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How to Help Local Birds Survive Winter

Picture a cold, crystal-clear winter morning. You gaze out your frosted window and see a blanket of white snow that rolls on as far as the eye can see. The only thing that could make this view even better? (Well, other than a steaming hot cup of coffee?) Graceful, stunningly colored birds swooping in and out of your hushed, serene landscape.

Winter can be beautiful, but it’s also a tough time for birds. They spend nearly all of their energy seeking out food, shelter, and water. Helping them out with these needs is a win-win for both you and the birds. They’ll be fed and cozy, and you get to enjoy watching them frolic in your winter wonderland.

So how can you send them the message that your yard is available as a cozy wintertime bird B&B?

 

Male cardinal on a wintery evergreen tree

 

Offer winter birds a drink

Finding water in frozen conditions can be challenging for birds. They can eat snow to stay hydrated, but that burns valuable energy as their bodies are forced to melt it and turn it to water. Providing them with access to open water in your pond is sure to earn you their favor. You can make this happen with a pump that moves the water, preventing it from freezing, or with a pond aerator.

Since animals are attracted to the sound of running water, you might also consider letting your waterfall run throughout winter. Just make sure you have a pump that provides at least 2,000 gph for smooth winterlong operation. You’ll also want to stop by the pond regularly to ensure that ice has not built up and formed dams that could divert water out of the pond. (Bonus: be sure to check out the beautiful ice sculptures formed by your waterfall!)

 

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) male bathing in winter

 

Even if you choose to close your pond, you can still keep a birdbath filled for your feathery guests. The National Audubon Society recommends plastic birdbaths with built-in heaters and choosing models on pedestals to help reduce risks from predators, such as neighborhood cats.1

 

Heated birdbath during winter with northern cardinal

 

Set the winter table

Bird feeders are a great way to attract birds. According to the National Audubon Society, purchasing multiple styles and placing them at varying heights helps to draw a variety of species because birds naturally feed at different heights.2

Here are five styles for your consideration.

  • Ground-feeding tables sit several inches off the ground and should be placed in open locations, away from shrubs that might hide predators. They are favored by doves, juncos, sparrows, towhees, goldfinches, and cardinals.
  • Sunflower-seed tube feeders should be placed at least five feet off the ground and near a window so you can enjoy watching your visitors. These feeders are likely to attract small birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches, siskins, and purple and house finches.
  • Hopper feeders attract all of the species that are drawn by tube feeders, plus larger birds such as jays, grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and cardinals. They can hold several pounds of mixed seed that tumbles forward on demand. Hopper feeders should be placed on a pole about five feet off the ground.
  • Suet feeders are popular with titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers. Wrens, creepers, and warblers occasionally pop by as well. Suet can be hung from a tree in an onion bag, hardware-cloth basket, or a more durable cage feeder. Small chunks of suet can also be placed in dishes or trays for easy access.
  • Thistle feeders are designed especially for dispensing Niger seed, AKA thistle seed. They have tiny holes in them that make the seed available only to small-beaked finches such as goldfinches, redpolls, and pine siskins. Thistle feeders should be hung on a five-foot pole or from a tree and protected from squirrels with a baffle.

 

Two great tits eat food from a hanging feeder on a snowy winter day.

 

Plan your birdfeed menu

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, many winter plants are great food sources for birds who enjoy dining on nuts and fruit, including Staghorn Sumac, viburnums, Virginia Creeper, Serviceberry, Winterberry Holly, and more. Crab apple trees can also provide both fruit and seeds.3 Adding these plants to your landscaping creates a natural buffet for winter visitors.

Beyond native options, you can add seed mix to your bird feeders and then supplement it with foods that are especially beneficial for wintertime dining. The following options provide good nutrition and are high in calories to give birds plenty of energy and help them build up their fat reserves for cold winter nights.

  • Black oil sunflower seeds
  • Peanuts
  • Fruit such as apples, orange wedges, banana slices, halved grapes, and melon rinds (dried fruit is a great option too)
  • Millet (an inexpensive, starchy grain)
  • Salt crystals (birds crave salt as an essential mineral, but it should only be offered in minimal amounts)

 

Offer a safe winter haven

Native evergreens provide excellent cold-weather shelter for birds, according to Marinette Nowak, author of Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds.4 Evergreens can block prevailing winds, protect feeding birds, and even reduce heating costs for your home. Another bonus? Birds can eat the seeds inside pinecones.

No evergreens in your yard? No problem! Birds can also take shelter in shrubs, grasses, trees, rock and brush piles, nesting boxes, and abandoned structures. After the holidays, your discarded Christmas tree can enjoy a second life as a bird playground.

 

Winter birdhouse with a great tit bird

 

Permission to be messy

Do you have a little garden debris in the yard? Leave it there! Birds enjoy picking through seedpods, leaf piles, and fruit that fell from your trees. The National Audubon Society also recommends raking fallen leaves under shrubs to create mulch and protect natural ground-feeding areas for birds.1

 

References:

1 National Audubon Society. Winterize your yard for birds. Available at https://www.audubon.org/news/winterize-your-yard-birds. Accessed August 20, 2020.

2 National Audubon Society. 5 best bird feeders for winter. Available at https://www.audubon.org/news/5-best-bird-feeders-winter. Accessed August 20, 2020.

3 Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Bird friendly winter gardens. Available at https://www.birds.cornell.edu/k12/bird-friendly-winter-gardens/. Accessed August 20, 2020.

4 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Help birds survive winter, and enjoy their presence, with a yard landscaped to provide food and shelter. Available at https://www.jsonline.com/story/life/home-garden/garden/2019/09/19/birdscape-your-yard-provide-winter-food-shelter-our-winged-friends/2300599001/. Accessed August 20, 2020.

5 National Audubon Society. 10 fun facts about the American robin.  https://www.audubon.org/news/10-fun-facts-about-american-robin. Accessed August 20, 2020.

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