Prepare Your Yard for Winter

Learn how to prepare your yard for winter.

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!

— R. Brune

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  • Emerson Hudson-Vassell December 9, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    I live on Miami Beach in Florida and get a lot of winter birds that come south but it also gets down into the 30s like now. Your article is interesting and woudl appreciate any suggestions for us to make better homes for those who may travel south but still encounter cold weather.



  • Ann Ruebel December 23, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Here in Western NY, I found a small evergreen branch that had torn off–put it near my bird feeder–the darling little sparrows love to be on top of and under it–I always an thinking of the Bible quote “God knows even when one sparrow falls”–Merry Christmas all you fellow bird lovers.

  • Judy Quenneville December 30, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    Hi Everyone, I live in Eastern New York in a Co-op, and my neighbors don’t like my birdfeeder because it draws those wonderful and funny squirrels. I love the birds and want to help them out, especially in the winter. I even like the squirrels but the chase the birds. My parents moved in with me when my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she and dad both love to watch the birds. They even like the crazy squirrels too. Now I feed the squirrel in the open garden in the center of the court and feed the birds in front of my window for my parents. It’s better than the TV for them and for me. The only thing that keeps the squirrel out of the bird food is your birdseed with the hot pepper in it. I tried to put pepper in it myself but they still eat it, and I put tons of pepper all over the garden so she won’t come and chase the birds but she just won’t stay off the window sill. She actually wants to come in the window for food, she taps on it at 5am until I open the blinds. I am glad I read this article before I cleaned up my little garden under my window. Come spring, I will plant some of those berry bushes as well for them. I love the tips, keep them coming, I’m learning a lot here.

  • Mary Phillips January 10, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    I purchased a heater for my bird bath. The birds drank water out of it the first day I used it but, today, the second day, they haven’t drunk any water. I put fresh water in the dish this morning thinking that the water might be old, but they still haven’t been drinking. What is going on? We had a ice and snow storm come in last night. Can they get water from the ice?

  • Linda November 11, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    Don’t forget to use your Christmas trees as shelter for the birds when you are done with them. I will usually grab one or two from my neighbors and put them in my back yard against the stone wall and then throw seed under the trees. Love your articles. Thank You Linda

  • Patti November 12, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    In addition to my hanging feeders for the birds, I use an old large animal carrier for a protected food source for the ground animals. I removed the door and taped over air vents as well as the carrier’s seams with duct tape. I re-purposed an old burned out heated bird bath dish and put an assortment of seeds and squirrel mix in the dish, which is placed inside the carrier. The birds have learned to fly into the carrier. I have squirrels and cottontails that come for breakfast, and possums & cottontails that come for late evening feeding. I not only use the carrier during the winter, but also during rainy periods of weather. The food and animals are nicely protected.

  • barbara November 13, 2011 at 8:31 am

    I am reading everything I can find new ways to help the birds this winter. Last winter I took a cardboard box and divided it into sections so the birds could fly into it for protection from cold and snow. I mounted it on my house right next to the deck doors so I could see. The blue birds were there every day…all the birds loved the box. It was a sight to behold.

  • Mary Gair November 13, 2011 at 11:12 am

    I have a question for Barbara (above Nov 13). I can’t picture what you did with the cardboard box. If you have a picture of it I would love to see it. It must have been a nice treat for you to watch the birds like that.

    ~ Mary