Bird in Shrub

All birds need food, water, shelter, and nesting sites. But not all birds migrate during the cold winter months. Some stay local, which means they must modify their feeding and living habits. While most flowers, insects, water, and other resources are abundant during the spring and summer seasons, they become increasingly harder to find as plants go dormant and water supplies freeze. Providing birds with food, water, and shelter during the winter months helps to ensure their survival and invites them into your backyard year after year–a welcome sight!

A favorite bird that does not migrate is the Northern Cardinal. Seven states have chosen the cardinal as their state bird: Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. Cardinals are primarily seed and nut eaters. Their beak is specifically designed for those types of food sources. During the spring and summer, cardinals tend to eat spiders, insects, wild berries, and weed seeds. They specifically use insects to feed to their young. However, during the winter they eat mainly seeds and berries since there are very few insects available. Though cardinals prefer a habitat of dense thickets and woodland edges, you can add appropriate native plants to attract them to your yard, such as hackberry, dogwood, holly, mulberry, cherry, and Viburnum.
Native plants and wildflowers support the insects that support birds. These plants are adapted to their environment and require less water, maintenance, and pest control. Native plants help sustain a wide range of bird species and provide more benefits than just food. Planting natives for birds supplies food and shelter that birds need to live and raise their young. Those same plants go to seed and provide food for birds in the winter season. Another bonus: they bring butterflies and other pollinators into your garden during the warmer months.

Bird in Urban Bird Habitat Garden at the National Museum of Natural History

While adding bird-friendly, regionally appropriate plants is the best solution for feeding birds in the winter, birdfeeders are another way to help non-migratory birds survive the winter, especially in urban environments where plants may not be available to them. Making homemade feeders is a fun winter activity and the birds will thank you! Black oil sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, berries, cracked corn, crushed peanuts, thistle seeds, mealworms, and white milo will attract a plethora of birds all winter long.
Suet is another popular bird food that is readily available in the marketplace. However, it can go rancid, so it should be refrigerated. Rendering the suet will improve its shelf life. (Invasive starlings enjoy suet so it should be placed in such a way as to make it difficult for the starlings to feed on it.) Suet can be melted down so that treats can be added to it before it solidifies such as apple bits, raisins, and crushed peanuts. Raisins must be chopped up into smaller pieces and then soaked in warm water before adding. After putting the treats in the melted suet, allow them to solidify in the freezer. It should be noted that not all bird species are inclined to use feeder stations. They should be used as a supplement to your natural garden and not as a replacement.

Don’t forget to sterilize feeders regularly, perhaps even weekly, during peak season. Taking time to remove moldy seed from feeders will reduce the risk of spreading diseases. Clean them more frequently when there are lots of birds in your garden or if you suspect that some are sick. A buildup of bacteria from old food can kill birds.
Water is another crucial winter survival component. Offer a fresh, clean source of water that is easy for birds to reach and safe from predators. A pedestal-style bath around 40 inches high helps protect against predators. It should have a shallow edge leading to a center that is no more than three inches deep.

Robins using Birdbath

If you live in an area with severe winters you may want to consider providing a heated birdbath so the birds can have water to drink, preen their feathers, and keep clean. Many birds will use baths for a quick dip to keep their plumage in top condition. Garden ponds are also a good resource that add water as well as frogs, toads, and dragonflies to the environment.

Birds need sheltered areas to protect themselves from the elements. Songbirds especially need protection from predators like other birds, squirrels, snakes, raccoons, and cats. Evergreen trees and shrubs can provide windbreaks as well as protect birds in the winter. A brush pile can be used as a temporary shelter if no other plants are available. A thick understory layer of ferns, tall grasses, and shrubs gives security to small birds. Is there a specific bird you want to attract? Do a little research; different species of birds have varying preferences for nesting sites. Birds like the Northern Cardinal have nests that tend to be wedged into a fork of small branches in a sapling, shrub, or vine tangle, one to fifteen feet off the ground and hidden in dense foliage.

Bird houses can provide shelter and nesting sites in areas where there is no alternative. Decide on the species you want to attract and then choose the appropriate house type. The size of the entrance hole and type of construction will determine who moves in. Eastern Bluebirds and Purple Martins readily take to pre-made houses but so do invasive European starlings and house sparrows. Making sure the house is built in such a way that it can be cleaned out is important. Houses should be placed in proximity to the birds’ preferred habitat and food source. Birds will protect their territory so avoid multiple homes for the same species in the same area. Many different species that have different food and habitat requirements can live in close quarters to each other without competition. The general rule of thumb is no more than ten houses per acre.

By helping birds through the winter, you’ll encourage their help during warmer weather. There are many benefits of having birds in the landscape, one of which is weed control. Sparrows, finches, and other birds eat weed seeds and help eliminate unwanted plants. Another benefit is flower pollination. Hummingbirds are great examples of how birds can help pollinate your garden. Other birds like swallows and martins feed off the insects in the air, helping to control populations of nuisance insects like mosquitoes, gnats, and flies. So help give our feathered friends a “wing up” on the competition this winter by providing all the pieces to a well-rounded, backyard habitat!


The Great Backyard Bird Count

Creating a Bird-Friendly Garden