ROCHESTER, Minn. -- My wife Debbie and I were faced with two uncomfortable COVID-19 realities: it’s not going to be beaten real soon and the coming winter is going to be long without being able to go out very much.

We looked for a way to pass what are going to be long days when we decided we needed to feed the birds. We’ve done it off and on, and recently put up three simple suet feeders on a big tree in our boulevard.

Why not expand our avian menu? It would give us something to look at outside our front window when we sit reading or doing puzzles during those winter days. Birds do add a lot of color and life.

Jess Robinson of Collins Feed and Seed Center near downtown Rochester, sold us a four-hook feeder hanger, two feeders, an anti-squirrel device and two bags of seed -- cardinal mix and one with more thistle.

I was a bit skeptical that we would get a lot of birds because, while we have two big maples on our boulevard and some bushes nearby, we don’t have big protective conifers where birds can perch while eating or waiting to eat.

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Don’t worry, he said. If you put out feed, they will come.

I also believed the thistle one would be more popular.

Nope, Robinson said. The cardinal mix of peanuts, safflower and sunflower will be the main entree.

He was right on both counts. The birds have flocked to our feeders and chow down on the cardinal mix 10-to-1 over the thistle mix.

We weren’t alone in seeking birding entertainment and education in the COVID time. Feeding birds has been a huge, growing, very popular attraction for people coming to the store that also sells pet products, he said.

Jess Robinson of Collins Feed and Seed Center of Rochester stands next to some of the birdfeeders and other things the store sells for feeding birds, which has become more popular in this time of COVID-19. (Contributed photo by John Weiss)
Jess Robinson of Collins Feed and Seed Center of Rochester stands next to some of the birdfeeders and other things the store sells for feeding birds, which has become more popular in this time of COVID-19. (Contributed photo by John Weiss)

“The main thing we do here is bird feed,” Robinson said. “That’s what keeps us in business all the time.”

Often, people who never really thought about bird feeding, or thought maybe they would do it someday, decided it’s time, Robinson said.

“It has never been part of their life and suddenly, you are grounded at home,” he said.

His wife, Jennifer Robinson, who works at Mayo Clinic, was home nearly all the time and wanted something to look at. The first thing her husband did was put up bird feeders.

To accommodate the increasing interest, the store shifted around its offering and created a “Bird Center” all in one area, with dozens of feeders, including those that attach to windows, as well as more feed and devices to hold feeders such as the hangers.

Robinson gets many families who want something to liven up their backyard or front yards, add some life, some zip.

“You have really changed the complexion in how your backyard feels,” he said.

For those who are working from home, it’s entertainment while they work. For those with children, it’s a great learning experience, he said.

It’s true that “birds have been around since the time of the dinosaurs” so they can get along without humans feeding them, he said. It’s a truism that we need them for the joy they bring more than they need us for the food we bring. But a study done in winter in Wisconsin on black-capped chickadees found 69% of birds with access to feeders survived winter while only 37% without food from humans survived, he said.

As for squirrels, which are either a nemesis of those who feed or something people want to attract, Collins has a selection of squirrel-proof feeders or devices to keep them out of feeders, as well as feeders for squirrels, Robinson said. Food can be peanuts in the shell or shelled and a mix that is akin to human’s trail mix -- without the M&Ms. You can feed both birds and squirrels without squirrels raiding the expensive bird seed, he said.

Goldfinches and a black-capped chickadee gather around a bird feeder in northwest Rochester to eat sunflower, thistle and other foods. In the background is a suet feeder. (Contributed photo by John Weiss)
Goldfinches and a black-capped chickadee gather around a bird feeder in northwest Rochester to eat sunflower, thistle and other foods. In the background is a suet feeder. (Contributed photo by John Weiss)

Once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, Robinson expects there might be a bit of a drop in interest in feeding. But not that much. “It’s something that’s easy to maintain once you get started,” he said.

Here are 11 things the National Audubon Society says people should consider when feeding birds, either in winter or year-round:

  • Put feeders at different levels because some birds feed more on the ground, others in trees.

  • Offer a variety of seeds in separate feeders. “Black oil sunflower seed appeals to the greatest number of birds. Offer sunflower seeds, nyjer (thistle) seeds, and peanuts in separate feeders.”

  • Offer suet only in cold weather because it turns rancid in hot weather and dripping fat can hurt birds’ natural waterproofing.

  • Mix one part peanut butter and five parts cornmeal and stuff the mix into holes drilled into logs or crevices of large pine cones. It’s an all-season attractor.

  • Offer fruit for berry-eating birds such as robins, waxwings, bluebirds and mockingbirds that rarely eat bird seed.

  • Nectar for hummingbirds is made of one part white sugar to four parts water. Boil it briefly to sterilize and dissolve sugar crystals. Feeders need to be washed every few days with very hot water.

  • Store seed in secure metal containers to protect it from squirrels and mice. Keep in a cool, dry place.

  • Discourage squirrels with cone-shaped baffles (at least 17 inches across) or other obstacles below feeders.

  • Put feeders within 3 feet of windows, if possible, to avoid crashes with windows. Or put mobiles or opaque decorations so birds know there’s a window there.

  • Keep cats indoors because they kill hundreds of millions of birds annually in the United States.

  • Clean feeders and rake up spilled grain and hulls.