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Keeping Wild Birds Healthy in Winter

Want to support overwintering wild birds in your yard? It’s never been more important! With so many bird species in decline and climate change wreaking havoc on the timing of migration and available food resources for birds, you really can make a difference in your landscape for overwintering birds. Here are some ways to help our feather friends:

Grow Natural Food Sources

Even if you are offering bird seed and suet to wild birds, make sure to grow the natural winter foods they have evolved with. That means planting more native plants – in this case, ones with persistent fruits and ones with plentiful seed heads. Choose plants that are native to your region and appropriate for your landscape conditions.

1. Persistent Fruits

Mother Nature has worked out a way to provide fruit-eating birds with a food source in winter – namely native plants with persistent fruit. These native woody plants include native hollies (ex: Ilex opaca, Ilex verticillata, Ilex glabra), native juniper species (ex: Juniperus virginiana, Juniperus communis), native bayberries (ex: Morella pensylvanica, Morella caroliniensis, Morella cerifera), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and many more.

Some native plants billed as having persistent fruit, like chokeberries (ex: Aronia arbutifolia, Aronia melanocarpa) and native viburnums (ex: Viburnum dentatum, Viburnum opulus var. americanum) may have all of their fruit eaten by the time winter arrives, depending on other available food sources. Note that many of these plants are dioecious (male and female plants), with fruit only occurring on the female plants. Others, like native viburnums, need a genetically different pollinator partner to produce abundant fruit.

2. Winter Seed Heads

In the fall, skip the neat and tidy “type A” behavior that so many gardeners still cling to. Fall “clean-up” can be a catastrophe for overwintering birds – all those great seeds wind up in a trash bin or a recycling center. Leave your native perennials and grasses standing through winter and let the birds feast on the seed heads. In early spring you can start cutting these plants back. Stagger that cutting back over a period of weeks to make sure that seed resources (and habitat for other creatures) are still available in case of a surprise cold spell in spring.

Avoid planting sterile native cultivars that produce little or no seed. Yes, many natives like to re-seed themselves in the garden and the birds don’t eat all of that seed. No worries – just dig up any unwanted volunteer native plants, pot them up, and give them away to family and friends. Who doesn’t love free plants?

Leave the Leaves

By now, you have probably heard that you should leave leaves in place in the landscape (don’t leave big piles of leaves on the lawn where they have not co-evolved).  So what does leaving leaves alone have to do with birds? Many insects overwinter in leaf litter, and birds eat a lot of insects. On a warmish winter day, when temperatures reach into the 50’s, some overwintering insects may become active and in doing so, provide a protein-packed meal for lucky overwintering birds.  In the spring, that leaf litter will again be a food buffet for the 96% of terrestrial birds that feed insects to their young.

Provide a Fresh Source of Water

A clean, unfrozen source of water can be the most difficult thing for wild birds to find in the winter. Many bird lovers grow native plants to provide birds with food, cover and nesting sites, and many of us put out quality bird seed, suet and fruit. But, we often forget that birds need a year-round source of clean, fresh water – that isn’t frozen!

Include several bird baths in your landscape, including at least one that is frost-proof and can be left outdoors year-round. Even better – a heated bird bath can be a lifesaver for many wild birds. If you can find one, the Kozy Bird Spa is a great choice. Whatever heated bird bath you do find, make sure to keep it clean, as algae and bacteria can build up quickly – especially when bird visitors, like doves, often poop where they drink.

An ideal bird bath has a basin with several levels or tiers, offering different water depths to birds of varying sizes. These types of bird baths can be difficult to find, however. If you can only find a deep bird bath, place a sizable stone or two in the middle of the basin to help smaller birds get a drink without struggling.

Plant Winter Bird Shelter

Native evergreen plants, especially trees, can provide important protection to birds from fierce winter storms. Native conifers like Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) and Canada hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) offer welcome shelter to birds that can’t be matched by most deciduous trees when weather gets severe. And as a bonus – all of these evergreen beauties provide a food source for birds, too.

As the climate changes, we are seeing bird species that used to regularly migrate, now remaining in our landscapes over the winter. More overwintering birds means we have to ramp up the resources we provide in our landscape – habitat, shelter, food and water. Become part of the solution and help wild birds, not only in the winter, but all year round!

Happy Bird Watching from EcoBeneficial!

Photo: Cardinal in Winter Snow Storm
Photo credit: Flickr/mylifeclicks1023

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