For many birds, winter is the most dangerous time of year. Deciduous trees lose their leaves, exposing birds to predators and the elements. Many food sources are buried under snow, and water sources may freeze.
Around the world, many bird lovers try to help birds in the winter by putting out seeds, suet, and other foods, buying heated birdbaths, and building nesting boxes to provide winter birds with the three main things they need to survive the cold months: food, water, and shelter.
If you enjoy gardening, you can also provide many of the same benefits by carefully choosing plants in order to provide year round natural sources of food and shelter. This has several advantages over attracting birds with the use of bird feeders. First, though landscaping for the birds may have a somewhat higher upfront cost than birdseed and feeders, once the plants are established they will require little or no time and money to maintain. Birdseed, on the other hand, must be continually replaced. Secondly, you can be sure that your local birds are well provided for even if you go an an extended vacation and are unable to refill the feeders. And finally, attractive, bird-friendly landscaping will beautify your garden and add value to your home.
Planning a Winter Paradise for Birds
There is a wide variety of native shrubs and small trees that provide good winter food sources for birds. Many are also highly ornamental for human visitors to your garden. These include:
- American holly (Ilex opaca)
- Winterberry (Ilex verticilatta)
- Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
- Viburnums and cranberries (Viburnum species)
- Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
- Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina)
- Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
- Crabapples (Malus species – not all are eaten by birds)
- Washington Hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum)
- Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Ornamental grasses provide both seeds and cover for birds. The native prairie grasses of the Midwest and Great Plains are especially popular with many bird species because of their height and their nutritious seeds. A few of the most popular and ornamental include Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), and Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Ornamental grasses are most beneficial to the birds in large stands or swathes, rather than as individual plants.
Although many annual and perennial flowers provide the best food in summer and fall, some retain seeds or hips into the winter season. For this reason, it is a good idea to wait to deadhead plants until early spring. Among the flowers that provide potential winter seed sources are sunflowers, coneflowers, and Black-Eyed Susan.
Another strategy, especially good for attracting game birds such as pheasants and wild turkeys, is to grow a food plot. Food plots, which can consist of cereal grains such as field corn, millet, and sorghum, or annual seed producing flowers like sunflowers, are stands of plants allowed to mature and stand unharvested throughout the winter. The seeds and grains provide food for birds, while the leaves and stalks provide cover and protection from predators and the elements.
Evergreen trees are one of the most important sources of winter shelter for birds, and many also provide food in the form of seeds. Evergreen trees and shrubs also make excellent windbreaks for your yard and home. A well sited evergreen windbreak can decrease your home heating costs by as much as 40%!
Most deciduous trees provide the best food and cover for birds in the spring, summer, and fall months. However, if you have a large stand of them, their winter benefit will be greatly increased, and even individual trees will continue to prove a source of food for woodpeckers and other insect eating birds, who seek out insects hibernating in the tree’s bark. Hollow stumps, snags, and rotting logs also provides food and shelter for many types of wildlife, including some birds.
Another great use for fallen and rotting wood is to create a brush pile. Brush piles provide a great form of shelter for birds and many other types of wildlife. It is a good idea to locate bird feeders near (but not next to) a brush pile or evergreen tree, so birds can have a quick escape if threatened by predators. Too close, however, and predators will be able to take advantage of the hiding place to ambush feeding birds. 10-20 feet is a good distance.
The most difficult need to provide naturally is water. However, because many water sources freeze in the winter, it is vitally important to keep an open, unfrozen water source for birds. This can be accomplished with a heated bird bath, a small garden pond with a heater and/or a running waterfall, or by the simple, but more labor intensive, expedient of frequently refilling a traditional birdbath.
These tips will help you provide a haven for birds in your backyard while also adding color and winter interest to your landscape. For more tips on beautifying your winter garden, check out the following book:
For pictures of some of the plants mentioned in this article, check out my Bird Gardening board on Pinterest.