Giving Birds What They Need in Winter

Cedar Waxwing with Berries; Photo Credit: Stan Tekeila
Want more birds in your yard year-round? There are a handful of things you can do to increase the attractiveness of your yard to birds in winter. With more than half the species of birds in decline, having the right food source and good habitat at every location birds visit is fundamental to maintaining their populations. In winter high-nutrition food sources which will give them enough energy to stay warm and to successfully migrate and breed in spring would be at the top of any bird’s list.  Native plants provide the most nutritious food – the right insects in summer, berries and seeds during the coldest months, and shelter year-round. Add a couple of other essential items, and your yard habitat becomes an irresistible and sought-after overwintering spot.


In the coldest months, many birds rely upon berries. But, not all plants and their berries are created equal! Birds eat what is available and always will go for native plants first which have the nutrition they need. If they are eating exotic porcelainberries or heavenly bamboo (which can be lethal to birds in high doses), this means they are desperate for food. In the eastern US birds would opt for the fruit on native viburnums, including arrowwood, dockmackie and downy arrowwood); native dogwoods, native hollies (particularly Ilex decidua, Ilex verticillata and Ilex opaca) and magnolias. With exotic plants (meaning those not naturally growing where you are), it’s easy to create what appears to be a terrific habitat, only for it to be a food desert for birds. If you are wondering what native plants you should be planting, consult the Audubon native plant database for a list of native plants in your area.


Water is essential in winter as birds dehydrate easily and need to keep their feathers clean for flight and warmth. The availability of clean sources of fresh water can be limited in many areas, and sometimes the only open water isn’t clean or healthy. Providing a birdbath or larger water source that doesn’t freeze in the winter can be an enormous help. Birds will drink and bathe in cold weather and bird baths with heaters keep the temperature above freezing so water is always available. Keeping these water sources clean and free from bacteria is not difficult if they are cleaned out regularly.


If you have been building a brush pile, definitely add to it now! Brush piles are needed year-round but in winter birds will fly into them to be shielded from wind and snow. They also provide a quick way to escape an aerial predator if placed near feeders. Use branches and parts of trees you have trimmed back to stack a sizeable brush pile in your yard. As brush piles decay over time, whenever you cut back tree limbs, load them on top!


If you have room in your yard, put up a roost box on the side of the tree out of the wind, or on the garage where a number of small birds can huddle together to stay warm at night. Many roost boxes can be converted for use as nestboxes in the spring, so they get year-round use!


For more information on the importance of native fruit and plants for overwintering birds, check out this article in The Washington Post.