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As the greens of summer and the oranges of fall fade into the grays of winter it is easy to focus on the warmth and comfort of inside things. But, the ongoing story that is the drama of nature never stops. And although the cast of bird characters has changed a bit, there is still a lot happening in the yards and gardens of Southern Illinois this time of year.

There are actually a number of interesting bird species that are only here during the winter months. Pine siskins, purple finches, and dark-eyed juncos to name a few.

My favorite winter residents though, are the white-throated sparrows. They are one of the few bird species that will sing in the winter. And their distinctive song sounds like they are saying “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody”. Listen for that song on a cold, snowy morning in January. And I dare you not to smile when you hear it.

There is perhaps no better way to view and get to know the birds in winter than by feeding them. And, well placed feeders can attract an impressive variety of birds and provide soul-satisfying looks at chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, blue jays, and many other species.

I have two types of feeders in my yard: A sunflower seed feeder and a suet feeder. The feeders are near cover and are easy to watch from my kitchen windows. I use black oil sunflower seeds because they have a thin shell and the kernels have a high fat content. I use store-bought suet, but you could make your own. And when there is snow or ice, I will also spread thistle seed on the ground for the juncos and sparrows.

And these little birds can eat! A cute-little chickadee flitting back and forth for sunflower seeds from your feeder can eat the equivalent of 35% of it’s weight in a day. By comparison, you, if you were a 150-pound chickadee you would be eating 600 granola bars a day.

Although birds can obviously survive winters without being fed, if you do begin feeding birds, I recommend you continue feeding them through the winter. That’s because little mixed species flocks have winter territories that have taken your feeders into consideration. Take away your feeder and you are taking away an important food source for a flock. And feeder food can literally be life saving for little birds during periods of extreme cold, snow and ice.

On a brighter and warmer note, winter can be a time to remember and perhaps visit some of our summer residents on their wintering grounds. For example, The Bahamas, one of my favorite places, is full of ‘our’ warblers in winter. And it’s fun to think that the yellow-throated warbler hopping around in a coconut palm tree down there could be the same bird that was in the sycamore tree behind my house this summer.

I’ve tended to end these essays with a big thought. But this month I just want to urge you to enjoy the birds. Winter is the perfect time to get to know and fall in love with the birds in your yard. And it’s a heart-warming feeling knowing that are doing your part to help them survive the season. And personally, I love heart-warming feelings in winter.

Editor's note: Mike Baltz has a Ph.D. in ornithology. He is writing monthly essays in 2018 -- the Year of the Bird.

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