Gardening Articles: Health :: Garden Crafts

The Birds of Winter

by Bill Thompson III


While perched on a dormant crabapple, a ceder waxwing considers its options.

When summer's last blossom is only a memory, it may seem impossible to bring interest and color to your garden. But there is a way: make your garden attractive to birds. Provide for their four basic needs -- food, water, shelter, and a nesting place -- then think about how else to make your garden more bird friendly. Whether you're a novice bird-watcher or an old hand, here are tips to bring them up close and keep them coming back.

Choose the right feeders, and keep them clean. To attract the largest number of bird species, you'll need a variety of feeders. Popular types and the birds they attract are described below in "The Right Food."

If you already have feeders, replace any that are damaged, too difficult to clean, or no longer fit your needs, and clean feeders that have been in storage.

To clean feeders, soak them in a mild bleach-water solution (1/3 cup bleach per gallon of water). Rinse them thoroughly and let them air-dry. You can also wash feeders in the dishwasher if its heat setting isn't so hot that it would melt plastic parts. Clean feeders at least once a month.

Winterize bird baths. Clean water for drinking and bathing is a major bird magnet in all seasons but is especially important in winter. So that birds feel secure, select a sheltered location and position your bird bath at least 3 feet above the ground. Ceramic bird baths can crack during freezing weather, but any wide, shallow, gently sloped basin that will withstand temperature extremes will do.

If your winters are very cold (USDA Hardiness Zones 5 and colder), buy a heated bath or install a temperature-sensitive water heater. These small electrical units sit in the bottom of the bird bath and keep the water just above the freezing point; they cost $15 to $50. Position the bath near a grounded electrical outlet; if you need an extension cord, use a heavy-duty one designed for outdoor use. It's important to clean the bath and replace the water once a week.

Don't clean up your garden (entirely). From a bird's perspective, paradise looks a lot like what gardeners would call a weed patch. Resist the temptation to tidy up every inch of your yard. While it's important to clean vegetable, annual, and perennial beds to prevent pests and diseases from overwintering, select an area such as a grassy field or wildflower meadow that can wait until spring for cleanup. Insects, seeds, and other food material left behind will attract birds.

Check vistas. Make sure you can see your feeding stations easily from indoors. Place feeders where you and the birds can see them, and where you can reach them easily for refilling.

Make a brush pile. If the best place for a feeding station is in the middle of a large lawn, consider constructing a brush pile nearby to serve as both shelter and foraging habitat for birds. Placed between the feeders and the nearest natural habitat, it will give birds a convenient rest stop and make them feel safer about visiting feeders.

To make a brush pile, place tree branches in a square about 3 feet on a side. Top with branches to get a kind of messy tepee effect. Don't worry about being too neat. A good brush pile is just that, a pile of brush. You can add your Christmas tree and holiday wreath when you're done with them.

Create a welcoming habitat. Once you've supplied the basics, consider other ways of welcoming birds. Are your feeders protected from prevailing winter winds? If not, move feeders to the lee side of your house.

As a longer-term solution, create a windbreak or winter habitat with pines or other evergreens. Choices include firs (Abies), hawthorn (Crataegus), hollies (Ilex), junipers (Juniperus), spruces (Picea), pines (Pinus), and viburnums, as well as small-fruited crab apples such as 'Donald Wyman' and 'Ormiston Roy'.

Store seed properly. Most bird food deteriorates after several months, so buy only as much seed as you'll need for one season. If you buy sunflower seed in 50-pound bags, store it in a heavy-duty plastic or lightweight metal garbage can with wheels on the bottom and handles to secure the lid. The lid prevents marauding animals from getting at the seed and also keeps it dry, so it won't spoil. Clean the storage container annually, also with a mild bleach-water solution.

The Right Food. It's important to select food appropriate to the feeder and attractive to the birds that will feed there. Black oil sunflower seed, a favorite among many bird species, will attract the most kinds of birds. Use it in tube and hopper feeders. Keep in mind that most birds will sift through mixed bird seed, selecting the kind they prefer and tossing the others aside. (Note that corn and millet may attract unwanted blackbirds, squirrels, rock doves, and house sparrows.) Here's a matchup of feeders, foods, and the types of birds they'll attract.

Hopper feeder. Attracts most feeder visitors. Use black oil sunflower seed.

Peanut feeder. Attracts chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and wrens. Use raw peanuts.

Platform feeder. Attracts ground feeders such as juncos, white-throated and tree sparrows, towhees, doves, cardinals, jays, and many finches. Use any type of food, but to discourage blackbirds, rock doves, and house sparrows avoid using mixed seed.

Satellite feeder. Attracts small clinging birds such as chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches but excludes larger birds such as jays and doves. Use black oil sunflower seed or peanut bits.

Suet feeder. Attracts woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, and others. Use suet or bird treats.

Tube feeder. Attracts perching birds such as goldfinches, redpolls, siskins, house and purple finches, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. Use black oil sunflower seed.

Thistle feeder. Attracts finches. Use niger (thistle) seed.

Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest and the author of Bird Watching For Dummies (Hungry Minds Inc., 1997; $20).

Photography Dave Menke/U.S Fish and Wildlife Service

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