With all their twittering and fluttering about, birds add movement, sound and color to our landscape. The winter garden, while lacking the lushness the more hospitable growing seasons offer, can still be a sanctuary for birds. The harsh weather of the season is difficult for our feathered friends, making shelter, food and water harder to find. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to make the garden
a year-round bird haven—ways that are beneficial to our landscape as well.
Hosting a variety of plantings in your yard is a good place to start. Diversity in plants provides a blend of colors, textures, shapes and sizes to the landscape that attract birds. Evergreens and shrubs provide ideal spots for birds to shelter themselves from predators and the elements during the colder months. American hollies, bayberries and junipers, as well as deciduous trees like the native dogwood and flowering crabapple, provide birds a great food source with their winter berries. Plant species native to the area will not only thrive in our growing conditions, but they also attract native birds that recognize them as food sources.
When we prepare to entertain guests in our homes, we often put our best foot forward by straightening up the little messes of everyday life. Nature, however, is not as impressed with neatness. Little messes left in our yards welcome not just birds, but the bugs and larvae they feed on. Leave some of autumn’s fallen leaves in small piles in flowerbeds, and around trees, bushes and fences. The benefits of leaving this leaf litter reach far beyond creating a habitat for the insects that birds feast on. This litter helps control erosion and assist with water retention, while adding nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. The bugs that depend on this food source often work to spread these nutrients throughout the garden. Instead of deadheading the spent zinnias and coneflowers of last summer’s flowerbeds, leave them until spring. Leave some leaf litter among their stalks to create a winter smorgasbord of seeds and bugs as well as a naturally enriched plot come next spring.
Birds are also attracted to small brush piles. A small pile, tucked away in a corner of the yard, is a sanctuary from predators and harsh weather. These piles offer shelter as well as materials for nest building. In warmer months, these piles can be covered with climbing vines such as morning glory or hyacinth bean, also providing nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds. Shelter can also be provided in the form of a birdhouse or nesting box you purchase at the garden center or hardware store.
Providing a food source in a bird feeder is another way to attract birds to your winter garden. Feeders can be hung in any number of spots to attract a wider variety of birds. Some birds will feel comfortable coming to a feeder attached to a window, while others might prefer one hanging from a tree branch.
Try to provide a secure spot, near shelter, and avoid hanging the feeder on low branches where small predators like cats may lurk. Wherever you choose to place a feeder, it is important to maintain the food supply, as birds will seek it out on a regular basis, especially in the harshest of weather. To deter other creatures such as squirrels from feasting at your buffet, consider mounting your feeder on a pole with a squirrel baffle (a device used to destabilize the climbing surface), or surround your feeders with a wire mesh through which squirrels are unable to chew.
In order to keep warm, birds need to eat seeds higher in fat and protein. Beware of cheaper mixes containing grain and cracked corn contents, which act as filler. Cracked corn especially attracts undesirable birds such as starlings, an invasive species. Invasive species—those that have been introduced to the environment—often lack predators or other native controls on their population, and can crowd out native birds, leading to extinction. Sunflower chips, peanuts, thistle and black-oil sunflower seeds are among those highest in fat and protein, and are recommended to attract native birds to your feeders. Suet cakes are a good option as well, as long as they are 95 percent fat.
With food and shelter options available, the last crucial element to attracting birds to your winter garden is a good water source. Ideally, a few shallow sources of water available for drinking and bathing should be located within 15 feet of shelter. Colder temperatures can mean standing water ices over easily, so small heaters or bubblers can be installed to help prevent this. Solar-powered or temperature-sensitive models are ideal because they do not depend on electricity and require little attention. Birds are more attracted to moving water than still, but any water source will do. A few small perches in and near the water, which can be as simple as small rocks, are much appreciated by birds. As with feeders, any water source offered to birds should be cleaned on a regular basis, ideally about once a week, to avoid spreading disease.
The winter landscape, while more difficult for wildlife to navigate, can still be hospitable to our feathered friends. Thankfully, making your yard a year-round haven for birds is as easy to create and maintain as it is to enjoy.