The tiny bird fluffs its feathers against the cold, while the north wind whips sleet into the pine branches surrounding its perch. With all water sources frozen, it has to use precious body warmth to melt the snow it eats. Last year’s crop of seeds is buried under a layer of white. Wild birds are amazingly hardy creatures, but even the sturdiest Mountain Chickadee (above) finds conditions like these a challenge.
There are a number of ways we can make our yards more hospitable to wintering birds. They need food, water, and shelter to survive. With increased urbanization, all three of these are becoming more scarce, so our efforts may make the difference in whether or not a bird survives until spring.
Many people feed birds; feeders and seed mixes are even available at the grocery store. Most inexpensive mixes are mostly millet, which is attractive to sparrows and the unrelated House Sparrow, but not all that appetizing to other songbirds. Black oil sunflower seed is a better choice.
Birds that eat insects during the summer months either migrate or switch to other food sources during the cold months. Planting shrubs that produce berries provides not only a source of food but also beautifies the landscape at a time when most plants are dormant and boring. One benefit of insects is their high fat content. A block of suet offers birds another source of high-calorie fat. A protective covering of wire mesh with one inch openings allows smaller birds access while keeping out magpies and starlings, who would consume the entire block at once.
A source of water attracts birds that won’t come to feeders. If the weather isn’t too cold, simply fill a dish with warm water every morning. Electric bird baths have heating elements that keep their contents at an ice-free 40 degrees. While birds can and do eat ice and snow, providing water in its liquid state allows them to use their limited resources to keep warm and alert.
A snug spot out of the wind can make a huge difference in a bird’s chances of survival. Nest boxes are common, but there are better choices for winter shelter. Roost boxes are like upside down nest boxes. Because heat rises, the access hole at the bottom rather than near the top. Dowels give the birds a place to sit, and many birds can fit into one medium-sized box.
Just as with nest boxes, precautions need to be made against predators. If the box is on a pole, a baffle will keep raccoons from midnight raids. An extra-thick doorway and metal predator guard will keep squirrels from gnawing their way inside.
Most birds find shelter in thickets and evergreens. Willows, brooms, and other dense shrubs block the wind and snow. Junipers and pyracantha (Firethorn, right) offer the additional advantage of having leaves (or needles) year-round. Thorns are a bonus. The birds can easily avoid them, but potential predators get impaled and leave to find an easier meal.
Birds can survive the winter on their own, and have been doing so for thousands of years. But offering food, water, and shelter not only helps the birds, it brings them up close for our own enjoyment. It’s well worth the investment.