Birds & Cold Weather

November through April are critical months for the birds.

California QuailWinter can be a very difficult time for birds. They have very little body mass and expend large amounts of energy foraging for food and maintaining warmth. Leaves are absent from trees and shrubs, so protective cover from the elements and predators becomes very important. Protein rich bugs and worms have disappeared from the menu and sources of water have dried up or become frozen. Unfortunately, many birds will perish over the winter. You can help! Here are a few things to keep in mind as winter approaches:

Start feeders NOW! Birds will be looking for reliable food sources for winter, so if you haven’t been feeding regularly through the summer now is the time to put yourself on their map! September is the crucial month to let them know you can be counted on and develop their feeding habit. Offer foods for the variety of birds that are in your area. Black Oil sunflower is a real favorite of most seed eating birds as well as sunflower that has been shelled and chipped. Chips are relished by feeder birds and are very nutritious as well as keeping down the mess while lacking the ability to sprout in spring. Feed Nyjer thistle for house finches, gold finches and pine siskins. Offer millet for house sparrows, quail, doves and juncos. Don’t forget the ducks! Ducks pretty much love all bird seed, period, cracked corn and millet are excellent foods for them.

Migration – Birds respond to changes in the weather, time of year, availability of food and temperature in different ways. Many birds migrate to warmer climates and cover great distances to do so, like orioles, black-headed grosbeaks and yellow headed black birds. Some are “altitudinal” migrants and move between higher and lower elevations like flickers and nuthatches. Some species are “interruptive: or “partial” migrants like gold finches, pine siskins, towhees and red breasted nuthatches. They move within an area or region depending on the availability of food. Some birds just stay put all year long like house finches, chickadees, dove, quail and sparrows. Those that have a widely varied diet, eating insects in the summer and seed in the winter, have no need to move elsewhere. Long distance complete seasonal migration in and of itself is a hormonally driven, genetic instinct.

Create natural refuge – by letting your flower and herb garden go to seed you can help build up a food source for winter birds. Holding off pruning and leaving the leaf litter creates shelter for both birds and some insects that will also be a food source. Try to position your feeders so that the birds have some cover nearby. Protection from predators is very important, as is protection from rain, snow and wind. Weather guards are available to shield the birds and food from the elements. You can also create cover by using branches stacked criss-cross on the ground or provide a discarded Christmas tree for hiding.

Fall Cleaning – Many species will look for winter roosts, by cleaning out nesting material from existing birdhouses you can encourage winter roosting in those same dwellings. It also helps get rid of any old nesting material as well as curbing any contagious viruses or bacteria. Everyone gets to start fresh in the spring with new nesting material that you can provide as well! Make sure to check your seed through out the winter, seed that has been wet for 4 or 5 days can begin to mold and potentially become unsafe for birds to eat.

Bring on the fat – Suet is an important way for wintering birds, such as woodpeckers and Chickadees to maintain their caloric intake. As the temperature drops start incorporating suet feeders to your seed routine. And no, the birds won’t freeze on the wire suet baskets – most are coated and will not pose a threat. Birds have no sweat glands in their feet and will not “stick” to metal perches, etc.

Hydrate – One of the biggest challenges in winter is drinking water. Most birds will not do a full water bath in the winter months, but they still need a liquid water source. Heated bird baths will provide them with drinking water and if needed, some water to assist in preening. Clean feathers are fluffy warm feathers. Be sure that your bird bath/ bird water is shallow with a good talon grip on the rim. Use medium sized rocks in your bird waterer to allow for easier and safer access in deep bird baths.