Live north of Zone 8? You know what’s coming.The birds do too, and they left you a list of things they’d like to see in their…umm, your backyard.
Can birds survive on their own in winter?
In a word, yes. Birds are perfectly equipped to withstand winter weather. They don’t need us. BUT… Human environmental alterations have created some not so subtle results on the habitat and food sources available for wildlife. Inadvertent and deliberate introduction of non-native, invasive plant species have reduced some native food sources. Housing developments and destruction of native wild lands drive birds and other animals closer to human areas – simply because there are less favored wild places left.
Live in an urban apartment? Homesteading on a patch of a sub-division? You can be a positive force for assisting wintering birds. And it is quite simple to do!
How to help birds in winter
Migratory winter visitors and resident species require three resources to survive:
You won’t need to attract birds to your yard. They are already there. What you will be doing is creating a focal point that will shepherd the birdies into a desired place. Birds are heard before they are seen, so if you want to be a birdwatcher…start as a bird listener!
Get ready for the cold weather.
1. Wash and fix those feeders.
They are going to be getting some heavy use. Fix any loose fixtures and change frayed cords before the feeders are put into service. It’s much easier to do this when the air temperature is not 20˚ and the wind chill is blinding you with sleet (I’ve tried).
2. Consider investing in new bird feeders.
If your current feeders and waterers are looking a little beat up from years of use, it may be a good idea to invest in some new ones. Animal activity, cleaning and handling, coupled with the exposure of the plastic parts to sunlight, degrade and damage the best feeders over time. Broken or cracked stations can injure or catch birds. The cracks and deep scratches harbor bacteria and pathogens (mold, fungus) that are impossible to access during cleaning. If there are many of these fissures, think about getting some new equipment.
3. Electric, heated birdbaths need extra attention.
Check for frayed cords or the possibility of connection problems that could lead to failures. Always connect these products to a ground fault circuit. If the circuit trips, or you suspect damage, unplug and discard the birdbath. Electrocution is a real risk, and it doesn’t take much to kill a bird…or give you a big shock.
Placing feeders in winter
4. Placement is key to running a successful dining facility! Be sure to set feeders where you will have reasonable access to maintain them.
This is particularly true if you live in areas visited by ice and deep snowfalls. Try to locate the feeders in regions with snow and wind breaks – you don’t want to hang your feeder in a spot that gets wind driven drifts, or your feeder will get buried, or have every crack and opening clogged with crusty snow.
5. Hang or mount the feeders near a building that shields the weather.
You can also set them near thick shrubs or evergreen trees. This allows the birds natural cover and helps to hide their activity from predators. Cut evergreen branches and affix them to deciduous trees and position the boughs over the feeder’s dome or roof to provide extra protection from gusts, rain and snow. It works great, provides extra perching places and it looks festive! The branches soften the feeder’s profile, letting it naturalize into the environment.
6. Learn about the bird species that visit your area.
You can then target what feed and feeder styles are the most likely to benefit the local and migratory visitors.
- Seed – Most species that overwinter in cold areas are seed and nut eaters. These are the cardinals, towhees, chickadees, blue jays, titmice, juncos, grosbeaks, finches and sparrows. Only purchase quality seed mixes without a high percentage of cracked corn and red millet. Don’t purchase old seed or seed mixed in with dirt and debris. Always provide sunflower seed. This is a sure bet in any region – birds absolutely love it. Try to get black oil, since it is the most sought after (you also have less shell-waste to rake up).
- Whole grains – Game birds and squirrels prefer these large “bites.” They will attract doves, grouse and pheasant, wild turkey, crows, blackbirds and jays. You may even witness deer and rabbit giving your snacks a try. Squirrels prefer eating from a tree, a tray or specifically designed squirrel feeder, but the other animals will appreciate the food placed on the ground.
- Suet and mealworms – Insect eaters that stick around through the snow will be happy to visit your suet cages. Nuthatches, flickers, blackbirds, woodpeckers and many other songbird species will pick at the high-energy suet. If it has peanuts, you will see the squirrels munching as well. Break up suet and set it on the ground next to some bread dipped in cooking oil (save used cooking oil for this purpose). The crows will really enjoy this treat! Set these snacks on a tray or lid. You won’t want to leave them out overnight as you may attract “varmints.” It won’t take long for the crows to train you to bring them their meals. Sprinkle the dried mealworms on feeding trays or break them up to add to the mixes in the tube feeders. Provide mealworms in separate worm feeders, or toss them on hanging trays. They can be soaked, if the weather is above freezing (or you’ll have “wormsicles”), in order to reconstitute them. Settle them in warm water for about 30 minutes.
Provide the right kind of shelter for birds
7. Plant stands of evergreen shrubs and trees.
Choose those that produce dense boughs for cover. Some varieties are boxwoods, holly, yew, arborvitae and spruce. Planting these trees and bushes in groups provide extra protection for birds. Set small trees and shrubs near walls or building, or in areas where wind does not channel, in order to give the birds an added bit of protection from the elements.
8. Add trees that supply a food source: apples, crabapples, pears, mulberries, dogwood, holly, serviceberry, oak and other nut producers (walnut, pecan, hazel, butternut).
Provide water sources that won’t turn into ice cubes!
This often over-looked element is just as important in the winter months as it is during the summer. Birds rely on open water for bathing as much as drinking. Even in the cold, birds will wash their plumage to keep it in working condition. In the winter this means ensuring their feathers create proper loft to trap air for warmth.
9. Standing bird baths are best.
You can provide hot water during the day – a bit of a chore – or purchase heated baths. You will need to situate the bath near an electrical supply (with a ground fault system). Heating elements can also be purchased to keep standard birdbath water above freezing.
10. Find a product that runs with a thermostat.
You will save on electricity as these only operate when the water falls into the freezing temperature range. Cornell University endorses these “latest immersion heaters turn off if the water in the bath dries up…[and] cost pennies a day to operate.”
11. Choose birdbaths for different seasons.
Plastic or modern concrete baths are prone to winter damage from ice (antique concrete birdbaths were made to withstand the elements). Never use a metal bath in the winter as the birds may freeze to it!
You can also purchase inserts for your existing birdbath. Visit farm and grain stores to purchase flexible rubber feed bowls. These sturdy bowls are shallow and easy to rid of ice. Simply run hot water over the bottom and pop the ice out, as you would an ice cube tray. The black rubber attracts sunlight and warms naturally during daylight hours.
For those with ponds or open bodies of water, a drinking source is always available or birds. Unless you live in zones that experience stretches of frigid weather, most bodies of water will have open sections available for drinking. Ornamental fishponds must have an area left free of ice for gas exchange in order to maintain the wellbeing of fish and aquatic life. Pond keepers use pumps and heaters for this purpose – benefitting birds and other wildlife as they keep their fish and frogs happy!
12. Don’t neglect cleaning the baths.
They will still accumulate scum and bird debris. But you won’t need to clean as often as in the summer. Important Safety Tip: Never add glycerin or any oil to a birdbath. These substances are deadly. They act in a similar manner to natural oil spills, coating the birds’ feathers and causing death from hypothermia.
Entertain yourself and backyard birds on cold days
13. Craft homemade bird treats. It’s fun and adds folksy nuance to the winter decorations.
- Load pinecones with suet and peanut butter. Roll them in seeds, dried mealworms or crushed nuts.
- Add apples to tree branches. Pop them on long sticks and prop these in winter urn displays. Affix crabapples and smaller varieties to wreaths.
- Decorate wreaths with bird food.
- Make balls of suet, seed or dried fruit.
- String fresh cranberries along thick thread and wrap these elegant garlands around your shrubs and small evergreens.
You can even decorate your outdoor greenery with any of the crafts described for an unexpected holiday display.
Keep predators away
Everyone is hungry in the cold dark days of winter. Birds of prey search out feeding stations. With their acute vision, they quickly hone in on the heavy activity around feeders and birdbaths. While predation is a natural process, herding groups of birds together in a tight and focused area is not. Feeding wildlife inherently creates a situation not found in nature and it makes sense to limit this impact while providing a balanced approach to the beneficial parts of bird feeding.
Birds of prey hunt by surprise. They use speed and cover to weave their way towards the unsuspecting birds. Prey birds need a clear view to see the predators approaching. They also need quick access to dense cover. The cover really does need to be quite dense – think scrub and tangles. Hawks are designed to get into tight spaces and they will crawl into brush to grab panicking birds.
14. Be sure there are no fences, nets or walls too near the feeder.
If you set the feeder near buildings to shield the weather, ensure there is enough space for the birds to make a get away. Aerial attacks happen quickly and birds must react in an instant. There isn’t time for them to negotiate obstacles and most hawk “grabs” happen along fences (especially wire or chain-link).
15. Keep feeders at least 4 feet from the ground and several feet away from low cover the cats can hide under.
Ground predators stalk and use cover to surprise the birds. Generally, wild animals hunt at dawn, dusk or at night – and rarely pose a risk to songbirds. If you live in rural areas, consider bobcats as a potential threat, but domestic cats are the major killer of wild birds.
Troubleshooting your cold weather bird feeding
No birds at the feeder? Did you set out your fancy multi-purpose suet and seed feeder? Have you filled it with the premium bird blend and the peanut flavored suet? But all you hear is…silence. The feeder gently tilts on the wake of icy winds. You need to think like a bird marketer. Birds are your typical consumer – they need easy and obvious. You will also need to convince them that they need what you’re selling. Sounds familiar.
16. Check your placement.
The feeder may be in the wrong place. You have to place you business on the right site. Like humans, songbirds are sight shoppers. They won’t come to your store if they can’t see it.
Set your feeder in a clear area that will be visible from the air and from their normal flight levels. You can slowly move the feeder to its final display location. And just like with any product, crowds spread news. The rise in flitting and socializing will attract more birds in. This is the original Twitter. “Hey, what’s going on down there, George?”
17. Get real about your product.
No one wants to buy soap flavored ice cream. The birds have spoken and they want what they want. Set out the favorites- sunflower seeds, high-quality mixes and suet. Got some cool winter tips for your area?
Drop us your ideas in the comments, we are waiting to add some more nifty tricks for over-wintering with your favorite hobby.