeding the birds that stay in the north all year round.

I missed the storm because we are still pheasant-hunting in Central South Dakota, the heart of bird seed country. It’s been dry and unseasonably warm here, so the harvesters are working round the clock to bring in wheat and hay and, for the birds, milo, millet, corn and sunflower seed. The sunflowers, as they stand tall and remain dry, seem to be the last to be harvested and the local pheasant population feast on them, as well as on the corn still standing. Huge flocks of other birds, especially meadowlarks, pour out over the grasslands and fields, making changing patterns in the sky. Sometimes we have to herd them before us in the road and they swirl about us in a thick cloud. Yesterday, while hunting a swath of cattails, preferred pheasant habitat, the dog woke a dozing owl that first headed toward this intruder in attack mode before deciding a Brittany spaniel was too large to carry off and flapping lazily away to finish his snooze elsewhere. We've seen many hawks working the fields, some even putting the ring-necked pheasants to flight as they pass over.

Sitting alongside so many huge black-oil-sunflower fields has made me want to fill the truck with their dried heads and bring them home with me. The tiny finches and chickadees in Maine love to feast on the striped sunflower seedheads that remain late in the garden. These and every other kind of sunflower seeds originate from the common sunflower, Helianthus annuus. While there are many specialized and hybrid flower varieties that create different bloom sizes and colors, stalk heights and seed yields, the seeds they produce are similar and sunflower seed is a universally popular birdseed. Black oil sunflower seeds, however, when compared to striped sunflower seeds, are meatier and have a higher oil content, giving birds more nutrition and calories to fortify their winter diets. Black oil seeds also have thinner shells, making them easier for small birds to crack. All species of jays, chickadees and nuthatches will eagerly eat sunflower seeds, as will many woodpecker species, northern cardinals, mourning doves, evening grosbeaks and others. It makes sense, if you plan to feed the birds for the winter, to include plenty of black oil sunflower seeds in your feeders.



If you havent done so already, clean and repair all bird feeders, checking for broken perches, clogged feeding ports and other problems. Even the sturdiest feeders can have damp corners where feed accumulates and gets moldy. Move feeders closer to a patio or door so they will be easier to refill even in the deepest snow or harshest weather. Add covers to feeders to keep seed dry and prevent snow and ice from accumulating on them. Those clear plastic domes that are intended to deter squirrels from feeders also work well as snow covers.

Suet cakes placed in feeder cages are greatly enjoyed by a number of insect-eating birds: chickadees, woodpeckers, warblers, nuthatches, jays, wrens, and others. A hungry woodpecker can monopolize a suet feeder for an entire day, so it's a good idea to hang several around in different places. In addition to purchased suet cakes, you can make your own mix, an activity that is fun for children to join in. You don’t have to render solid suet; any type of shortening, such as lard, will be equally appreciated by the birds, and you can add in extra treats such as peanut butter and dried fruit. Here's a basic recipe: one cup shortening, one cup peanut butter, one cup flour and three cups cornmeal and a half-cup filler, either dried fruit, oats, bird seed or nuts. Combine shortening and peanut butter in a large saucepan on the stove. Heat until melted, add the flour and cornmeal, and mix well. Add filler ingredients just until combined. Grease a muffin tin and then press the mixture into the pan. Use a straw or chopstick to form a hole for hanging. Set out to dry overnight. The suet can also be formed into balls and strung. You can string suet cakes on fishing line and hang them out, along with chunks of oranges, as edible garlands for the hungry birds.