Winter is often thought of as a season of dormancy, featuring a dearth of life and a barren landscape of ice and snow. While most birds migrate south in search of warmer climates, you may be surprised to learn that not all birds fly south for the winter. The availability of primary sustenance is crucial to their migratory patterns. Severe starvation and exposure to bitter temperatures are the culprits to blame for the mass die-offs each year. Studies have shown that birds who receive enough food are able to weather even the coldest New England winters. Winter backyards can be a vital food source when seeds are inaccessible and flowers have long withered. Whether you are a bird watching enthusiast or long to hear birdsong in the heart of winter, here are several tips to help you create a winter refuge for birds in your garden.
Attract Hummingbirds to Your Yard in the Winter
With their dazzling gem-like hues and whimsical appearance, hummingbirds are a favorite among gardeners. In temperate places, residents have the fortune of experiencing those backyard guests year-round. To foster a welcoming environment, plant native flowers and blooming plants rich in nectar. While hummingbirds are attracted to nectar-rich blooms, they will also drink sugar-water. To emulate the natural sucrose level of nectar, mix 1 part refined white sugar, also called granulated cane sugar, to 4 parts water. Always use refined sugar and not any other sugar – avoid raw, powdered, brown, or organic sugars. As hummingbirds can become overly reliant on bird feeders, make sure that the nectar does not freeze, or they can freeze to death. Heated feeder options are available online for purchase.
Winter Birds to Look For
Some birds are permanent residents while others migrate only a short distance. Many unusual or attractive bird species visit feeders to eke out foodstuffs. Below is a list of birds you may encounter in your garden during the winter and their preferred diets.
- Hummingbirds: Nectar flowers and hummingbird sugar water
- American Goldfinch: Black-oil sunflower seeds, various thistles, asters, and native plants
- Northern Cardinal: Crushed peanuts, cracked corn, berries, and small chunks of suet
- Woodpecker: Nuts, larvae, berries, seeds
- Blue Jay: Peanuts, suet, sunflower seeds
- Dark-eyed Junco: black-oil sunflower seeds, peanut hearts, cracked corn, white proso millet
- Mountain Chickadee: Peanut butter, black oil sunflower seeds, suet
Place bird feeders in your yard
Before filling your bird feeder with food, make sure that they are clean and clear of snow. During the winter, bird feeders provide crucial sustenance to birds, who will rely on them when food is scarce. The best foods for birds in the winter are those high in fat and protein, as they provide additional energy that allows them to carry on their daily activities. Black-oil sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet are all good options for winter birds. Fresh fruit are seen as special treats and are a great addition to seed feeders. Place the feeders far apart and out of reach from predators such as feral cats.
Avoid bad seed mixes
Although it may seem like a practical choice to purchase cheap or discount seed mixes, it is not advisable in the long-run. Cheap seed mixes contain a high percentage of filler ingredients that birds mostly avoid, including seeds meant for pet birds, sorghum, and flax. With the exception of a few species, most birds will avoid the seeds, and they will eventually go to waste or grow moldy. For healthier alternatives, visit your local hardware or specialty store, or try making your own to economize.
Provide fresh water
Water is an essential supplement in addition to a food source. Consider placing a birdbath or water dish next to your bird feeder. Plastic or metal baths are recommended, as ceramic ones may crack in the cold weather. If the temperature outside is freezing, the water will freeze – use a birdbath water heater to remedy this.
Ward off pests
Unfortunately, bird feeders will occasionally attract detrimental wildlife that aren’t discriminatory in their feeding preferences. Do not overfill feeders, which can attract unwanted nuisances to your garden. Common bird feeder pests include rats, squirrels, raccoons, and even aggressive species of birds who will bully other birds for food. To eliminate pests, regularly clean the detritus beneath the feeder. In addition, isolate the feeder in a protected spot with a clear vantage while avoiding any jumping spots. To prevent pests from encroaching upon your garden, check out Vego Garden’s modular cover system. Composed of a durable frame built from powdered steel, it can be customized to match the configuration of any Vego Garden raised garden bed.
Create a shelter
Trees and shrubs, particularly evergreens, provide dense foliage that serves as shelter for roosting birds looking for respite from harsh elements and predators. This suggestion can require more effort and planning, but can be considered if you already have a conducive environment. Native plants with edible berries can be planted for birds to consume. If you experience milder winters and have a spacious backyard, construct a brush pile with branches for birds to take cover. Alternatively, you can leave a corner of your yard wild, allowing tall grasses and fallen debris to take over.
Let your garden overwinter
Some gardeners are quick to snip off spent seed heads and tidy up their garden. Instead of cleaning up debris, grass clippings, and leaves in the fall, leave them on the ground, where they can provide refuge and food for birds. The spent seedheads of coneflowers, sunflowers, and other native wildflowers are a viable food source that birds will eke out. As the organic matter decomposes, it enriches the soil for the upcoming growing season as well as serve as host to a myriad of insects, eggs and larvae. While some gardeners like to snip off spent seed heads, it is recommended that you leave them standing to encourage birds to visit.
Clean your bird feeder
Moldy or decomposing seeds and other debris can spread infectious diseases to birds. Feeders should be cleaned about every two weeks. The National Wildlife Health Center recommends a cleaning solution of nine parts water to one part bleach. Double the frequency during heavy weather or if you suspect disease is lurking. Discard any visible debris or branches before attempting to clean.
Can you put red pepper in bird seed as a squirrel deterrent?
Bird seeds treated with red pepper or capsaicin are considered effective methods to deter squirrels. Most wildlife will avoid capsaicin because of its pungent odor, but birds, who cannot taste it, are not repelled by it. While there are some concerns that this type of deterrent is harmful to squirrels, there is no evidence that it causes long-term discomfort. However, strong wilds or snowstorms can easily blow away the mixture. If you constantly encounter pests in your garden, then consider blocking out access or modifying your seed mix to be more unpalatable to squirrels.