Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Out in the cold

Despite our sense to the contrary, birds are well guarded against the cold by their dense covering of down and feathers. Finding food enough can be relentlessly hard on them during the leanest months of winter when the remaining seeds and berries have been thoroughly picked over. Hawks and owls become more desperate as their prey remains tucked away in dens and tunnels and they're forced to pick off the weak from our backyard feeders.

A short-term solution is to provide a feeding station to help birds find enough food during the day to keep them warm overnight. Thinking long-term requires that we consider the value of habitat in terms of three things: food, shelter, and water. Planting native shrubs and trees with fleshy fruits (mountain ash, holly, crabapples, cedars, etc) and seeds (maples, pines, hemlocks, etc) will provide food. Many of these trees and evergreen shrubs also benefit the birds in that they provide shelter to roost in at night or to escape from the winds in the daytime. Birdhouses and roosting boxes can also provide shelter from the cold. Water is difficult to keep unfrozen, but a garden pond or heated birdbath will provide much needed fresh water each day.

My own yard is sadly lacking in many respects, but I do see the benefits of what I've been able to provide thus far. The pond is always a draw, but especially so in winter. The robins, starlings, and mourning doves appreciate a drink or bath in even the coldest of weather. American hollies are the only evergreens we have planted, but the robins flock to them in winter. A horse farm that I pass on my way to work has probably a hundred of them planted along the property line; sadly the robins fly back and forth across the road to feed on the holly berries and many are hit by cars in the process. Each day on my way to and from work I count at least 3 dead on the shoulder of the road. The viburnums and dogwoods we have at home have been picked clean by late December and my husband insists on cleaning up the garden in the Fall, rather than the Spring, so the many seeds of my flowering plants aren't available for the birds. We need to plant more evergreens and a more diverse variety of fruiting shrubs, and learn to leave the garden alone so that it can feed the birds in winter.

Of course now is the time to begin planning the garden for the season to come. I have a small pile of flower and seed catalogs that I'm lookiing over, but I'm trying to think in terms of trees and shrubs instead of the more alluring and short-lived flowers.

What have you found that sustains the birds in your garden during the coldest of days? Tonight I'm going to try a short-term solution to the present cold spell and whip up a batch of Julie Z's suet dough, mostly for the oriole from last week who I spotted at the feeders again this morning.

Robin photo courtesy of Associated Press.


Pam/Digging said...

It just doesn't get that cold here, so I don't put any birdseed out (plus I've found that attracts rats). Today it was in the mid-70s, and I spied a small flock of robins at a local nursery, picking after something on the ground.

I do have quite a few berrying plants and evergreens in my garden. The ones the Austin birds seem to like best are yaupon holly and American beautyberry. They also like the leftover coneflower seedheads.

Susan Gets Native said...

The single most important thing I do for the birds is this:
I practice "judicial laziness". I don't clean up every corner, I don't remove leaf litter, I don't chop down goldenrod and other native "weeds". I make brush piles of the honeysuckle I cut down and leave the rest for cover. We let a large amount of our lawn grow wild and it makes a haven for snakes, mice and rats. And instead of the mice invading our basement, they are food for the red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. And bArred owl. And great horned owl.
I don't use pesticides, so we have lots of bugs for the birds and small mammals, etc, to eat. Which allows the larger birds and critters to eat them. We sustain 20 species of small birds, 5 species of raptors, and at least 6 mammal species. All that on about an acre of land.
My point: We do very little. And the animals love us.

Mary said...

Laura, I've been thinking about plans for spring and winter, too, that will provide for the birds in the winter. The insect eaters must be starving now. I have loads of berry bushes but need more. I have water, constant, as I leave the pump run to avoid freezing. There's a deep layer of pine straw and mulch in many areas that we never touch. I have suet cakes out there, but few have visited. Maybe next year they will have found it. Good post, with lots of thought-provoking ideas.

Endment said...

VEry helpful and informative post.
We have large brushpiles out in the woods and have put in plantings specifically to provide winter shelter. This year the poor birds seem to need even more shelter than usual. We are looking at the county agricultural program's tree planting brochure and planning to put in more shrubs this spring.

John said...

I have noticed on my walks in the Arboretum that hemlocks are very popular with goldfinches and juncos. There are usually big flocks of both in the hemlock stands. Crabapples also draw attention, mostly from robins, waxwings, and house finches; most years there will be purple finches at them as well.

Dave said...

Susan's comment is right on target. Nature loves messiness!

What have you found that sustains the birds in your garden during the coldest of days? I think a Carolina wren is surviving the subzero nighttime temperatures by invading the crawlspace under my house and roosting near the furnace. But as for the other C. wrens that we have all over the mountain, it will touch and go with them, i think. Every ten years or so a prolonged cold snap kills off all or most of our local population.

Wanderin' Weeta said...

I always have a hanging feeder full of black oil sunflower seeds, which the chickadees and nuthatches love, and at least a couple of the juncos have learned to use.

Here in BC, that's usually plenty. But when there's ice and snow on the ground, I put out a ground feeder for the other birds. I load that with commercial wild bird seed supplemented with oatmeal, which the varied thrush love, sometimes peanuts (nuthatches, chickadees, Steller's Jay, mostly), sometimes a morsel of fruit or a chunk of suet, depending on the weather.

It makes a mess of husks and spilled seed, but that can always be cleaned up. And the birds are thriving. I get plenty of sparrows, of course, three species, and a few towhees. As soon as the weather warms up, they all disappear except for the juncos and chickadees.

Which is fine. As long as they know where the emergency rations are, that's all that counts.

somebunnysloveDOTcom said...

We try to get birdseed out but since the raccoons have been hurting themselves when breaking our squirrel-proof birdfeeders, we had to cut back. And I also believe in not keeping the yard so as to match the forest. One item that our founder of the bunny rescue we support does on her farm is put bales of alfafa feed hay for the deer. She would rather have them on her land than risk getting shot by the hunters in the woods.

Lynne said...

We keep a good sized brush pile in tha back yard near the overgrown lilac hedge. I know a few neighbors consider it an eyesore but it's FULL of birds during this coldsnap. I also have several birdhouses around the yard and a few mornings ago for the first time I saw 6-7 chickadees squirt out of one of them early in the morning! I had heard that birds will use birdhouses for winter roosts but it was the first time I'd witnessed it. I keep a heated birdbath filled all winter too.

Mary Ann said...

Their lives are so unlike ours. We have such an abundance of food, we have to control ourselves. But we have to work pretty hard at keeping warm. Suet, black oil sunflower seeds and plenty of small seed on a tray or on the ground keep quite a few birds around my front window. This year I'm enjoying the crows who come for the chunky dry dog food I put out for them.

Liza Lee Miller said...

My yard is a slovenly haven for birds! :) I plant for ease of care and we leave it alone most of the time. The birds thank me. I do need to plant more fruiting bushes and I have the added need to try to find plants that bloom in the winter for the resident hummers. I have two huge bushes that I'd just as soon rip out but the hummers love them this time of year and so they stay.

Thanks for the reminder -- I'll keep the birds in mind as I'm plant shopping this spring.

dguzman said...

I really need to get some water out there; the ponds on the marsh are all frozen now. I have brushpiles, and I'm going to leave a section of the yard wild and unmowed this spring and summer to see how that goes. I keep thinking I'd like to get some fruit out there too. So far, though, I've gotten a lot of action at my two hanging feeders, a platform feeder, a suet feeder, and putting some seed on the ground around the feeders. But there's always more to do!

Sophia, The Diva Kitty said...

We've been inundated with robins & finches today. Also, some large grey birds - any clues? Pics on the website.

PS - I did also get to see a spectacular golden eagle swoop down and snag a mouse/rat-like creature this morning.

Laurie said...

I purposely try to keep the birds away because of our indoor/outdoor cat. It wouldn't seem fair to lure them in. My dad has a heated bird bath that is quite popular though. It is always clean and full of water for them to bath in or drink. He also has a lot of bushes and shelter. I might talk to him about putting out some feed until it warms up.

Floridacracker said...

Lots of native forest left to grow as it pleases, but broken with open strips to provide edge. I'm always planting black cherry trees too for wildlife food.
Nestboxes, a single feeder, and lots of brushpiles.

Not dangerously cold here, but they've still got to eat.

Ruth said...

We have a mountain ash tree, several junipers and a Saskatoon berry bush which attract many birds. The big pine tree and the juniper bushes seem to provide the most weather protection, and the birds perch in their branches when they are not at the feeders. I have never had a heated bird bath but should think about getting one if they are that important in the winter.

ReluctantChickenFarmer said...

Hi Laura,
The past couple of days have been hard on the chickens here. As you say, birds are a hearty lot. Its' amazing that when the temperatures dip, it doesn't seem to affect them that much. What we do here with the chickens is provide a heated base for the chicken waterer. It costs about $50 but it saves the worry about having your water freeze overnight and ruin the equipment. It also gives the chickies a warm drink when they want it. Right now we have two hens in a cage in our kitchen. They haven't been feeling so great and when the temperatures dipped, the were not coming out of the coups much to feed. They are experiencing some issues with scaly mites (I think) on their feet, which makes it hard for them to walk and on occasion, a toe or so will fall off. Nasty. So every couple of days, I have been corralling the birds and one by one, have been spraying the feet and legs with "Blue coat", a topical anti-fungal. It makes a real mess if you get it on your hands and makes the birds feet look funny because they are tinted a dark blue. I don't know about this chicken stuff. I am learning way to much about these wacky chickens. One of these days I am going to get revenge on the people that started me on this trail of coups and poops. :< Anyway, I wanted to send you a photo I took the other day of the chickens when I open them up in the morning. It was right after a light snow. It turns out that chickens don't like snow and are very tentative about stepping in it. So I have this photo of one of the hens peeking out of the coup and trying to decide if she wants to "go out for the day". Sorry for the drawn out winter birding technique story......

mon@rch said...

O my goodness!! Just look at that Robin photo!! Ok, not have to wrap this up so that I can look at it again!

Cathy said...

We had 6 Robins on our heated birdbath - the first I'd seen Robins all winter. You are so blessed to have them in numbers close by - but, oh Laura - I don't envy your having to see them dead along the highway. I have to squint my eyes when I see road carnage (probably a dangerous habit).
I was so concerned for the Robins that I sifted some freeze-dried Mealyworms at the water line. Then I added chopped soaked raisins - it got pretty disgusting looking and there were no takers (Oh! the squirrels enjoyed the raisins) I've also heard that apple and cracked sunflower seed are attractive to Robins.

LauraHinNJ said...

Pam: Hi! Lucky that you shouldn't have to be concerned with the cold. Hollies seem a popular choice with the birds and they're beautiful also!

Susan: Good for you! We need to work on not being so tidy. A lot of it has to do with the type of neighborhood we live in and the way our property lies. All of it is pretty visible to someone, except for the very back corner where the shed is and where there isn't much sun for growing things.

I think we do good in season, as nothing looks manicured but the darn lawn. I love the little woodland border I've started on the property line, but need to add to it.

Mary: Don't you find lots of birds using your pond?

Endment: Brush piles are great - can't believe I didn't think to mention them. When we get a live tree for the holidays we always put it out in the garden to start a brush pile with.

John: I love hemlocks and would love to plant some - they have the most beautiful little cones! I've been thinking about a crabapple too, but can't decide on a good variety.

Dave: I know - but get my husband to believe it! Carolina Wrens do have it hard - I've read how harsh winters will cause many to die. I try to think of them when deciding what to put out at the feeders, but when they come they don't seem to eat very much. Sounds like a smart little wren you have sleeping by your furnace. Reminds me I should check my nestboxes and see if anyone has been using them besides the field mice.

LauraHinNJ said...

Wanderin Weeta: I think the birds do fine on their own when they weather's not so bad, although they do appreciate a handout!

I'm surprised not to be seeing any goldfinches - that's normal for the winter, but I still expect them for some reason.

I haven't been feeding any but the goldfinches and hummingbirds in the summers for the last few years - I miss seeing the young birds at the feeders though.

Somebunny: I guess I'm lucky to not have racoon issues! Or deer issues for that matter. I think anything that keeps them from feeding along the sides of roads is a good thing.

Lynne: I've heard that too about chickadees - you know they sell roosting boxes with a hole on the bottom rather than the top - don't have any though. The juncos and white throated sparrows roost in the tangle of vines along the edge of our yard that backs up to the park - sometimes I scatter some seed back there for them because they don't seem to like coming out to the feeders.

MaryAnn: I had a few crows this morning after the big chunks of suet. Funny to see them so wary about being close to the house! I watched one chase a squirrel away from the feeder and was cheering the whole time!

Liza: What about the perennial Salvias for the hummers? Is it warm enough? I love salvias and wish I could grow more of the tropical ones but our season isn't really long enough.

What are the bushes that the hummers love so much?

Delia: I think to get the special birds (not that they're not all special) you need to have water or a mister in spring/summer and the plants that make for good habitat. It's a long term project though. ;-)

DivaKitty: Good for you and a Golden? I'm jealous!

LauraHinNJ said...

Laurie: I'd guess that's the most responsible thing to do with an indoor/outdoor cat.

I think, like Wanderin Weeta said, that it helps to provide a little something extra for *emergencies* like the present cold weather.

FC: Yes - you've got all of "our" birds on vacation down there - take good care of them!

Wild cherries are the best - there's one next door and the birds really love it and the mulberries.

Ruth: Sounds like a nice banquet for the birds! I think your Saskatoon berry is what I know as Serviceberry?

Reluctant brother Kevin: I know your chickens are all my husband's fault, but aren't they fun? Think of all the writing material they provide (hint, hint). Get going on that blog!

I'd guess bringing the two hens in the kitchen wasn't your idea?

Do you have a heat lamp for them? Do they even need it??

I'll post your pic - thanks for sending it.

Cathy: I haven't ever been able to get any fruit-eating birds come to a feeder - other than catbirds. I understand your trying though, because I've done it myself so often. Plant a holly tree - they'll love you for it!

Sharon said...

My compost piles yield a special protein delicacy, so long as I remember to 'seed'. In late fall I set a box of cornmeal outside. Invariably it attracts meal moths who lay eggs. When it turns cold I dump the hopefully infested meal atop one of the composters, laying newspaper strips at the edge to mark the depth. Weeks later, a few inches deeper in cozy decomposition, a careful nudge with a flat spade serves up platters full of tender larvae, life giving food for robins etc.