A Bird-Friendly Winter Oasis

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Posted by Cheryl-Anne Millsap on Nov. 6, 2018, midnight

Hummingbirds and other songbirds may have flown south for winter, but a great variety of songbirds live year round in the Northwest, and sometimes they need a hand finding fresh, healthy meals during the winter.

Feeding these wild birds during the cold season is both beneficial and a pleasure. And it’s easy if you follow a few simple guidelines.

Songbird in winter

Tidy Isn’t Always Best

While you’re getting your yard and garden ready for winter, don’t forget that wild birds feed on seeds and berries all year. Resist the urge to tidy up the garden completely in the fall.

Leave seed pods whenever possible and don’t rake away old mulch. Ground feeders like Juncos depend on fallen seed during the winter months.

Leave coneflower seed heads for goldfinches to find. Cut sunflower heads and hang them for natural bird feeders.

Buy the Right Seed

Black oil sunflower seed will draw the greatest variety of wild birds and its easy to find at nurseries and garden centers. When shopping, check the expiration date on seed bags so you don’t buy old seed. Birds are like us; they’re picky about what they eat. They like fresh seed and will discard any that has gone stale.

Chickadees are especially clever. They can tell if a sunflower seed is fresh by its weight, selecting a seed and then holding it in its beak for a moment to determine freshness. If the seed is stale the bird will drop it and select another. This will go on (and on and on …) until the bird finds a seed it likes, leaving a mess of stale seeds in your yard.

Store seed in an airtight container and resist the urge to buy more than you can use in a month.

Feed the Right Birds

English sparrows are lively and ubiquitous but they can be pests. Like starlings they will overtake feeders and drive away the songbirds you’re trying to attract.

One way to discourage these sparrows is to avoid cheap mixed seed and use primarily black oil sunflower seed. Cheap seed mixes are heavy on fillers like millet and grass seed. Nuisance birds can sweep in and eat it all in no time, pushing away the more timid birds like finches and nuthatches.

Songbird at a feeder

Feeder Maintenance

During the wet winter months, you’ll have to work a little extra to keep feeders clean and free of wet or moldy seed, which can cause sickness and disease. Clean with a diluted bleach solution and rinse well, and often.

Shelter from the Storm

If you have an open lawn consider creating in some kind of winter shelter for birds. Potted evergreens, branches, even recycled Christmas trees provide a windbreak and place to escape treacherous weather, as well as attacks from predators (more on that later).

Birdhouses that held nests in the summer also offer protection from winter wind and storms.

Plenty of Water

Wild birds will eat snow for hydration, but when there is no snow it’s important to have a source of fresh water such as a heated birdbath or fountain to keep birds happy and healthy.

Added Energy

Birds need more than grain and water to thrive in the winter. Suet, a solidified mix of fats, is an important food source of much needed energy for winter birds.

Get quality suet from a butcher to make your own suet cakes with additions of other high-energy food sources, like peanut butter and dried fruit.

You can also buy pre-made cakes, but be sure to check the ingredients. Suet should be listed first; in inferior brands, the first ingredient may be corn or millet.

Songbirds in Winter

Safety First

Watching birds through a window is soothing, enlightening and entertaining. It’s important to place feeders close enough to the window to prevent strikes when birds flush, but not so close movement in the house disturbs the birds. A distance of 18 to 36 inches is recommended.

Beware of Predators

A feeder surrounded by chattering birds is wonderful, but for urban predators like  sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawks, it’s a diner. The hawks quickly find the busiest feeders and stake them out, especially in the winter. These hawks are unbelievably fast and can swoop in and grab a songbird in seconds.

Placing feeders near think shrubs and bushes will give birds a place to hide during an attack. You can also use wire caged feeders that allow access to small birds while keeping big birds out.

Wait for Spring

When winter finally fades away, don’t hurry to clear the flower beds. Some birds will collect nesting material among the fallen leaves and pine needles as they prepare their nests for spring.

If you’re looking for more information on identifying and feeding wild birds, Cornell University’s comprehensive birding website, allaboutbirds.org, is an excellent resource