A bird called a tufted titmouse grasps a seed in its beak as it prepares to fly away from a bird feeder. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Winter can be so quiet, so seemingly void of life.

I know, I know — that’s not the case. Animal tracks in the snow are proof that some creatures are still bustling in the woods. But it’s not like during the summer, when I can step outside to find moths perched by the porch light and a toad hopping across the lawn.

Nowadays, I step outside, careful not to slip on ice, and I usually don’t spot any animals at all — at least not right away.

As I walk my dog, the wind will sometimes push the frozen trees around, causing their trunks to groan and their ice-coated branches to clack. But those sounds only make the prevailing silence more noticeable.

A gray squirrel seated on a branch peeks out from behind a tree.  Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

“Where are all the birds?” I wondered recently. Numerous species remain in Maine year round, but lately, I haven’t seen many around my home in the forest.

So, tired of all the quiet, I decided it was high time to fill my bird feeder with seed.

I own a few bird feeders, but I decided to purchase a new one to mark the occasion. A red house with a peaked roof, it’s quite large, as bird feeders go. The hollow interior is for seeds, which spill into shallow troughs on two sides. On the other two walls of the house are cages that hold suet cakes, a favorite snack for woodpeckers.

To hold the massive bird feeder aloft, my husband screwed a hefty metal hook into a beam on our covered deck. The feeder hangs from the hook, in view of the living room window.

It was about two days before I spotted the first visitors: a gaggle of chickadees that seemed quite content to share the feast. Then came white-breasted nuthatches and goldfinches.

A bird called a brown creeper moves up a tree trunk. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

A big, fat gray squirrel showed up next and, at first, the poor creature couldn’t figure out how to reach the feeder. I watched as he examined it from all angles. After a few minutes, I started to think that I’d somehow stumbled upon the secret method for keeping squirrels from my bird feeder.

Then the squirrel figured it out.

All he had to do was scale a post and jump. He clung to the peak of the feeder’s metal roof with his two back paws flopped over the edge, headfirst, and stretched until he could reach the seed tray with his front paws. It was quite impressive, especially considering his rotund figure.

I’ve heard talk of squirrels being particularly chubby this winter. The ones around my house are further evidence of that trend.

A hairy woodpecker investigates a suet cake at a bird feeder. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Squirrel No. 1— let’s call him Jules after Jules Leotard, a famous trapeze circus performer from the mid-1800s — was soon joined at the feeder by two other squirrels. All are equally plump.

A lot of backyard birders would be disgruntled at the squirrel acrobats. And I understand. They scare away birds and eat up a lot of the seed. But I’ve never minded squirrel visitors much.

A few of the squirrels haven’t figured out how to jump to the feeder yet. They just forage on the fallen seeds, which is great. Seeds on the ground can mold and cause problems for birds. So you have to clean them up frequently. The squirrels are just helping me out.

The one animal I don’t want visiting my bird feeder is black bears, simply because they can be dangerous (though it is rare), especially if you throw a rambunctious dog into the mix. That’s why I wait until winter, when bears are tucked away in their dens, to fill any feeders.

Despite Jules and his fluffy-tailed gang, the feeder has seen plenty of birds in its first week of operation. I’ve spotted both hairy and downy woodpeckers pecking at the suet. Dark-eyed juncos have come to clean up some of the seeds that have fallen on the deck. And one of my favorite winter birds, the tufted titmouse, showed up, too.

I’ve even spotted a brown creeper, a tiny bird that’s known for blending into tree bark. I haven’t seen it visit the feeder, but it lingers nearby, creeping up and down tree trunks.

 A gray squirrel hangs upside down to gather seed out of a bird feeder. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

Over the years, I’ve noticed that the visitors to winter bird feeder vary, depending on where you live in the state. When I used to live in a more urban setting in Brewer, my feeders would attract European starlings, mourning doves and house sparrows.  

Now I live on a wooded hill near a lake, surrounded by mostly beech trees, with a few oaks, white pines, white birches and sugar maples scattered throughout. So my feeders attract a totally different suite of birds.

My feeders will also sometimes attract flying squirrels, though they’re hard to spot, since they’re mostly active at night. (I once had one overshoot the feeder and land on a window screen.)

Now when I step outside, the forest is filled with the chatter of chickadees and the drumming of woodpeckers. They were there all along, quietly foraging and finding shelter from snowstorms. The feeder just gathered them together, reminding me that the Maine woods is filled with life during the winter.

Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...