What do birds eat in winter, besides the seed I put out?
Many of the birds in our landscapes are neo-tropical migrants which head South for the winter and come back in the spring. The really hardy feathered wonders are those birds that overwinter in our harsh winter climates. Most of these are non-migrants, but some are birds that have not made it South in time, perhaps baffled by the peculiar weather brought to us by climate change.
Some birds, like Robins, seem to migrate more based on food availability than temperature cues. We have had a very harsh winter in my neck of the woods – today it warmed up to 18 degrees – yet I just spotted a group of four Robins happily gobbling some leftover berries on one of my shrubs.
Many birds will be quite pleased when you put out sunflower kernels or a nice mix of suet and berries, but you can provide overwintering birds with a natural, nutritious diet by planting a wide variety of native plants in the spring.
Here are some of the sources of winter bird food that you can provide through your plantings:
– The seeds of many of our native grasses and perennials are relished by seed-eating birds like Chickadees. So, make sure to leave native grasses and perennials standing through the winter (cut them back in early spring)
– Nuts and acorns from native trees and shrubs are not just for squirrels. Many birds, such as Blue Jays will enjoy them. Smaller nuts, like Beechnuts are greatly appreciated.
– The cones of pines and other native conifers have seeds that are important sources of nutrition for squirrels and many birds.
– When the weather complies, unfrozen sap can be a tasty treat for birds like Sapsuckers. Other birds, like Tufted Titmice and Pine Siskins, will take advantage of the leftovers. Resinous conifers, and of course, Sugar Maples, are great sources of sap.
– Berries that linger on native shrubs are critical food for many birds. Nature has ensured a winter food source in this way by making some berries less palatable than others. Less tasty berries, like the berries of Ilex verticillata (Winterberry) become more palatable to birds after freezing and thawing cycles.
Remember that different birds eat different things and have different habitat requirements. When planting, think variety and layers of plantings.