3 Things the Birds Need From You This Winter

3 Things the Birds Need From You This Winter,

With the national decline of habitat and food sources, birds are in trouble.

In the past birds had miles of unbroken wild lands to support them. These areas have been replaced with pesticide filled lawn, loose cats, and exotic plants.

You can help them this winter, and in winters to come! Just add these 3 things to your property this winter and you can help our birds.

**Disclaimer: I do not get any money of the links in this article. I was not paid to reccomend these products.**

1.Long Term Food Sources

Bird feeders have been a hobby of mine for many years. They can help birds, especially after a large winter storm if they are selected, placed and cared for properly.

What Feeders to purchase

Make sure you have the right types of feeders: ones that are easy to clean and keep food dry. Look for feeders with baffles that keep out squirrels and protect the feed from driving rain and snow.

Droll Yankees Bird Feeder

Droll Yankees Bird Feeder

For mixed seed you have lots of feeder choices. Tube feeders and hopper hold seed for perching birds. This is a great choice if you are trying to stop doves or pigeons from eating too much feed. Some even have weighted perches that you can set to exclude heavier birds. Mixed seed and sunflower seed tube and hopper feeders are great for attracting cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, finches and red-wing blackbirds.

If you like doves and other ground birds, you can use a table or platform feeder. Most platform feeders hang while table feeders sit on the ground. Mixed seed works well for these feeders, just make sure there are drain holes or your seed will be floating after the first rain. Since table feeders sit on the ground, you may also be feeding squirrels, raccoons, opossums and deer. Some people have even caught bears snacking at their feeders! Try to only put out enough feed for the birds to eat before nightfall to prevent other critters from eating.

Suet needs its own type of feeder. I prefer the upside down suet feeder which only lets clinging birds eat from it. Upside down suet feeders are great for chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers. I do have a few enterprising starlings that have learned to hover for the suet, but they cannot eat all of it at once.

One of my favorite feeder companies is Droll Yankees – I love their caged feeders, they keep out starlings allowing the little birds to eat. Get it here. (I do not get any money off this link).

Where to put a feeder

Where you put your feeders is very important. In the winter the site should be out of the wind. If you can’t do this, try to  have shrubs nearby for the birds to rest in away from wind. Evergreens like inkberry holly or thick shrubs like viburnums are great for this.

Feeder with Squirrel Baffel

This hopper feeder has a squirrel baffel

You probably want to see the birds, but your windows are very dangerous. The reflection can trick birds into thinking they are flying into more yard, not a plane of glass. Feeders near windows can be death traps for birds. Either place the feeders close to the window (within 3 feet) so that if a window strike happens, the bird is flying slow OR put the feeders 15 feet away. Placing the feeder far away from the window stops the birds from being scared into the glass by a predator.

If you don’t want to feed the squirrels, feeder placement is very important. These little acrobats can jump 5 feet up and 10 feet long. That means, your baffle on a pole must be at least 5 feet off the ground. Also, when placing your feeder, keep them at least 10 feet from any trees, shrubs, houses or slow moving dogs.

What to put in a feeder

What you give the birds is also very important. For winter feeding, make sure to place high fat foods to get birds through the night. Feeds like suet, black oil sunflower, peanuts and cracked corn are all great calorie sources. Try to avoid feed with lots of low calorie fillers. Dried mealworms are also great treats for birds like bluebirds on a cold day.

For winter feeding, use high fat foods to get birds through the night. Click To Tweet

Finally, watch for competition at your feeders. Sometimes aggressive larger birds can push out smaller ones. This is especially true for goldfinches. I find that placing a lone feeder away from the main feeder area helps prevent this. I place an upside down thistle feeder about 10 feet from my feeding station. This allows the goldfinches to eat in peace, but I still get to view them.

Tip: If you have trouble with starlings or squirrels, switch out your black oil sunflower seed for safflower seed. They are not as tasty to these pests, but still are attractive to the native songbirds. 

Natural bird feeders


Winterberries provide perfect winter food.

If you don’t want to spend your winter filling feeders, let nature do the bird feeding for you. Planting native shrubs that have berries into the winter is a great way to feed the birds. The Northern Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) is the perfect shrub! This shrub’s berries are 50% fat! Plenty of fuel to keep small birds warm on cold winter nights.

Another bush to consider is the winterberry (Ilex verticillata). It is not as tasty as other berries so they stay on the bushes longer for late winter food. Also, the bright red berries look amazing against a drift of snow.

Both of these shrubs have male and female plants, so make sure you have both to get berries. Plant the boys and girls near each other to make sure pollination happens!

Besides shrubs, many wildflowers also can feed the birds into the winter. By leaving flower stalks standing, birds can forage through the season finding missed seeds and insects among the stems. Favorite plants for winter forage are coneflowers and rudbeckias as they stand well into the winter months.

2.Unfrozen Water

Birds cannot digest food if they don’t have water. In the winter, using snow to drink requires 12X more calories than using an unfrozen bird bath. During the worst winters, this may be the difference between life and death for a small bird. Providing unfrozen water is a great way to help your feathered friends.

Birds cannot digest food if they don’t have water. In the winter, using snow to drink requires 12X more calories than using an unfrozen bird bath.

Birds need unfrozedn water

Birds need unfrozedn water

Make sure your winter water isn’t too deep. Make it just deep enough to for the birds to drink, not to bathe. You don’t want your artificially heated water freezing on their feathers when they are done. If you have a deep bird bath, add rocks to make it shallow.

Ways to give winter water:

  • Heated bird bath – you can buy a large bird bath that has a heater or add a small ceramic heater to your current birdbath. These heaters are not expensive, cost 8 cents a day to run, keeps water liquid down to -20 degrees. Some good examples can be found here and here.
  • Switch it out – if you don’t have electricity near your bird bath, you can change the water out a few times a day as it freezes. It’s a bit more time intensive, but the birds will love it.
  • Wiggle the water – sometimes floating a ping pong ball or rubber ball in a bath creates enough waves to stop water from freezing when it isn’t too cold. You can also leave a pond pump running for a waterfall. This won’t work in sub zero temperatures but will help on those frosty mornings. Just don’t let the temperature dip too cold, freeze the water and ruin your pump!


The winter wind can be nasty, and birds feel it just like we do. They like to hide from the wind in natural shelters. Before humans changed the landscape, birds would rest in thick shrubs, evergreen trees or in tangles of fallen plants. Now, we can help by mimicking this.

You can help by planting the right plants.

Great evergreen sheltering plants

Eastern Red Cedar Berries

Eastern Red Cedar Berries

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) – This tree has a misleading name – it’s not a cedar, it’s a juniper. This tree gets a bad rap due to a blight it can spread to apple trees, but it is an amazing native evergreen for east of the Mississippi. These trees are great for blocking wind. They also are a favorite tree of the cardinal and cedar waxwing due to their berries on the female trees. It tolerates drought and wet soil, rock and clay so you can’t go wrong where you place it. It gets big, 65 feet tall and does tend to break under heavy snow. (To prevent this, prune the tree when young to have only one lead branch.) If you live in the west, try your native Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum).

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) and the Western White Pine (Pinus monicola) – both of these pines are loved by birds. Their seeds are eaten by many species including jays, grouse, crossbills, nuthatches, siskins and woodpeckers. The Eastern White Pine is often planted as a windbreak for humans, and wildlife benefits from this.  In the right spot these trees are long lived. Don’t put them where they will have wet feet and stay away from alkaline soils. Wet clay is the death of these trees, and they can do well for many years and then die during a wet year (sorry Ohio).

Eastern White Pine

Eastern White Pine

Green Mountain Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Green Mountain’) – this non-native plant (exotic) is a good choice when native varieties won’t make it in your conditions. Plant a boxwood when you have a shady area with heavy deer presence (they eat everything) when you need a windbreak for the birds. While they can’t take wet feet, boxwood are adaptable to many soil types. If the winter gets too cold (zone 5) these shrubs will brown back and may need some TLC in the spring. Don’t plant these too close to your windows as some say they smell like cat urine! If you have a spot with less shade try the native Inkberry holly. It is more difficult to find but looks much like a boxwood.

American Holly (Ilex opaca) – if you have part shade and room for a large tree, this holly is for you. Many birds love the berries in the winter; however, you will need a male and female plant for them of ripen. It likes moist soil and is a slow grower but well worth it if you have the space.

Great deciduous sheltering plants

Staghorn sumac fruit,

Staghorn sumac fruit

Sumac – depending on your location you may have quite a few choices of this plant. In general these can be considered small trees. They make thickets as they tend to sucker. This makes them perfect sheltering plants – but also makes them take over parts of the yard. Plant these in a back corner, give them room and sun and they will reward you with brilliant red seeds and amazing fall colors. The birds will love the seeds and the bees the flowers. Good choices for the east are the Tiger Eye Sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’) and Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica). If you are in the west consider the western version of the Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra var. cismontana) or the Skunkbush Sumac (Rhus trilobata).

Rose – once again, you have many choices, but try to pick the native ones. Rose bushes are great sheltering plants because their thorns prevent predators from reaching in. If you are east of the Mississippi you can’t go wrong with the Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina) or the Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). The western states has the beautiful Prairie Rose (Rosa blanda) and Wood’s Rose (Rosa woodsii). Pick the right one for your area and the birds will thank you.

Viburnum berries,

Viburnum berries are a great natural bird feeder

Viburnum – my favorite shrub genus, you can’t go wrong with viburnums. They come in many sizes and all provide food for the birds and mammals. To get fruit though, you must have two genetically different plants. The easiest way to do this is to purchase seed grown plants as they are all different just like every human is different! Eastern dwellers will love the Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) as it has beautiful flowers and fall color. Another great choice for the east is the Possumhaw Viburnum (Viburnum nudum) as its berries come in many colors. In the west the Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) is a great fit as is the American Cranberry Bush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum). All of these shrubs are great choices for fall color, spring blooms and berries. They grow thick so wildlife can hide safe inside.

No room for plants? Consider these options.

Brush Pile Shelter

Brush Pile Shelter

Birds also use brush piles to hide out during the cold nights. So pile your tree trimmings in a loose compost pile. If you buy a live christmas tree, consider placing it in your yard after the holiday to block the wind.

You can also buy Roosting shelters for birds. When picking out one, make sure it will stay dry on the inside and has a space of dead air. These shelters are similar to bird houses, but have the hole on the bottom. You can get some here and here.

Now what?

Once you add these to your yard, consider encouraging your neighbors to do the same? If each home in your neighborhood added just one of these, it would add up to helping even more birds.

What other ideas do you have for helping birds this winter, share in the comments!

Paige Nugent

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