When it gets colder some of us put away our shorts and flip-flops and find the hats, gloves and coats. What do our avian friends do to stay warm and survive the harsh winds/rain/plunging temperatures?
What can we do to help our back yard birds in the winter season? What do we know is useful to their survival and comfort? As the weather gets more severe what do the birds do to survive and what we can do to help or hinder that?
Birds fluff up their feathers to trap warmth, they seek shelter in brush piles or other sheltered areas including birdhouses so don’t take those down! They seek more food to generate warmth. They flock up together to huddle and save heat. They seek alternative food sources. If we thought ahead last spring and planted sunflower seeds we now have huge sources of seed in our gardens. ( Or we might peruse garden seed catalogues which arrive soon for seeds to plant next spring). If we planted some crabapple trees that fruit that will feed several species all winter as well as decorate our yards with bright red orbs in the gray days. Or we might leave some of our flowers, which have gone to seed out a bit longer before cleaning them up since these might attract goldfinches and others to snack on those treats.
Most of the birds that must have warmth or have specific nectar or insect foods have migrated south. Every year people worry that leaving out hummingbird feeders might encourage those hummers to stay who need to leave. Don’t worry about this. The best evidence is that migration is related to day length not food availability so leave the hummingbird feeder out for the Anna’s hummers who do stay in Portland all winter. As the nectar dries up those birds tend to feed off of sap and any remaining insects. Hummers have been demonstrated to be able to reduce their metabolic rates over the winter so as not to have to eat as much. But I have seen hummers in freezing temperature try to eat out of frozen feeders. My husband rigged up a warming lamp to shine on the hummingbird feeders for the ones who were hungry. Alternatively you might bring in your feeder at night so that it stays fluid to put out again in the morning (assuming it warms up during the day!). For hummingbird mixtures to freeze it has to be really cold since the dissolved sugar freezes at a lower temperature than plain water. However I have had frozen feeders for several days in most of our winters.
Non-nectar eating species also can have trouble finding natural sources of seeds or insects. Black sunflower seed is high in energy and very appealing to a wide variety of songbirds. The foods containing millet have not been that successful for my feeders. I wonder if those mixes are more for other areas of the country or the birds in my yard will pick other foods offered more selectively. Maybe mine are picky! Other treats that attract birds to my yard are cut oranges, which I impale on a nail on my bird feeder—towhees and thrushes in particular like fresh fruit. Many birds “flock up “ in winter to stay warm together, avoid predators and help find food. In Cedar Mill we see large flocks of Bushtits, sparrows of several sorts, Chickadees and Juncos.
It is helpful to provide clean water. Certainly with lots of rain there are innumerable puddles. However puddles in the street can be contaminated with oil, run off of yard chemicals and other contaminants from asphalt. Maintaining a birdbath that is clean and free of ice in the winter is a huge gift to birds. We use a special birdbath low voltage heater, which is safe to put into the water (in general avoiding electrical items in water is a good idea!) to keep it ice-free and we are rewarded with innumerable woodpeckers, sparrows, the few hardy Goldfinches who brave the cold, and even hawks drinking out of our birdbath. Put a few drops of chlorine bleach in the birdbath so that no mold grows in the winter. Keep your feeders clean too. This reduces disease transmission from so many “customers”.
Suet is a favorite winter food of many birds including nuthatches, chickadees, finches, sparrows, towhees and woodpeckers. If you note any sick birds be sure to clean your feeders more often. I wrote a posting about cleaning out hummingbird feeders and this still needs to be done in winter albeit less often. Many people don’t think of cleaning suet feeders but they should be cleaned often as well.
The loss of leaves allows us to see the birds more clearly. Our woodpeckers are more easily viewed pecking for insects. In Cedar Mill we have several types of woodpeckers including the Downey, the Hairy, several Flickers, an occasional Sapsucker species and sometimes even a Pileated. If it’s a nice day and you want to go for a short walk consider going to the Hillsboro Library. In the dense oak woods to the south and southeast is a kind of woodpecker rarely seen outside of this small area in Oregon—the Acorn Woodpecker. These old oaks are riddled with holes in which these birds stash their winter cache of acorns. Winter can be a great time to help hungry birds, which allows you to view them closer than you might in the other seasons where more food is more widely available to them. One of my all time favorite winter activities is sitting in my comfy chair with my cat and either a book or knitting and every once in a while glancing up to see which birds are at my window feeder. Sometimes I count but mostly I just enjoy…