Make Winter Your Top Birding Season
By providing the food, water and shelter birds need, homeowners can enjoy some of their best backyard birding during cold months
ONE OF THE MOST PERVASIVE MISCONCEPTIONS about backyard birding is that hardly any birds hang around in winter. Savvy birders, of course, know that the coldest months can be some of the hottest for backyard action. The key is to know which birds winter in your area and to prepare your yard to meet their needs as temperatures drop.
The species birders see during winter vary based on location, local climate and nearby natural habitats. Some backyard birds are reliable guests in most winter yards across the country, including jays, chickadees, doves, nuthatches, sparrows, juncos (dark-eyed junco, above) and woodpeckers. Birders in northern regions also can expect seasonal visits from redpolls, crossbills and pine siskins, and southern bird-watchers may host hardier species of warblers, overwintering hummingbirds and a greater variety of wrens.
No matter which birds spend the winter in your region, the key to attracting them is to meet their needs for food, water and shelter. The more ways a single property fulfills those requirements, the greater the diversity of winter guests that will take advantage of it.
Providing easy meals is the top way to attract winter birds to your yard, and it also can help them survive the season. “Bad weather like blizzards and ice storms can make it hard to find food, and cold can take its toll,” says Sally Roth, author of The Backyard Bird Feeder’s Bible. “A well-fed bird is a warmer bird, better able to withstand winter rigors.” Roth recommends providing “a big spread of visible food and a variety to suit all appetites”—including seeds, cracked corn, nuts and soft foods like suet—to bring in the first customers. “After birds find your feeders, their presence and activity will attract others,” she says.
Birds are also drawn to natural food sources, and autumn’s bounty easily can be preserved for winter feeding. Harvest sunflower seeds from the garden by cutting off the full, ripe flower heads and storing them in loosely tied paper bags. Leave some berries and other fruit on bushes. Allow seed-bearing flowers to drop their seeds in flowerbeds, and ground-foraging birds will happily clean up the spillage. And don’t be too eager to rake: Leaf litter can provide a feast of insects, seeds, nuts and other foods.
Because many garden centers have autumn sales, it’s a great time to stock up on birdseed and suet cakes. This also is the time to switch to more appropriate winter foods. Birds need rich sources of fat and calories to combat cold temperatures and severe storms, and suet, nuts and high-oil seeds such as nyjer, black-oil sunflower seeds and sunflower hearts are all great choices. “If you can find a way to keep squirrels away from them, mixed nuts are like crack for birds,” says Sharon Stiteler, founder of Birdchick.com and author of 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know. “They love the stuff, even more than black-oil sunflower seeds.”
Not all birds visit feeders, even in winter, but they all need to drink (eastern bluebirds in birdbath, right). Snow and ice may seem like obvious water sources, but it takes a lot of body heat and calories to melt them. Backyards that provide fresh, clean, liquid water will host more winter visitors than frozen yards. “Water is as big an attraction as feeders,” Roth says. But before the first freeze, make sure to clean birdbaths and swap out delicate solar or fountain models for sturdy, winter-ready water features. Because ice can cause cracks and leaks, concrete birdbaths should be stored or covered in winter. Add heaters to birdbaths that can remain outdoors or opt for baths that have heating units integrated into their design.
Placing baths in a sunny area will make them more visible to birds and keep the water liquid more easily. Adding several stones to the bath or placing a few sticks on top as perches will keep birds from bathing in dangerously cold temperatures. To protect the baths, check that cords and outlets for heaters are sheltered from snow or ice buildup that could cause electrical shorts.
As temperatures drop, many homeowners worry that “their” birds will not survive the chill. Though birds have plenty of adaptations to keep warm, a cold snap or severe storm still can cause fatalities. Providing backyard shelters—either natural or artificial—can help birds survive. Natural shelter is as easy as including conifers and other evergreens in your landscape. If your yard doesn’t have space for large trees, opt for a small, sheltered brush pile next to a shed or garage, with the building blocking the worst of the wind. Birdhouses can be left up year-round to serve as winter refuges (clean them after the nesting season), or mount roost boxes in sunny areas out of the wind for birds to use on cold winter nights.
Even during winter, feeders and baths should be cleaned regularly to prevent bacteria buildup that can cause disease. “Dirty bird feeders, especially during a warm spell when the snow melts, are a breeding ground for disease and could wipe out a whole flock of pine siskins,” Stiteler says. “It’s very important to keep a feeding station clean and to remove old seed that has been getting wet on the ground.” If possible, rotate feeders so dirty ones can be brought inside for cleaning without reducing available food. Make cleaning and refilling feeders and baths more convenient by keeping a path to them clear, even after heavy snowstorms, or relocate your feeding station to a sheltered deck or patio that won’t be used in winter.
Backyard birding can be an amazing winter experience. The bright red gleam of a northern cardinal (above) on a snow-covered pine, the feisty chatter of a black-capped chickadee sneaking sunflower seeds from a feeder or the energetic foraging of a flock of dark-eyed juncos are rewarding moments that prepared backyard birders can enjoy all season long.
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NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat® program provides gardeners with tips about native plants and other elements needed to create nurturing outdoor spaces for birds and other wildlife.
Melissa Mayntz is a Utah-based writer who covers wild birds and birding for About.com (birding.about.com).