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Backyard Birding Winter: It's for the birds

Don't let your feeders go empty, because birds will not return to a spot that doesn't offer food consistently.

Backyard birding winter

If you love watching birds feed, build nests, take baths, and raise young, you're one of the 51.3 million enthusiasts making birding the number one sport in America, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Like most gardeners, your love of our feathered friends may even extend to purchasing feeders, birdbaths, and birdhouses. You know the satisfaction of creating a haven for birds, and the joy of watching a bird's nest come alive in the spring with the sounds of little chirps. By encouraging avian visitors to your yard, you've also seen harmful bug, aphid, and grub populations on the decline. Contrary to popular belief, however birds aren't just visitors spring, summer, and fall, and they don't all fly south for the winter and stay in plush villas by the sea.

So what really happens to avian visitors once the weather cools and frost lays its heavy, icy mist on lawns? Development over the past 15 years has cut down on the natural habitat available to birds, and food supplies aren't what they used to be, due to a decline in native plants and the emergence of invasive plants that birds wouldn't typically eat. These factors make winter the season when supplemental feeding is of most use to birds, because a majority of their food source are trapped under layers of ice.

Basic needs and how you can meet them:
You can create a place for these visitors to fulfill their four basic needs: water, food, shelter, and warmth. The most successful habitat offers a variety of food sources and includes suet; grain and nuts; and fruit and berries. Providing clean, fresh water in your habitat is essential, since most water sources freeze in the winter months. The remaining basic needs, shelter and warmth, can be provided by bushes, trees, or birdhouses.

TIP: Create a groove; Plant serviceberries, shrubs, and smaller trees beneath the existing trees to create a small grove. If there is a small wood or group of trees nearby, extend your planting to create a safe route for small animals. These travel aisles are important in winter when birds of prey glide on wind currents watching the open ground below.

Opening the birdbath for winter swimming:
Water is essential to birds' survival, especially in winter. By offering a source of water, you'll attract birds that love the sound of running water but are not typically attracted by feeders, such as robins, thrushes, vireos, orioles, and warblers. Installing a birdbath-heater is the best way to keep your water supply ice-free. Typically these heaters do not use that much electricity, and do not harm the birds.

Winter birds' dining habits:
When considering the second basic need — food — it's useful to understand how birds feed. In winter, birds feed in the early morning, take a break during the early afternoon, and feed again in the late afternoon hours and into dusk. They feed in mixed-species flocks and forage over several acres, following a feeding "circuit" each day and visiting a number of feeders and wild-food patches. If-you offer a steady supply of tasty treats, your winter birds will remember your yard and make it a regular stop on their daily route. Chickadees, for example, can remember prime feeding spots for months, if not years.

Your backyard bistro:
The best possible feeding station offers a selection of suet, grain, and fresh and dried fruit. By supplying birds with a wider variety of food sources, you'll meet their diverse nutritional needs, while cutting down competition and fighting amongst them. Setting up separate feeders also cuts down on wasted food (otherwise the birds will scatter seeds they don't like on the ground). You can determine a species's favorite seed by trying different mixes, To attract birds faster, scatter seed on the ground or on top of roofed feeders. If you don't begin attracting birds shortly after you've filled your feeders, don't fret. Bird watchers in the northern United States won't have as many birds to feed, because birds don't winter over in extremely cold climates. Also, if you live in a wooded area that offers a food supply, it will take birds longer to find your feeders.

Seeds for all:
Now that you've decided to place feeders in your yard, you'll need something with which to fill them. Common feeder fillers are sunflower seeds; thistle a.k.a. Niger, or Nyjer, seed; safflower; white millet; and mixed bird seed. If you want to grow some seed-producing plants, switchgrass, Indian grass, and bluestem provide seeds that are eagerly consumed by sparrows and blackbirds. Flowers with edible seeds include coneflower, black-eyed Susan, j joe pye weed, ironweed, cosmos, and coreopsis.

Bird Feeder

Sticking with suet:
More than 80 kinds of birds enjoy suet, or animal fat. Typically, the fat is mixed with seeds to form cakes. Birds are attracted to suet because it resembles fat they'd find on animal carcasses and tastes like insect eggs (both tasty elements to birds, if not necessarily to humans). Critics of suet cakes say the suet makes seeds greasy and hard to manage, especially for species that crack seeds open when they eat. Critics also consider suet cakes to be wasteful; they claim that birds pick through and destroy suet while looking for seeds buried within. If you chose to offer this protein-packed snack in your backyard smorgasbord, you'll attract woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, wrens, orioles, shrikes, thrushes, and warblers. Suet can be hung in mesh bags or from food sticks, smeared on pine cones, or pushed into baking tins. Woodpeckers and chickadees prefer suet feeders on tree trunks or hanging from tree limbs.

Appealing to the sweeter side:
You can attract birds that don't like feeders to your backyard by offering fruit, which provides essential carbohydrates. Songbirds such as the northern mockingbird and eastern bluebird flock to raisins and other dried or frozen fruits; grapes and cherries catch the attention of robins and waxwings. Berries and native garden-flower seeds offer a good dinner, too, Birds especially like hackberries, cranberries, sumac, winterberries, chokeberries, Washington Hawthorne berries, and snowberries. These berries are the perfect winter fruit because they become less tart and suppler during the harsh season.

Junipers; firs, cedars, spruce, and pines give color as well as structure to a winter garden. They provide nesting and roosting sites for birds and shelter small animals under low-hanging branches. If you have a large yard, set aside a corner in which to plant thicket-forming dogwood, sprawling rose, willow, or red osier. Grasses: Ornamental grasses will look fantastic in your winter garden while they shelter a variety of animals.

Bird Feeder

On the corny side:
Ground-feeding birds such as sparrows, doves, and quail can be lured to your yard with cracked corn. Medium-sized feeder birds such as mourning doves, blue jays, grackles, and red-bellied woodpeckers prefer whole corn.

Just a little nutty:
Woodpeckers are big fans of nuts, as are a variety of birds who readily dine on nuts and acorns from oaks, hickories, buckeyes, chestnuts, butternuts, walnuts, and hazel.

Shelter from the snow and blow:
Now that they have their bellies full from your backyard's bountiful winter feast, your visitors will want to escape to a place where they're safe and warm. Here are a few ways you can provide the last two of winter birds' basic needs: warmth and shelter. First, plant evergreen trees and bushes that can offer protection, warmth, and shelter for many birds. Both bushes and trees can block snow from falling on the ground, enabling birds to look for seeds among the leaf litter. Large stands of dense evergreens provide protection for roosting birds, such as mourning doves and crows; and, when planted as a windbreak, these trees attract birds. Bushes with thorns offer protection from predators. Another good bush for winter birds is the dense rhododendron, whose shelter attracts cardinals, catbirds, and mockingbirds. Finally, retired Christmas trees provide good shelter.

Please fence me in:
You can create living protective fences by using thorny bushes, shrubs, and vines. Birds can benefit from food, nesting sites, shelter, and safe travel routes in one area. Experts suggest including currants, roses, hawthorn, elderberries, huckleberries, and blackberries as well as native honeysuckle and junipers, spruce, cedar, or pines.

Give me a home:
If your yard is light on shelter, you can always build or buy a house just for your avian friends. These houses and overnight roosting boxes offer protection from cats. Birdhouses also protect birds from raccoons, and are the perfect resting place for woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, tree swallows, wrens, and bluebirds.
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