Photo by James Holsinger, eBird

Bird-friendly Winter Gardens

Most of our gardening happens from spring until fall, but what about during those cold winter months? If your plants don’t survive during the frost and snowy season, what do your local birds do? In winter, your residential birds seek out three main ingredients needed for survival: food, water, and cover. While most gardens can provide these in the summer, increasing habitat loss makes things harder for birds during the cold months.

Let’s investigate how gardens can provide the essentials for birds who brave the elements!

Cowbirds enjoy a natural water source. Picture by Tim Lenz.

Brown-headed Cowbirds enjoy a natural water source. Picture by Tim Lenz, eBird submission.

Water Sources

Water is essential for all animals and can be scarce in winter. A natural water source such as a stream or pond is a great place for local birds, but these freshwater reservoirs will often freeze in the winter, preventing birds from accessing them.

Consider adding a heated bird bath or aerator to your space. A heater, bubbler, or other water feature addition will prevent ice from forming on a bird bath. These are often small and relatively inexpensive, plus fresh water will attract tons of birds to your garden! Place it on a ledge or wall to encourage squirrels and chipmunks to benefit as well. You can leave this bath up all year and utilize the heating when needed, just be sure to change the water frequently.

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Cedar Waxwing flies off with a berry. Photo by Oliver Burton, eBird submission.

Feeding Opportunities

Many winter plants can provide food for birds that prefer seeds and fruit. Plants like Staghorn Sumac, viburnums, Virginia Creeper, Service-berry, Winter berry Holly, Bayberry, and others provide fruit and berries that birds love. If you have the room, evergreen trees can provide seeds from cones. Crab Apple trees can provide both fruit and seeds. Many gardeners find that berries are the easiest thing to offer, as most plants providing them are shrub-like and small.

In addition to planting food sources, you can also add a bird feeder to your winter garden to supplement the diet of hungry birds. Consider making your own DIY feeder.

When choosing plants for your garden, remember to go native! You can use the local resource finder through Habitat Network to find native plants, nurseries, and more! If you’re not sure which birds eat what food, check out Project FeederWatch for an online interactive.

This Common Redpoll is toughing out the cold winter winds. Photo by Tim Lenz, eBird submission.

This Common Redpoll is toughing out the cold winter winds. Photo by Tim Lenz, eBird submission.

Sheltering your Feathered Friends

Trees and plants in your garden can offer shelter to birds. While plants like shrubs and trees that maintain their leaves during the winter can provide cover from the wind, rain, and snow, there are other ways you can offer shelter. When choosing plants for your garden, consider different canopy levels for diverse shelter needs. Brush piles can also provide a safe place for birds to hide, so try making your own from your yard waste.

Consider offering a roost box for your backyard birds, similar to the one found at All About Birds. You can also modify a nest box to make it a temporary roost box.

 

Going Further

  • Check out our School Gardens blog for more resources and grant opportunities for educators!
  • Habitat Network is a citizen-science project dedicated to managing and understanding wildlife habitats.
  • Project FeederWatch is a great way to get involved in citizen science and help scientists track winter bird populations simply by watching your local birds!

5 Comments

  1.  by  Kim Lassiter

    I have been told not to use a heated birdbath to provide drinking water to birds in winter (location: Ottawa, Canada). The rationale: birds see open water and think it’s safe to bathe, then freeze to death when they do so. I used a heated birdbath in North Carolina and Ohio for many years and never once saw a bird bathe in winter, though they came to drink all season long. Can anyone help address this question?
    Thank you!

    •  by  Kelly

      Hi Kim,

      Birds naturally encounter open water when the temperatures are low enough that freezing is a risk, think early winter before water sources freeze but air temperature is low or early spring after lakes and river unfreeze but cold snaps are common. Birds are very smart about their own survival and good at avoiding risks that they are used to. A heated bird bath can be a great benefit to birds in winter. You might enjoy reading this Bird Note on bird baths: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote09_ProvideWater.pdf

  2.  by  Denise bowman

    We’ve always kept a heated birdbath in winter up on Lake Superior. Only once in all the brutal winters we have did I ever see a bird actually bathing. It was an American starling and I often wondered if it froze as it was below zero ttemp.

  3.  by  Loni

    I have bluebirds at my suet feeders. Has anyone every heard of bluebirds wintering over in Zone 3 Northern NY?

    •  by  BirdSleuth

      Hi Loni, looking through eBird there have quite a few sightings of Eastern Bluebirds throughout NYS. It has been a mild winter so far and we are on the edge of their year-round habitat.

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