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Tips To Help Out Wild Birds During Winter

Follow these tips to help your backyard wild birds before and during winter.

Don Freiday

Norhern Cardinals, White-Throated Sparrow, Dark-Eyed Junco
You can help birds like the White-Throated Sparrow, the Dark-Eyed Junco and Northern Cardinals during winter.

Being trapped at home in a blizzard reminds me of the main reason we feed birds: We feed them for us, not them. Most birders think differently, but juncos, Northern Cardinals and chickadees survived harsh winters before black-oil sunflower seeds and suet. They would continue to do so if, say, hard economic times pushed seed purchases beyond the family budget. Empty feeders would impact the birders more than the birds.

WildBird Magazine Logo If there is an exception, it is this: Certain kinds of severe weather can turn feeding stations into temporary survival stations for birds, at least on a local basis. If you’ve got a busy feeding station, you probably don’t want to pull the rug out right before a major storm. While you’re stocking up on snow shovels, candles and environmentally friendly driveway salt, make sure to put bird seed in the cart, too. There’s no better refuge during a snow emergency than a house surrounded by birds!

Thanks to back-to-back winters with major snowfalls here in Cape May, New Jersey, pre-storm birdfeeding preparations have become a well-loved ritual for me. Besides the obvious stocking up on seed and topping off the feeders, I make a few changes to improve feeding conditions for the birds and viewing conditions for the family.

You might want to take another look at your feeding station, with an eye towards feeders that remain snow-free. Consider a large domed squirrel baffle above a feeder to shed snow. Large, roofed, platform feeders are ideal for birds that prefer to feed on the ground, although these can be challenging to make squirrel-proof.

Many wintering species nestle securely in a tree cavity overnight or during severe weather. Consider providing conventional nestboxes or specially designed roosting boxes for these species, which include chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers. My local House Sparrow infestation unfortunately prevents me from deploying roost boxes; the sparrows quickly monopolize them.

One of the most important pre-blizzard things I do, from the birds’ perspective, is add temporary cover scavenged from the neighborhood. While discarded Christmas trees are ideal, so are any branches and limbs you can get your hands on. I’ve been known to lean several wooden pallets or other lumber against the fence near the feeders. A sheet of plywood at a 45-degree angle has the same effect: to provide shelter that can keep snow depth low for birds that like to forage on the ground, like sparrows and Northern Cardinals.

I’ve even taken to constructing a temporary brushpile on my deck and within easy view of the big windows. This appears unsightly in warm months — and I remove it then —  but it looks fine covered with snow! Before and during storms, remember to scatter seed underneath all this cover.

While snow falls, and especially once it stops, I maintain several patches of ground free from snow. Such bare patches are magnets for all sorts of birds, to the point where I’ve experimented by pouring buckets of warm water on the bare earth to thaw it.

If you try this, you might feel surprised to learn which species have been wintering locally. I’ve drawn American Woodcock, Wilson’s Snipe and Hermit Thrushes to my small wooded lot, and friends with more open landscapes host snow-concentrated birds like Eastern Meadowlarks.

Before the snow starts, I make sure to place a full bucket of seed inside and within easy reach. (The birdseed normally stays in metal rodent-proof containers in the shed.) Frequently during a snowfall, I’ll slip on a jacket and rubber boots to deposit seed near the windows. Windowsills themselves make fine temporary feeding platforms, as does the deck rail. After overnight storms, I always provide accessible seed at daybreak for early-rising visitors.

With all these preparations, I’m thinking of the birds — but of myself, too. Where can I attract birds so they can be seen well and photographed at close range without disturbing them?

For snowbound photography, I set up a window as a blind, covering the whole window with camouflage cloth on the outside. (A closed curtain inside works almost as well.) Before the storm, I position several branches as attractive perches 5 to 6 feet from the window. I leave the window up 6 inches or so, then pack the opening with pillows covered in plastic to ward off the snow.

When ready to shoot, I squeeze my camera lens between the pillows, with the lens hood extended to keep snow off the lens. With all preparations complete and the coffeemaker ready to go, I’m looking forward to the next snow day.

Want to learn more about different bird seeds to feed? Check out these articles!

Backyard Bird Seed Mixes
White Millet Seed
Thistle, Niger or Nyjer Bird Seeds
Sunflower Hearts

Excerpt from WildBird, January/February 2012 issue, with permission from its publisher, I-5 Publishing LLC.


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Posted: April 4, 2013, 4:45 p.m. PDT

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great info
n, n, TN
Posted: 1/1/2014 6:32:25 AM
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Hi my name's Captain Darling-RIP 5/19/2014 ty 4 BOTD 9/19/14

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