After the fall migration, a winter backyard can be a lonely place, making a backyard birder feel like an empty nester. Many of the birds that have visited backyard feeders throughout the spring and summer have disappeared.
However, many backyard birds do not migrate but they stay in the area and gather in large flocks for protection and survival.
To attract these winter birds, consider their water, nutritional and nesting needs – and soon the backyard will be filled with birds again.
Water and Winter Birds
Birds need water every day, especially during the coldest winter months when natural water sources are often frozen solid.
Along with nutrition, birds use water to maintain their feathers for proper insulation from the cold.
With water in short supply, they search it out in the form of snow, ice, food, or heated backyard bird baths.
Many birds get water from insects and wild fruits that hang on bushes and trees. They also search out unfrozen running streams, or eat snow and ice. For example, the red-bellied woodpecker pecks at snow and ice collected in nooks of trees. However, eating snow is not efficient, as it requires 12x more calories to melt and metabolize the ice inside the bird’s body.
Because of this, birds will expend a great deal of energy in their search for an unfrozen source of water. Adding a heated birdbath, or bird bath deicer to a backyard will provide water and attract a huge variety of winter birds.
Some backyard birding enthusiasts replace their summer bird bath or fountain with a temporary heated bird bath. This protects the pump of their favorite fountain from freeze damage, and provides a source of clean, unfrozen water for the winter. As in the spring and summer, a heated bird bath should be placed where startled birds can quickly escape if attacked by predators.
Existing bird baths can also be fitted with a submersible, thermostatically controlled deicer or heater. These electric powered heaters will keep water unfrozen down to -20 degrees F, and generally use about 6-8 cents of electricity per day. Some of the heaters are designed in a semicircle shape, allowing them to be immersed in existing backyard fountains.
Feeding Winter Birds
To remain warm in the winter, birds need a lot of calories. Birds rely heavily on seeds and backyard bird feeders during the winter because insects are scarce.
Backyard bird feeders that provide high fat foods such as black oil sunflower seeds, nuts, suet, and cracked corn are a popular attraction throughout the winter.
Black oil sunflower seed is a favorite of cardinals, woodpeckers, blue jays, goldfinches, purple finches, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches.
Birds love suet. It’s the solid fat rendered from beef and is mixed with fruit, nuts, seed and flavorings. It provides concentrated energy to help birds survive freezing winter nights.
Woodpeckers are especially attracted to suet, as freezing winter temperatures require the seed to be pecked from the frozen fat. Suet cakes are widely available commercially, and generally should be hung, so they do not attract bears, raccoons or possums. Some bird feeders, such as the Suet Log Feeder, use plugs of suet to attract birds.
Bird seed mixes that contain corn, safflower seed or millet are good for attracting ground feeding birds such as doves, juncos and sparrows. This bird seed can be offered in ground platform bird feeders, or just sprinkled directly on the ground. Other winter bird food options include nyjer or thistle seed for goldfinches, peanut mixes for nuthatches, or mealworms or suet containing dried insects for all birds.
Planning for Winter Emergencies
After a big winter storm, birds will appear in backyards in droves, looking for food. It is a good idea to have a ready supply of fresh bird food on hand for these occasions. It is also a good idea to have one or two extra bird feeders on hand as a back up, should competition for the post-storm bird seed become fierce.
Throughout the winter, bird feeders should be regularly filled, checked, and cleaned. Snow should be cleaned from feeding ports and off of platforms. Winter bird feeders and bird baths should be cleaned just as often as in summer, with a mild disinfectant solution such as one part bleach or vinegar to ten parts water.
For winter birds, finding shelter can also be a challenge as the cold winter wind saps their energy and warmth. If there are limited natural evergreens or shelter opportunities, birds will seek man-made houses or habitats that provide refuge from the wind, rain, ice or snow. Leaving birdhouses and nesting boxes up during the winter will help shelter birds.
Offering nesting materials in a nest bag, cage or bell provides nest building insulation for the nest box, creating a cozy home for birds. Placing the birdhouse with the opening facing in a southerly position will help warm the box in the afternoon sun.
Winter is a challenging time for birds, and studies have shown that providing bird food and water assistance will double their chances of surviving the winter.