Snow birds

Amidst the falling snow and blowing wind, a striking flash of red was unmistakable in the backyard of one dedicated couple Tuesday in Marshall. While Rich and JoAnn Dorman are like so many of the bird lovers who faithfully provide a steady supply of food and water to birds year-round, some might say that the Dormans have hit the bird-feeding jackpot this winter.

Along with a variety of other bird species, approximately 10 wintering cardinals have made their home in the Dorman’s backyard the past few years, providing a colorful array of live ornaments throughout the dull winter landscape.

“We have a lot of different birds feeding every day,” JoAnn Dorman said. “The cardinals are sure beautiful.”

Rich Dorman said the key to keeping the much sought-after cardinals is to make sure their food supply is plentiful.

“We’ve seen 10 cardinals at one time,” he said. “It’s a pretty even mix of males and females. It’s the most we’ve ever had. So we just make sure we keep feeding them. We’re selfish. We don’t want them to go away.”

Rich Dorman said he appreciates that he can sit at the island in his kitchen and watch the cardinals and other birds in his backyard.

“I enjoy seeing the activity in the wintertime,” he said. “It’s boring to just look out and see gray or brown grass or just all white, so having some color to see is very nice. And it’s just outside our back door.”

Rich Dorman said he doesn’t mind feeding the squirrels as well, but he recently purchased a dome-covered feeder to deter the squirrels a little bit.

“We put up suet and got our first woodpecker,” he said. “We get a lot of red (purple) finches and there are also juncos, nuthatches and lots of sparrows. The nice thing about cardinals is that they share the feeder with other birds. There’s no bullying going on.”

Rich Dorman believes that in addition to the steady food supply and water, the cardinals and other birds stick around because of the environment.

“I don’t know if we do anything special, but we do have the right food and environment,” he said. “We used to live in Sioux Falls (S.D.), and we had cardinals there, but we had pine trees. We were always told that they like them. Now, we have some type of pine and I think that helps attract them. We’ve been fortunate.”

The Dormans typically buy black sunflower, safflower and wild bird mix.

“I take a little of each and throw it in the tray,” Rich Dorman said. “I did buy a bird bath and a new feeder at Patzer’s (Hardware Hank) about two weeks ago, too.”

Minnesota winters are often long and brutal, and this year has been no exception, with unusually cold temperatures making some days almost unbearable. Fortunately, people have been passionate about taking care of the winter bird population in the area, said Mark and Lyle Patzer, owners of Patzer’s.

“You do have to be concerned about the birds, especially when it is so bitterly cold,” Mark Patzer said. “You do lose them. When we had that storm in 2007, when we had a lot of trees down, many people who fed a lot of birds said they were gone.”

In the past six years, the brothers have noticed a significant uptick in bird supply sales, leading them to expand their selection.

“We renamed our bird area to ‘Bird Central’ about four years ago,” Lyle Patzer said. “About six or seven years ago, we started selling a lot of bird products. Twenty years ago, we didn’t sell a bag of bird seed, but now we sell pallets of them. And we sell 120 different kinds of bird feeders. There’s something for everybody.”

And when the temperatures dip well below zero, customers quickly flock to the store, the brothers said.

“On those extremely cold days, people come in to buy two things: ice melt and bird seed,” Mark Patzer said. “It’s nice to see people caring for their feathered friends. It’s a good hobby.”

Lyle Patzer noted that the black oil sunflower seeds are the most popular with customers, though they sell a variety of bird blends and bird books, too.

“The bigger sellers now are cardinal food,” he said. “The cardinals are so bright red now with the snow in the dropback. They’re more visible. It helps if you’re by a river or have heavy pine tree cover. They like safflower and sunflower.”

Patzer also said he’s seen a decline in thistle feeder sales.

“Some finches migrate, but others stick around,” he said. “The thistle feeders for the finches are down a little bit. But ever since the snow has really hit, bird-feeding has gone crazy. People feel sorry for the birds. We all want to take care of our little friends, not to mention having fun watching them.”

The bad part about bird feeding is that the birds tend to disappear when the food runs out, so it can get somewhat costly to keep up.

“The number one thing we hear is that the birds are eating them out of house and home,” Lyle Patzer said. “But people keep feeding them. We love the bird feed business. It’s such an enjoyable hobby for people. And anybody can do it, obviously. But if the food disappears, the birds will go to the neighbors. It might take quite a while to get them back, too.”

Patzer said he believes that bird feeding has become so popular in the area because the hobby helps people get through the difficult winter months.

“I would say a large percentage of homeowners feed the birds,” he said. “It’s easy to do. A large percentage of the people who walk out of here have a bag of bird feed with them. Birds have survived for thousands of years, but we just make their life a little easier now.”

Audrey Hammer, who resides west of Marshall, made a stop at Patzer’s on Tuesday to pick up a few supplies.

“I’m buying bird feed, suet and a heating pad for my cats,” Hammer said. “It’s cold out there.”

Hammer said she has a variety of birds eating out of her feeders, but she’s not seeing as many different species of winter birds this year.

“We have chickadees, nuthatches and at times, there are some goldfinches,” she said. “They stay all winter if they have someplace, but they’ve been coming and going. We can’t keep our bird feeder full because the wind blows it out on some of them.”

Hammer noted that she’s also seen woodpeckers at the feeders.

“I think it’s a red-breasted woodpecker, though there isn’t much red on its breast. They say red-breasted, but it’s actually a pretty, pinkish red, and they have black and white bars on their back. They’re big and pretty. We enjoy watching the birds out the window. We’ve done for a lot of years.”

Last year, Hammer had a memorable experience at her residence.

“We saw a glorious display of orioles,” she said. “There were 25 to 30 of them on the feeder. It was nice because the grandkids got to see them. It was stupendous to see all that orange. But, of course, they didn’t stay for long.”

The orioles migrated elsewhere within the week, but that doesn’t stop Hammer from continuing to feed the birds.

“We enjoy them,” she said. “And they sure need the feed this year.”