Here on the top floor of PETA’s headquarters in Norfolk, Va., we have a panoramic view of the Elizabeth River and its estuary, Smith’s Creek. As I write this, a flock of Canada geese is parading down the creek (which, surrounded as it is by concrete bulkheads and stately Victorian mansions, more closely resembles a picturesque canal), and a handful of seagulls are slipping and sliding across a section of the creek that has frozen over. This is a first in my 14 years in Norfolk-I’ve never seen Smith’s Creek freeze, which just goes to show you how cold it’s been here lately. In fact, most of the East Coast is in the grip of an Arctic blast of cold air, which makes it the perfect time for a reminder about ways to help our feathered friends survive winter weather.
While PETA normally frowns on feeding wild birds (congregating around bird feeders can leave birds vulnerable to attacks by hawks and other predators, and spilled seed can attract rodents), we make an exception during cold spells. Birds need to consume an enormous amount of calories even in mild weather, but their metabolism really shifts into overdrive when they are trying to keep warm. Natural food sources in the form of flowers, shrubs, and trees that produce seeds and berries are ideal, but during the winter, you can supplement birds’ diets with a blend of seeds that includes oiled sunflower seeds, which are high in calories. Many birds also enjoy nuts and dried fruits. Instead of suet (which is made from animal fat), you can use vegetable shortening and/or peanut butter-combined with cornmeal, millet, oats, sunflower seeds, and/or raisins-to make a high-calorie “cake” for birds.
Birds also need a source of fresh water, even during winter, when many water sources freeze. If you have a birdbath, line it with thick polythene so ice can be removed easily, or tip the water out at the day’s end and replace it in the morning to keep it from turning into a solid block of ice overnight. Here on our third-floor balcony at the PETA building, we set out a large dog bowl and replace the water at least once a day so that it stays fresh and ice-free. In the mornings, we’ll often see a flock of pigeons lined up on the railing, soaking up the sun and taking turns sipping water from the bowl. We also put out snacks in the form of leftover, crumbled-up rice cakes and corn chips, dried berries, and peanuts (which the blue jays are especially fond of).
Dog and cat kibble is also a good wintertime treat for birds, especially waterfowl. Bread and corn don’t have enough nutritional value for ducks and geese in winter, but the fat in kibble helps them stay warm as well as replenishing the water-repellent oil in their feathers.
Are you taking any actions to help our wild bird friends?