Winter Bird Care

Tuesday, December 19, 2017 4:14 PM

With cold temperatures setting in and, in particular, dry conditions prevailing, I am concerned that birds will have what they need to survive through the winter.  Is there anything I can do to help them?   Lisa A., Broken Arrow    

This is a good question that many people think about.  While birds and other wildlife are naturally equipped to withstand seasonal changes, we can do our part to help by providing food, water and shelter to them.

As the temperatures begin to dip, birds acquire adaptive behaviors to survive the cold nights ahead.  For instance, to require fewer nutrients to survive, they may lose up to 15% of their body weight.  Some grow additional feathers to thicken their insulation while others do a ritual called feather fluffing to puff out down feathers which create air pockets to trap body heat.  Still others lower their metabolic rates to cause their body temperature to decline and heart rates to decrease so fewer calories are burned on cold winter nights. 

At a time when caloric requirements are increasing the food supplies such as insects, seeds, weeds, fruit and nuts are being eaten rapidly or simply do not exist in our landscapes.  And, with freezing temperatures and/or dry conditions, little to no water is available at a time when dehydration is even more critical than starvation.  Eating snow takes precious energy and water is needed for hydration and preening to keep feathers aligned and positioned to prevent the loss of body heat faster.

While birds have a variety of adaptive behaviors, there are several things that we can do to help.  Start by providing continuous filling of bird feeders with nyjer, black oil sunflower seed and suet which birds find and come to rely on throughout the winter.  Nyjer is a popular seed with many finches, sparrows, doves, towhees, and buntings.  Water in a liquid state can be maintained by using heated birdbaths or by placing heating elements in existing baths.  Many heaters are thermostatically controlled when temperatures drop below freezing.  Nesting boxes should be cleaned out and left for some species like the black chickadee which roost together in these boxes at night or on cold, windy days.

As gardeners, we can also plan to utilize planting materials that provide berries such as junipers.  We can also put off our fall clean-ups until spring when temperatures begin to rise.  Perennials with seed heads, herbaceous shrubs that provide protection from the cold, and even old rotting limbs can provide food and roosting sites for many species.  And, leaves left on garden beds provide warmth and food for beneficial insects and amphibians. 

So, to help our feathery friends, put out some seed, feed consistently, fill up that bath and keep it full, install a heater, and put off that pruning and clean-up until spring.  This way we have less yard work to do now and, instead, can enjoy our beautiful feathered allies who help us control insects all season long.