Make Your Garden Welcoming to Winter Birds

Something that amazes me every year is how birds survive the winter. Somehow they are able to find the food, water and shelter they need each day. Just the other day, I watched a pair of cardinals foraging in the buffalograss and eating seeds from the Maximilian Sunflower outside my window. They find a way to survive, but it can’t be easy.  I believe we can do a few things in our yards to make their lives a little easier.  Here is a list that will help them survive the cold weather and give you more up-close encounters with birds.

Photo by Dave Osborne.

Leave prairie plants up through the winter

Winter is a desperate time for birds.  They spend a tremendous amount of energy each day searching for food. Their winter food comes from a variety of sources, but one of the first places they search is in and around meadows and perennial borders.  By leaving these areas undisturbed through the winter, birds can find bugs, seeds that are highly nutritious in the seed heads, and tufts of grass near the ground.

Create a wildlife border

The more diverse your plantings, the more diverse the types of birds your landscape will attract. Think about different layers of plants, including trees and shrubs, that produce fruit and nuts that birds need.  Incorporate a few evergreens along with deciduous trees and shrubs, because the winter foliage provides extra protection from the elements and predators.  These layers mimic the natural areas birds flock to during the winter.

Create a compost pile

All those leaves that are blowing all around your yard make wonderful compost. They also make a nice place for bugs to hide. I have seen birds completely destroy a compost pile searching for insects and seeds.  Those leaves will also become next year’s soil amendment for your garden.

Make a brush pile

Our brush pile at the Arboretum is huge, but it is always filled with birds. It provides shelter from winter storms and protection from predators.  Even a small pile with logs, sticks and branches will provide the safety and security many birds need.

Provide Food for Birds in the Winter

The key to feeding birds in winter is to give them options. A diverse selection of seed, suet, and peanuts will entice many different types of birds. Locate feeders in areas out of the wind but within viewing distance. Hang some from tree branches and others on the ground.

Provide Water for Birds

Birds need ready access to water in the winter.  Bird baths, a puddle, or a stream are great options as long as they are not frozen. Heating these water sources will allow birds to find the water they need for survival especially during freezing weather.

Make plans to help

If you don’t have these key features in your garden already, create a design that favors birds and other wildlife.  Include grasses and perennials that produce seeds birds prefer. Establish shrubs with persistent seeds and fruit that birds can utilize in the winter.

Here are a couple of interesting websites that may help you create your plan:

Common Feeder Birds

Kansas Birds Checklist

How birds survive the winter in simply amazing. Helping to welcome the boreal birds to your backyard can be quite enjoyable for you and for them. By providing the habitat and food they need, your landscape can become a bird sanctuary and a haven that gives them food, water, and shelter to endure the winter.

A Few Berry Plants for Birds

With the recent cold snap, I am amazed that anything can survive outside.  Snow and extreme temperatures make it a challenge for birds to get through the freezing nights.  Birds have to change their diets from insects to berries, fruit and seeds rich in fats and antioxidants to make it through winter.  They spend most of their time and energy trying to find food, water and shelter.  Fruits and berries can truly be a lifesaver for overwintering birds.  Here are a few trees and shrubs that will feed the birds during these long, cold months of the year.

Viburnum

This diverse collection of shrubs or small trees offers many great landscape plants.  Most have attractive foliage with amazing fall color, clusters of blooms that develop into groups of tasty fruit for overwintering birds to devour.  Some of the best varieties for our area have been Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) and Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum).  These two species are native to Kansas and produce abundant fruit that birds love.  Other garden worthy forms are Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum ‘Blue Muffin’) and Leatherleaf Viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum ‘Allegheny’).

Blackhaw Viburnum drupes (fruit)

Possumhaw Deciduous Holly- (Ilex decidua)

This large shrub often goes unnoticed for much of the year until late fall when the bright red berries form along the branches.  Its shiny green leaves and light gray stems make it a desirable shrub for natural areas in your landscape.  Since only female plants bear fruit, you must have at least one male plant in close proximity for best berry production.  Usually after the first snow, birds will begin to eat the berries because the cold temperatures make them more palatable to wildlife. We have several forms of Possumhaw, such as ‘Council Fire’, ‘Red Cascade’, ‘Sentry’, and ‘Warren’s Red’.  Over time, it tends to produce suckers from the roots, forming a multi-trunk screen.

Deciduous Holly Berries

Crabapples-Malus spp.

These trees are highly ornamental.  The attractive spring blooms, interesting foliage, and bountiful fruit make them an ideal choice for nearly any landscape.  They are quite adaptable and drought tolerant.  Varieties with small fruit that hang on through the winter attract the most overwintering birds.  Choose forms that are highly disease resistant to cedar apple rust, mildew, scab and fire blight.  Some of the best are ‘Prairifire’, ‘Firebird’, ‘Royal Raindrops’, ‘Sargent’, ‘Callaway’, ‘Cardinal’, ‘Centurion’, ‘Pink Princess’, and ‘Robinson’.

Prairifire Crabapple fruit

Sumac-(Rhus glabra and typhina)

These fast-growing shrubs have ferny leaves and incredible fall color.  The blood red foliage in autumn is striking.  Typically, these shrubs spread by underground runners forming dense thickets, so find a spot where they can expand.  The red fruit clusters at the ends of the stems are harvested by a variety of birds during the winter.

Smooth Sumac fruit

Junipers-(Juniperus virginiana)

This tree is the only native evergreen to Kansas.  Junipers are extremely important to birds during the winter.  Not only do they offer protection from the cold, but the female forms produce large quantities of berries often eaten by birds after other food sources have been exhausted.  Two varieties we use in our landscapes are ‘Taylor’, a narrow form (4’ wide X 25’ tall) and ‘Canaertii’, a picturesque form (15’ wide x 35’ tall) with dense branches that look like arms.

Canaertii Juniper berries

Bonus: Native plants

Many wildflowers and grasses make great natural bird feeders.  Coneflowers, grass seed heads, black-eyed susans, sunflowers, aster and goldenrods will be used by birds for food.  The key is to not get too anxious to cut these plants down in the fall.  Leave them through the winter for birds to enjoy.  Cut them down next February or March in preparation for spring.

Coneflower seed head-A favorite of Goldfinches

Creating a landscape that is bird friendly takes planning.  Choose plants not only for their beauty, but also wildlife value.  Your yard can become a hub of bird activity as they fuel up to endure the winter.  A few well-chosen berry plants for birds will increase your enjoyment through the winter and throughout the year.  Happy Birding!