Winter Wonderland for Birds

winter-wonderlandBy Janet Wissink

I love Saturday mornings in winter. First of all, I don’t have to get up early and face the cold and snow to go to work. But best of all, I can pull up a chair to the patio door and watch the birds at our feeders. And there is usually quite a flurry of activity on a cold winter morning.

Black-capped chickadees are my favorites. They are constantly on the go from feeder to evergreens and back again. With some patience, you can get these friendly birds to feed right out of your hand. The cardinals are the first to visit the safflower feeder in the morning and the last at dusk. Hairy, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers compete for their turn at the suet. Goldfinches, who are now a drab olive-brown, daintily eat the thistle seed and are in no hurry at all. White-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches hurry in for a sunflower seed and go back to the tree trunk to crack it open or hide it under the bark. There are tree sparrows and juncos that have come from the far north to spend their winter here. House finches and house sparrows are part of the gang. Raucous blue jays barge right in and mourning doves hang out all day eating the seed that has fallen to the ground and then rest the sun. This year I have two white-crowned sparrows that have not yet moved farther south. I will keep an eye out for pine siskins and common redpolls as the winter gets colder and snowier. Maybe even purple finches will come. Of course, I can expect the Cooper’s hawk to swoop in on occasion, looking for an easy meal . . . it’s only natural.

Our yard was not always a haven for birds, but we changed that by creating habitat that they need. No yard is too small to provide an oasis for our feathered friends. Encourage your neighbors to provide shelter, food, and water and you could have a whole block of good habitat for the birds. To follow are a few suggestions.

Consider planting a border of native trees, shrubs and plants of varying heights that offer a mix of food, cover, nesting and singing perches. This hedge can also serve as a wind break. Place several of each species to create clumps with the tallest in the center. Favor berry-producing shrubs such as dogwood, chokecherries and elderberries. Include oak and cherry trees, since they offer an abundance of fruit; in addition, many insects feed on their leaves, providing birds with essential protein-rich food. Include short trees such as hawthorns, mountain ash, and serviceberry, as well as evergreens like spruce and juniper for cover and nesting. Don’t forget native flowers like coneflowers which provide seeds to eat.

In the November-December 2013 National Audubon magazine, Stephen W. Kress suggests: Rake fallen leaves under shrubs to create mulch and to protect natural ground-feeding areas for such birds as sparrows, towhees, and thrashers. Birds prefer leaf mulch to wood-chip and bark mulches. Earthworms, pillbugs, insects, and spiders – songbird delicacies – will thrive as the mulch decomposes.

Build a brush pile in a corner to offer shelter using branches that you have pruned off your shrubs and trees. Put up bird houses. House wrens, chickadees, bluebirds, swallows, and screech owls are all cavity nesters. Other birds may use the houses to roost in on a cold winter’s night. Be sure to clean them out in the fall and spring.

In addition to providing natural food sources, hang some feeders. Offer a variety of seed to attract different birds using ground, tube, hopper and suet feeders. Black oil sunflower is consumed by the greatest variety birds: blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, goldfinches, house finches, cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches. Thistle is preferred by American goldfinches, house finches, common redpolls, and pine siskins. Millet is a favorite of the ground feeding birds like juncos, sparrows and doves. Safflower is favored by cardinals. And suet will attract woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches.

Bird feeders should be cleaned with a bottle brush and a 10 percent solution of nonchlorinated bleach. Rinse thoroughly and dry in the sun before refilling. Rake up soggy seed from under feeders and bury it far away to prevent the growth of bird-toxic mold.

Provide ample water near protective shrubs. Many birds drink and bathe from open water in cold weather. The most efficient option in winter is to purchase a plastic birdbath with a built-in heater. You can add a heater to your summer birdbath, but a ceramic birdbath is not recommended because they crack easily in cold weather. Baths on a pedestal reduce the risks from predators such as cats. (For many reasons, I encourage all cat owners to keep your cat indoors. My three love their life indoors and enjoy the birds with me from the patio window.) Be sure to clean your birdbath regularly with a stiff brush. Refill every day or two because the water evaporates quickly in the dry winter air.

Protect your windows for the birds. About one billion birds die from glass collisions each year. By fragmenting reflective surfaces with multiple window decals, you can minimize this threat. Window netting, films, or ribbons can also help. Window Alert decals are available at Oshkosh Bird Fest and at

Enjoy watching the birds at your feeder this winter and become a citizen scientist, too. It’s easy, fun and you are contributing to the collection of important data. Check out Project Feeder Watch (Nov. to April) at and the Great Backyard Bird Count (Feb. 14-17) at

Janet Wissink is an avid birder, President of Winnebago Audubon Society ( and co-chair of Oshkosh Bird Fest (

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