On cold and blustery winter days, it’s sometimes hard to believe that birds can survive out there in the elements. Feeding seeds, suet and providing ice-free water for them helps a lot. But birds usually take only about 25% of their food requirements from our bird feeders. The rest of the time, they are foraging for wild foods.
And at night, birds need to find shelter from the cold and wind, or the energy reserves that they worked so hard to build up during the day are quickly depleted. Roosting boxes help, but some birds will need to find natural shelter.
Here are some easy things we can do around our yards to provide more wild foods and shelter for the birds that stay with us all winter. And although some of us may have snow already, many parts of the country are still experiencing fall weather. There’s still time to get your yard ready for your winter birds before the heavy snows begin. If you’ve been lazy cleaning up after summer, all the better for your birds!
First, don’t be so intent on cleaning up your garden in fall. Let your vegetables such as broccoli, carrots and parsley go to seed; they provide a good food source. Also flowers, such as sunflowers, cone flowers, thistles and milkweeds provide seeds during the winter if you don’t cut them back. Ornamental grasses are a good source of seeds in winter as well and they add winter interest along a fence or in back of a border.
Even weeds, such as goldenrod, mullein and plantain will be helpful to birds if they’re allowed to flourish and aren’t mowed down. If you don’t want them in the lawn, transplant them to a corner of the yard. An untamed corner can be quite a beautiful and interesting contrast to your structured gardens and plantings. There are also many bushes and shrubs that keep their berries long into the winter. If you don’t have any berry bearing shrubs, consider planting holly, chokecherry, blueberry or elderberry shrubs to name just a few. Some berries, such as bittersweet are actually more attractive to birds after they’ve frozen and thawed.
Dense shelter gives birds a respite from cold, blowing winds during the day and a place to roost at night. If your lawn is a broad expanse of snow, it won’t help the birds. If you don’t have evergreens and don’t want to plant them, try creating a brush pile in a corner of the yard. Rather than disposing of fallen leaves and dead branches, putting them in a pile also provides wonderful shelter.
Start with a bed of raked up leaves and pine needles and then put your larger tree branches down. Then heap smaller branches on top, ending with cornstalks, grasses and other light vegetation. When the first snow falls, it will supply insulation over the pile. Birds will scratch through the leaves at the bottom for seeds and insect eggs without fear of exposure to predators and they can roost safely from owls and night-time predators up inside the branches.
If we just compromise a little between a totally wild back yard and a completely structured one, you’ll be rewarded with lots more birds—in winter and summer!