Many people enjoy seeing birds in the winter. It seems to bring LIFE to the otherwise barren landscape. Attracting birds is not difficult, and in fact can be easier to do in the winter than any other time of year when there are many food choices readily available. Birds, like humans, have three basic needs to survive the winter: water, food, and shelter. You can provide these needs through wise choices with your landscaping or with supplemental baths, feeders, and shelters.
Attracting Birds during a Wisconsin Winter
Frigid temperatures, blustery storms and limited food supplies make winter the harshest season for wild birds. Bird mortality is actually quite high throughout the long winter season. Homeowners who supply the basic needs for birds are quickly rewarded with visual delight as they can observe a diverse flock of nature’s finest feathered friends. For best results, I advise you to start early in the autumn to prepare your yard for winter so birds can learn it is a safe place long before they are in desperate need.
Birds require water to survive; while they are capable of melting snow and ice, this requires an immense amount of energy. Furthermore, when we have no snow or ice on the ground, birds need to fly greater distances, sometimes exposing themselves to severe cold and subjecting themselves to other threats. Supply fresh water and you will readily attract many birds in the winter. To do this, simply add a heated bird bath to your yard—you may be surprised with how many interesting birds come that wouldn’t normally stop at feeders. Choose either a fully heated bird bath or add a heater attachment to your existing bird bath to keep the water fluid even in freezing temperatures. I’ve seen DIY contraptions that are as simple as a spotlight enclosed below a birdbath or fancy store bought baths. Either will work just the same. Besides supplying the water, the bath should be kept fresh and clean to avoid spreading illness, and it should be properly filled so the heater does not malfunction.
Feeding birds is perhaps the most common thing that people do to attract them to their property at any time of year. The diet of a bird changes throughout the year. In winter it is important to provide food that will provide adequate energy. Foods that are high in oil and fat, such as sunflower seeds, peanuts, peanut butter (natural), and suet are the most popular choices. Variety is the spice of life! Mix it up a bit and watch for different results. If you tailor your backyard buffet to the exact needs of your winter flock you may increase the diversity of bird even more. As an example—if you supply a fresh source of nectar you may attract hummingbirds that are overwintering here.
One client shared with me that he often will scatter some food on the ground and he enjoys seeing ducks come and scoop it up. I know my neighbor will fill her ground feeders daily too—this attracts birds who may find it difficult to negotiate a ‘traditional’ bird feeder.
Evergreens! Birds love to take shelter in an evergreen tree or shrub. If you have a property with no evergreen coverage, consider keeping your (or a neighbor’s) Christmas Tree on site through the winter—just prop it up, or even lay it down, the birds will flock to it. A cozy place to roost is important for security against predators and for comfort in the worst weather. Boxes, nesting pockets, and other winter bird shelters and materials are critical to protect small birds from frigid breezes and dropping temperatures. Choose the location for these winter shelters so that they guard against the stiff northern winds and heavy snows; on the east and south side of a structure or wooded/brushy area is great. Also, offer nesting materials not just in spring, but in winter too.
I regularly place our dryer lint and hair from my dog in the landscape for birds to retrieve—it is amazing how quickly it is gathered and put to use!
Keeping Winter Birds Safe
Predators and illness are a serious concern for birds. While backyard birds tend to be more distressed during the winter months, so are predators such as feral cats and backyard hawks. Roosting flocks can be devastated swiftly by illness, and a sudden burst of blustery cold can freeze small birds quickly. Besides providing clean open water, appropriate food, and adequate shelter you can also protect your feathered friends by doing the following:
- Clean feeders and bird baths on a consistent and regular basis to prevent any pathogens that could possibly spread disease.
- Keep your cats indoors and monitor for tracks in the snow to know if cats or other predators are present and posing a threat.
- Use window clings or hang metallic ribbons where danger may be so your backyard birds can flee from predators without risking other injuries.
Landscaping tips to Attract Winter Birds
While offering food, water and shelter and taking steps to make your backyard safe for birds will attract a good winter flock, there are other quick steps you can take to ensure you have a steady stream of winter visitors. These are things that do not require any ‘man made’ components, but rather some careful planning when it comes to how you care for your landscape and what plants are present or added.
- Leave some leaf litter and standing perennials in place in your yard for the food and shelter it can provide overwintering birds.
- Choose bird-friendly native plants that includes a selection of sheltering evergreen plants along with plants that bear fruit for a natural winter food source.
- Add a water feature to your landscape and incorporate a heating element to one section of it to keep water open and moving.
It is easy to attract wild birds to your property by following these simple tips. You will be rewarded for your efforts, even on winter’s gloomiest of days, with a landscape that is full of life!