A bird watcher at heart, one of my favorite hobbies in winter is to water and feed the birds and identify the different species in my area. Despite the weather I always make sure there is a bowl of fresh water outside. I have seen many birds drink out of my dog's water bowl and they still use the bird bath if it isn't frozen. On warmer days many birds will even take a bath from time to time.
If you have deer in your area you may be tempted to feed them, but for many reasons I would not recommend feeding the deer. Deer are actually much better off fending for themselves and eating naturally during the winter. It is not a good idea to attract a lot of deer to one specific area. It can be dangerous for them because too many deer together can spread diseases, they can attract predators and it would not be natural to have deer become dependent on you feeding them. As much as I like to see deer in my backyard, I do not want to interfere with nature.
I do love to feed the birds and most of the time the squirrels enjoy a lot of the food also. Instead of going crazy trying to repel the squirrels, I have decided to accept their needs and let them have their fill of treats. Unlike the deer, the squirrels are around all the time anyway so why not feed them.
I begin by making sure my bird feeders are clean and dry so that my seed will not become moldy. Most birds and squirrels seem to enjoy the basic seed mixture you can buy in most stores. It mainly consists of black sunflower seeds, cracked corn and millet. This type of seed can be used in any regular bird feeder. Smaller birds enjoy thistle seed and there are special bird feeders that hold this type of seed.
Every year I try to find some new treats for my friends, and to keep the cost down I like to create the treats myself. Dried fruits of all kinds can be purchased but if you have a food dehydrator or oven you can make dried fruit yourself. For example, core and slice an apple into 1/4" thick rounds and place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper making sure they do not touch. Set your oven to 150-200 degrees then bake the fruit slices checking them every hour and turning them over when the one side seems dry. Dried fruit is not only good for our wild friends, but it is a great snack for you too. Once the apples are dried and cooled, spread them with peanut butter, sprinkle them with seeds or chopped peanuts and hang them from tree branches. Oranges, lemons and limes can also be sliced into rounds, dried and hung up the same way. You can also hang the citrus fruits without drying them as they will not turn brown or spoil as easy as other fruits. Birds and squirrels will enjoy the fresh juices from these fruits.
Garlands of dried fruit, plain popcorn and chunks of stale bread can be strung using fishing line or thread and draped on branches or placed on top of bushes. Purchase inexpensive granola bars from the dollar store, spread them with peanut butter, roll them in seeds or cornmeal and put them in mesh bags or plastic bags with holes cut in them and then hang the bags from trees. This can be a great activity to do with your family.
Children love to make these and hang them outside.
Suet treats provide the fat and calories birds need to survive the winter, and they love them. I only use a suet treat in the winter when it is very cold because warmer temperatures promote spoilage. You can purchase beef fat from the meat department of your local grocery store and hang it, but this type of fat can sometimes be messy. A good no-melt suet recipe consists of melting 1 cup of lard with 1 cup of peanut butter (regular or crunchy). Stir in 2 cups of oats, 2 cups of cornmeal and 1 cup of flour. Now you can stir in any other ingredients such as dried fruits, cereal, seeds, or nuts. After mixing well, pack and fill whatever size plastic containers you want to use and freeze it well. This recipe will make enough suet cakes to last a long time. When ready to use, take a container out of the freezer, remove the suet, place it in your suet cage and hang it where you can watch the birds feast on it. It is fun to watch all the different birds that love this kind of treat.
If you would like a rewarding hobby to do yourself or with your family over the winter months, consider making your own nutritious treats for the birds and squirrels in your neighborhood. You can make lasting memories of the fun times you have making the treats and you can also become a winter bird watcher.