Helping birds through winter

With flowers, bees and butterflies gone for the winter, I appreciate the birds that visit our yard even more. In a recent email newsletter from the Ottawa Wild Bird Care Centre, I was reminded that birds need food, shelter and water to survive until spring. Here’s how we try to help birds in our yard through the long, cold winter months.

Food: seeds, suet, and native berries

The best way to feed birds any time of year is with plants. I leave native perennials standing so Juncos and Goldfinches can eat their seeds in the winter. We spotted Cardinals eating Winterberries, and watched many birds eating Crabapples in our yard. However, since our mini-meadow and hedgerow are still young, these plants don’t yet provide much food. We offer supplemental food in feeders as well.

In winter, birds need high fat, high protein food. We offer sunflower seeds, both with and without shells, in 3 different squirrel-proof feeders. The main drawback of using feeders is that you have to clean them regularly to prevent diseases and parasites from spreading. In the past, we have seen birds with Finch Eye Disease, and possibly with the parasite Trichomonosis. It’s heartbreaking to watch birds suffer, and I don’t want to make other birds sick.

By far, the birds prefer the Absolute II Squirrel Proof Bird Feeder in the backyard. When heavier birds and squirrels step on its perches, their weight pulls them down, closing the seed hoppers. It works well, but determined squirrels can hang from their back feet to reach the seeds. We tried using a seed mix that contained peanuts, and ended up with acrobatic squirrels monopolizing the feeder. In fact, whenever we’ve provided peanuts in any feeder, we have had squirrel problems.

Our most popular seed feeder in the backyard (December 15, 2019).

For Christmas, the birds and I got a new Squirrel Buster Suet Feeder from Gilligallou Bird Inc. in Almonte. Reviews of this feeder have been mixed, with some owners commenting that birds don’t use it, or that the suet cakes don’t slide down as they’re used up. Downy Woodpeckers, and other birds, visit our suet feeder, and it has worked fine for us so far.

A male Downy Woodpecker eating suet from our new feeder. (February 5, 2020)

I use only hulled sunflower seeds in the front feeder that sits in the woodland garden. Sunflower seed shells are allelopathic; as they break down, they release chemicals that inhibit seed germination and plant growth. Since there always seems to be an area of dead grass under the backyard feeder, I don’t want to risk killing any native flowers in the front.

Another reason to use hulled sunflower seeds is that birds don’t need to use as much energy to get to the food. Pecking and cracking the shells is a lot of work for smaller birds like Chickadees. On the coldest days, birds are better off using their precious energy to stay warm.

This winter, we have hardly had any birds at the front feeder. In early January, we saw a Coopers Hawk sitting on a tree in the front yard. Perhaps it spooked the birds, so they’re avoiding the front altogether.

Shelter: we’re still working on this one

Speaking of hawks, birds need extra protection from predators in the winter because the leaf-less trees leave them exposed and vulnerable. Hawks will hang around feeders picking off birds in flight. Last year, a hawk arrived as we were watching birds from inside the house. All the birds froze, on the feeder and sitting in the shrubs. If they tried to fly away, they risked being snatched up by the hawk. We did find feathers on the ground, so there was at least one unlucky little bird.

We have lots of cedars, in a long, backyard hedge, and as individual structure plants in the front. Besides that though, we don’t provide much year-round shelter. I’m gradually adding more conifers, and some of our native shrubs will eventually become dense, safe thickets. Until these shrubs and trees grow, our yard remains quite open.

Birds also need shelter from the harsh cold temperatures and wind. To offer more shelter, we’ve been building a long brush pile along the back fence, and added our fading Christmas tree at one end. I’ve read that birds will tuck under these piles of branches for shelter.

My husband also built two roosting boxes (using a plan like this one) where smaller birds can sit inside on dowels to escape the cold and wind. However, we’ve had the roosting boxes for three years now, and we’ve never seen birds go into inside them. One spring, a Chickadee checked one out as a potential nest site, but that’s it. I don’t know where birds spend the night in our neighbourhood, but I don’t think it’s in our yard.

One of the roosting boxes that the birds don’t use. Perhaps we should turn it into a birdhouse. (February 6, 2020)

Water: the stream and a fail

Before we built the pond and stream, we didn’t provide any water for birds in winter. I figured they could eat snow. However, there are times when temperatures are below freezing and there is no snow on the ground to eat. As well, Sharon Sorenson, author of Planting Natives to Attract Birds to Your Yard, explains that “warming snow to body temperature takes 12 times more energy than warming water to body temperature — a heavy toll in already severe conditions” (page 186). Birds continued to visit our stream in November and early December until we pulled the plug.

A few Robins drinking at the stream. (November 17, 2019)
And a couple of Crows drinking water, and breaking off and eating ice. We’ve never seen Crows at the stream before. (December 1, 2019)
A flock of Starlings causing their usual commotion (November 17, 2019).

With the stream turned off and temperatures dropping, we decided to buy a pond heater to leave an area of open water for the birds. We ordered one online, which seemed fine until we got our hydro bill. It cost a whopping $50 a month to operate. Clearly, we should have done more research first.

It turns out that the heater we bought was much more powerful than we needed. Margaret Roach, of the A Way to Garden blog and podcast, provides useful advice in her post Winterizing the water garden: top tips. According to this pond calculator our irregularly shaped pond that is roughly 5′ wide x 7′ long x 1.5′ deep contains 394 gallons of water. Then, according to this wattage chart, we should have bought a 250 watt heater (for zone 5). Next fall, we’ll have to shop for a new, more energy-efficient pond heater.

A couple of times, we have seen birds standing on the pond ice, or on exposed rocks, drinking from the open area of our pond. There certainly haven’t been enough birds to justify the cost.

The pond in winter. I put a 2 x 4 in the water as a ramp for wildlife to get in and out. I have seen a squirrel use the ramp. (February 6, 2020)

Do birds really need our help?

It’s true that birds have ways of finding food and surviving the cold in winter. Though with so many natural areas disappearing due to habitat loss, and the spread of invasive plants, good food and shelter is harder to find. According to Winter Bird Feeding: is it Good or Bad for Birds?, a study of Chickadees showed that their winter survival rate without supplemental feeding was 37%, but with supplemental feeding was 69%. Birds that are in better condition after winter also have increased success during the following nesting season. With bird populations declining all over North America, (North America Has Lost More Than 1 in 4 in the Last 50 Years, New Study Says), I want to help birds any way I can, one season at a time.

With days now getting longer, the backyard birds are starting to sing courting songs. The warmer weather, and juicy bugs and berries of spring are finally in sight.

One thought on “Helping birds through winter

  1. Thank for sharing useful information. Winter is a challenging time for overwintering birds since there is a food and water supply shortage. I can increase their survival and make it easier for them.


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