At this time of year, life can be tough for our backyard birds. A cold snap can mean they need more energy – just to keep warm – and the short days leave less time to find food.
Variety of Backyard Birds
We are always excited to see so many different kinds of backyard birds feasting on the Golden Showers crabapple trees on either side of our front walk. We planted them, in part, to be a food source for the many birds we have here. The foragers include hungry robins, showy cardinals, flashy finches, energetic chickadees, titmice, 6 pairs of bluebirds, and two mockingbirds fighting over the territory.
Many normal backyard birds that are predominantly insect eaters will switch their diet in the winter to berries in order to survive lean months.
One species that comes for short visits (sometimes in big flocks) to dine on fruit trees and shrubs is the elegant cedar waxwing.
Most robins migrate, but one or two may hang around all winter if there is enough to eat. When the food source runs out, these backyard birds are in quite a pickle.
The birds that overstay for the winter slowly consume the softening fruit they find. Some will pull the fruit apart and take only the seeds leaving the pulp for others.
Stealing Berries from Others
What disturbs me is how a flock of starlings or huge blackbirds can comes through and clean the bushes or strip a tree of life-giving fruit in a day or less.
These voracious and greedy starlings have no concept of sharing! Though an attractive bird, they are the pigs of our local bird kingdom. Just look how fat this starling is…
Sometimes there can be 50 in a tree at one time quickly gorging themselves. It causes me to think of them in less than kindly terms!
I can feel like Granny in the old Beverly Hillbillies TV show with her shotgun, wanting to “drive off them dad-burn varmints”! Now git! 😀
Finding enough energy-producing food to survive the frigid cold must be a high priority in the life of a bird, no matter where they live.
Chickadees and titmice have adaptations to weather raw winter temps by storing vast numbers of seeds in hidden caches all over their huge flock territories in winter. A single chickadee can cache tens of thousands of seeds a year, each seed in its own hiding place, usually behind strips of bark. Some chickadees have been observed caching 1,000 seeds in a single day.
Also, chickadees can lower their body temperature from 108 degrees Fahrenheit to a low of 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night. It takes a lot less energy to keep a chickadee’s body at 50 degrees than at 108 degrees. (source)
In 1994, it was discovered that chickadees add a tremendous number of nerve cells to this part of their brains as winter approaches. Since then, scientists have shown that seasonal brain enlargement in chickadees is greater in more northern latitudes and at higher elevations, even in the same species.
Since severe cold (and predators) inevitably take their winter toll on chickadees, their backup plan is to rear up to nine chicks every spring, which improves the chances that a few will make it through the winter, no matter how cold it gets. (source)
Do you love having the beauty of God’s birdlife right at your door?
Here are a few ways to bring them near!
Things to Consider
You can provide a sheltering haven by creating a brush pile in an out-of-the-way back corner, planting native conifers like pines (Pinus spp) and plenty of shrubs to make a thicket or hedgerow.
Plantings with berries:
This spring, consider planting one or more of these fruit-producers for the years to come:
- viburnums (look for varieties known for their berries)
- holly (need a male and a female variety)
- roses (for nutritious hips)
- aronias (we pick for ourselves and leave some hanging)
- crabapples (select variety with berries that hang on thru the winter)
Food We Can Provide Backyard Birds:
Some of our own food can be good for backyard birds – for example, fruit cake or mince pies, dried fruit, unsalted nuts, or apples and pears past their best. With a little ingenuity, we can also provide special treats for them:
- string cranberries with a needle on a thick thread
- UN-salted peanuts-in-the-shell on string or wire into a circle
- hang chunks of suet from the meat grocer in a wire basket or plastic mesh bag (this is only good when frozen otherwise it becomes a dripping greasy mess) (hang where animals cannot reach and in such a way that a big bird of prey can’t carry off)
- fill a teacup with beef or pork fat mixed with millet and other seed then add a little wooden perch (again good only when fat is solid)
- carve out big squash, fill base with seed and hang
- mix UN-salted peanut butter with seed and hang in mesh bag
- add a rotting apple or pear a day to a platform feeder
- put out large intact seed-filled sunflower heads
Some No-Nos for Backyard Birds
Putting out turkey fat is a big no-no; it’s so soft it’ll stick to birds’ feathers and stop them from keeping waterproof and warm. Remember to take down your suet feeders when it gets warm enough that they start to soften. Lastly, avoid anything moldy or salty (too much salt is poisonous to small birds).
“God gives every bird its food, but he does not throw it into the nest.”
~Josiah Gilbert Holland