Winter Bird Feeding

Winter Bird Feeding By Patrick Ryan, Education Specialist, Alaska Botanical Garden

You might be tempted to put out your bird feeders, but it is still a little early, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (DFG).  DFG has received recent reports about brown bears still out and about, as well as a few black bears.

According to the DFG website, November 1 is the date for setting up and filling feeders. This date is a guideline, and dates actually depend on the weather. With a changing climate, and bear season seemingly extending later into Fall, the Anchorage Bear Committee has suggested a later date for putting out feeders, extending the date to November 15. This site has good information for feeding birds in Winter:

The problem with setting up bird feeders too early is mainly our Alaska bear population. We all live in bear country. Traditionally in the Lower 48, feeders are set out in the Fall to let birds know that they can locate an additional, steady food source for the Winter. Here’s a  bonus: in Alaska in the Fall, migrant birds, although not necessarily interested in your feeders, may be attracted by gatherings of local birds, increasing your chances for sighting unusual species.

So what are the birds eating before you set up your feeders? In Anchorage this season, the birch and spruce trees have produced abundant mast. According to the Mast Tree Network  “mast is the botanical name for the nuts, seeds, buds, or fruits of trees and shrubs that are eaten by wildlife. There are two main types of mast: Hard mast includes hard nuts and seeds such as acorns, hickory nuts, and walnuts. Soft mast includes berries and fruits such as crabapples, blueberries, and serviceberries. Both types are important year-round food sources for wildlife, but hard mast is often considered more important, especially as a winter food source, due to its higher energy content. The definition of mast is sometimes expanded to include the winged seeds of trees such as maple and elm, as well as pine seeds and nuts and even buds, hips, and catkins such as rose hips.” Read the full article here:

In Anchorage this abundance of seeds and berries has meant large amounts of seeds, berry-laden Mountain Ash and loaded crabapple trees, and for many it meant a lot of apples this year. This is good news for birds. You can leave some apples on your trees for a treat.

In addition to finding seeds on the ground, or fruits and berries persisting on trees and shrubs, many birds have unique ways to cache food supplies for the Winter. According the DFG site, “gray jays may be quick to beg for—or filch—a scrap, but they don’t just wolf it down. They fly off to cache their plunder—along with thousands of other bits of food—behind flakes of bark, under tree lichens, or in any other crevice that won’t be covered in snow later on. To make sure the food stays put until needed that winter, the birds coat it with extra sticky saliva from their enlarged saliva glands.”

If you want to learn more about mast mast, a retired wildlife biologist explains the importance of mast to hunters in an article found here:

Although we do not have oaks and nut trees in Alaska, as mentioned in the article, the idea remains the same: animals will be where the food is.

Another way you can enjoy birds is by having your yard become a Certified Wildlife Habitat. It’s as simple as providing food, water, cover, places to raise young and sustainable solutions.  This means choosing at least two items (see below) to help manage your habitat in a sustainable way. If you are a gardener or a birder, you may be doing these things already. Ideas include:

Soil and Water Conservation: Riparian Buffer • Capture Rain Water from Roof • Xeriscape (water-wise landscaping) • Drip or Soaker Hose for Irrigation • Limit Water Use • Reduce Erosion (i.e. ground cover, terraces) • Use Mulch • Rain Garden

Controlling Exotic Species: Practice Integrated Pest Management • Remove Non-Native Plants and Animals • Use Native Plants • Reduce Lawn Areas

Organic Practices: Eliminate Chemical Pesticides • Eliminate Chemical Fertilizers • Compost

Find out more at the National Wildlife Federation  website:

You can also plan and plant to attract wildlife to your yard. Again, the DFG website has some good information on what to plant, including trees, shrubs, berries, perennials, etc. Another benefit of planting for wildlife is that you can help attract pollinators to your area. See the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge at:

Keep in mind that you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy backyard birds. Go to: ,the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.  You’ll find some great ideas.

If you are interested in learning to identify birds, it’s suggested that you start by learning to recognize what group a bird belongs to. You do this in two ways: by becoming familiar with the general shape, color, and behavior of birds. Also learn to notice identifying features on the bird, called field marks—a wingbar, or an eye-ring—to make some IDs.

As an example, our magpies are easy to spot at a distance with their dipping flight. All About Birds says, “On the wing, Black-billed Magpies make long, sweeping flights with white flashes of their wing patches and long, trailing tails. They perch at the tops of trees, which is a means of visually establishing their territory, the equivalent of other bird species’ songs. Magpies walk with a swaggering strut.”

Pretty easy to learn this one!  Here’s another: in Anchorage the Bohemain Waxwing is easily identified by their adult description:

-Medium-sized songbird.

-Brownish gray overall.

-Crest on top of head.

-Black mask.

-Yellow tip to tail.

-White and yellow feather edging in wings.

-Reddish under the tail.

Once you spot a particular bird and have made positive ID, that birds is yours! It becomes part of you and you will always know it.  You can record sightings by keeping a journal of what kinds of birds are seen in your location and time of year. You can record weather and what the birds ate. UAA provides a checklist at:

You can check out Anchorage Audubon Society at their website and plan to attend a meeting. The meetings are free and open to the public, and  refreshments are served! The Anchorage Audubon Society, a chapter of the National Audubon Society, meets the third Thursday of each month from September to May at 7:00 pm at the BP Energy Center in Anchorage.: (

Finally, a great way to learn more about bird identification is to color them.  Cornell has a bird coloring book (  ), and many more are available on the web. Try to find the more realistic-looking blackline drawings, and use the Internet or a good bird book to accurately color your subject.


Boreal Chickadee on Suet Cake. Photo by Patrick Ryan

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