During the winter months, snow, ice and freezing temperatures can become regular weather events. Snow Squall alerts pop up on phones for hazardous driving conditions. Hunker down – the Polar Vortex is coming! The media creates a panic to “hurry and buy all of your essentials”.
So how does this affect birds and is there anything we can do to help backyard birds survive the winter?
Many birds migrate away from cold weather. For the ones that do stick around, their food sources become limited. Some birds can lower their temperatures during the night to conserve energy, but that is often not enough for their survival.
For extended cold periods, there are a number of things that you can do to help backyard birds in the winter. As a bonus, get some enjoyment from watching them!
Cardinal at the Birdfeeder by GeorgeB2 at Pixabay
1. Hang up a bird feeder
An easy way to help birds in your backyard is to have the right kind of bird food for winter. Start putting out feeders in the fall so that the birds know about them – before the snow arrives. This can be a little tricky in bear country. I put out a small serving of food in the morning and afternoon so that it leaves no trace for bears.
The feeder should be sheltered. It will be less likely to get covered in snow if it is protected overhead by large tree branches or a wide roof overhang. You can also cut some evergreen branches to attach to the top of feeders for extra protection.
Part of the reason to put up a feeder is to enjoy watching the birds. Place the feeder very close to your window or far from your window to prevent birds colliding with windows. Decals and reflectors can also be placed on windows.
This window bird feeder is installed outside my husband’s office window. The feeder is easy to reach and clean. Surprisingly, there are not a lot of scratches or anything to make it look unsightly, even after over one year of use.
Squirrels cannot get to it because it’s about 20 feet off the ground, which is also a great location from other larger predators.
2. Offer the right type of food
Birds benefit from a higher fat diet in the colder season. Suet is common as a winter food because of its high calorie content. However, not every bird will eat suet, but you might be surprised by the ones who do. Here’s a guide on what types of food birds eat.
Good foods to feed birds in the winter are:
- black oil sunflower seed
- peanuts – not processed and no salt
- suets – you can even make your own
- nyjer seed
- peanut butter
Sunflower seeds by csabanagy at Pixabay
Winter Bird by Oldiefan at Pixabay
Depending on the type of seeds being used, consider what is underneath the feeder. In other words, if you have small children, the seeds should not fall in or near their play area.
Ground-feeding birds such as Juncos, Sparrows and Morning Doves will also collect the fallen seeds. So will the Squirrels.
If you are concerned about seed shells wrecking your landscape or attracting other animals, consider buying no-waste seeds, which are already shelled. They are more expensive due to extra processing, but may be worth it.
3. Provide access to fresh water
Fresh water can be difficult for birds to find in the winter. Consider adding a heating attachment to your current birdbath as a low-cost option. Better yet, install a heated birdbath. Heated bird baths come in a variety of options such as traditional standing birdbaths, ground-level bird baths and even bird baths that can attach to your deck.
Birdbath by Gerhardg at Pixabay
4. Create shelter for your backyard birds
Some of these tips will require advanced planning. The key is to provide places in your yard where birds have shelter and an area to forage for their own food.
- Plant evergreens and shrubs. Birds can take cover in the foliage and branches during extreme weather events.
- Grow local fruit or berry trees. This is a natural choice for birds to forage over the winter.
- Let your garden and flowers overwinter. Don’t pull them out or cut them down. This can provide food for bird and even homes for insects.
- If you’re lucky enough to have sunflowers standing in November, the birds will enjoy the seeds during winter. I can barely keep the flowers intact for a few days around here!
Chickadee Sunflower by 995645 at Pixabay
Chickadee Sunflower by Schanin at Pixabay
- Pile up some leaves, branches, fallen debris, cornstalks and tall grasses in area of the yard for shelter and nesting material.
- If you have a live Christmas tree, put it near your brush pile for extra shelter. I like to put it outside and attach suet “ornaments” for the birds to enjoy.
If you are using natural evergreen branches for cover over your birdfeeder, this may present an excellent photo opportunity!
Birds will typically perch on the highest branches or structure as they evaluate and make their way towards the food source.
Watch their behaviors, be prepared, make any necessary adjustments, and take lots of photos!
5. Install a bird house
Bird houses and roosting boxes offer a safe place to gather and stay warm. A bright and colorful birdhouse can spruce up your yard in the cold, bleak winter.
There are endless options available for bird houses. If you’re a DIY’er, you might want to make one or two. Kids would enjoy painting them. They make great gifts, too! They can be customized to your local area, such as a Lobster buoy birdhouse. This can be a great creative project for all ages and all abilities.
Winter Tit by Oldiefan at Pixabay
6. Create a birdwatching station
Keep track of the birds you see. There are a few ways to do this, some with a simple journal or more advanced with the eBird app from Cornell University. There are a few birdwatching events that you can participate in during the winter, such as the Christmas Bird Count by the Audubon Society.
Don’t forget to have a handy guidebook or poster near your station.
7. Keep bird feeders and baths cleaned.
Bring in feeder on a regular basis and clean with dish soap and water. Do not use chemicals or harsh cleaners. For bird baths, you may need to soak in some vinegar if there are any mineral deposits from the water.
There are a number of options to choose from in order to provide shelter for birds in winter, provide food and water, and enjoying their presence in your backyard. From hanging a simple birdfeeder, offering fresh water, and repurposing last season’s yard debris for bird shelter, it is well worth the effort.
Thanks for taking care of your backyard birds. They will appreciate it and you will love seeing them visit!
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