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Cold weather shouldn't scare birds away

If you've been noticing fewer birds at your feeders this winter, the frigid weather may not be the main reason.

"I think the cold winter will certainly stress the birds," Bob Gress, director of the Great Plains Nature Center, said Friday. But where birds hang out locally changes from winter to winter, and that's probably why some people are not seeing as many birds. The Christmas Bird Count did not show a decrease in numbers, Gress said.

"I don't have as many birds at my bird feeders this year," he said. "Every year is different.... They don't always go to the same spots every year, and once they settle into a winter feeding routine, they kind of stick with that.

"For people that are feeding birds, leave your feed out. If they've got a heated birdbath, make sure they have that on, because that open water will certainly be used by birds when it's available."

Gress also said it would be a good idea to put out suet, as it's a "fast and easily accessible food source, faster than seed digestion."

Extreme cold weather can kill some birds, Gress said. He recalls a die-off of Carolina wrens during a severe cold snap 30 or 40 years ago. But ice cover is more of a problem.

"If ice covers too much food for too long, possibly even snow, hiding the food supply is more dangerous for the birds."

If you're wondering where the birds hunker down on those howling Arctic nights, Gress says it's in thick cedar and pine trees, shrubs, vines and brush piles that don't catch a lot of ice, snow or wind.

"Places along the river and grounds that are like Botanica — places that have more variety of shrubbery, the middle to low stuff which is dense and thick is what birds like for nighttime use."

While most birds don't live in single yards but roam, squirrels on the other hand stay home in their nests in hollow trees or occasionally in leaf nests at the top of trees, Gress said.

"They roll up in a ball and wrap their tail around their nose and hunker down. They may not move for a couple of days. They have a pretty good fat supply going in. If it gets too cold they just say, 'Phooey. We'll just stay in today.' "

Some people have been noting raptors such as owls and hawks roosting near their houses, and that can be a source of either delight or horror, Gress said. The downside is you might see one of them chow down on a cardinal.

"All things have to eat," Gress said. "There is a balance of nature. I always tell people to watch, observe and learn and don't get too involved with the individual life processes. We're always trying to make it somewhat human, and that gets kind of tough."

One thing people might want to take advantage of during this cold stretch is bald-eagle watching along open waters. But Gress warns that the eagles are affected by the cold just as we are.

"Don't push them and chase them," Gress said. "If they're sitting in a tree, let them sit without getting so close you scare them off.

"And keep your feeders filled."