Winter birding is one of the best times of the year to see some unexpected delights. The bare trees and snow-covered surroundings provide very little camouflage, which makes it much easier to view bird activities. After migration, birds will start settling into their winter routines, which means many will gather in flocks and forage for food. But remember, winter is a very fragile time for wild birds and not all birds survive it. So even though birds have acquired some instinctual behaviors that help them survive, they've also learned to rely heavily upon humans for food, water, and roosting spots. The more we chip in and help, the better their chances of survival.
We have listed below some of the most important things you can do to help our feathered friends get through the cold winter and give you months of enjoyable backyard birding.
What Do Birds Need To Survive The Winter?
Let’s start by understanding how birds stay warm. Wild birds have many different ways to stay warm and conserve energy in the winter. Some bird species can grow additional feathers as the temperatures drop, which thickens their insulation. Some birds can actually lower their metabolic rate to an almost torpor-like state. Their heart rate slows down and their body temperature declines so they burn fewer calories, which helps them survive the coldest nights.
Other birds, especially the more social species like chickadees, stay warm at night by roosting with other birds in tree cavities or man-made nest boxes. When it comes to providing shelter, we can help by cleaning nests and other debris out of our birdhouses, so birds can use them for roosting in the winter.
Although food is very scarce in the winter, dehydration can be a bigger threat to birds than starvation. When the world is a frozen wonderland, fewer non-frozen sources of water exist and birds will sometimes travel several miles to reach a reliable water source. So it’s important that we provide birds with a place to drink and bathe in your backyard. We can give birds access to unfrozen water by providing a heated birdbath. Or, we can use an existing birdbath and add a heating element. Most of these units turn on and off automatically when temperatures dip below freezing. Use an immersion-style heater to keep the water thawed and clean it often. Also, be sure to place it in a location so birds can visit without danger from predators.
Some birds over prepare for the food-scarce months of winter by collecting food in the summer and fall months and hiding it away for later winter use, a process called caching. Birds return to this stash when natural food sources run scarce. The caveat is that sometimes other birds or animals find the food, too.
Many birds will flock together to search for reliable feeders. Even though they work together to find food sources, they are often very competitive with each other once they find it.
We can help by providing feeders in the yard, such as Suet, Nyjer thistle seed, and black oil sunflower seed. Or, choose a premium blend of food that many birds will find appetizing, such as shelled peanuts, sunflower kernels, pistachios and black-oil sunflower seeds and other nutritious nuggets. Keep one or two feeders filled at all times so they get the fuel they need to last through those cold days and nights.
Please note; some birds will not venture to your feeder and would prefer to hide in the thickets, trees, and other secure places. For these birds, consider scattering some seed (black-oil sunflower, sunflower bits, peanut bits, mixed seed) under your deck, in your hedges and bushes, or even along the edge of a wooded area.
The easiest way to help protect birds from the harsh winter elements is to provide lots of different types of shelter. Evergreen trees and shrubs are excellent protection as well as leaving brush piles in place through the winter. We can also leave nesting boxes and ledges up year-round.
Simply remove the old, used nesting materials and stuff the boxes with dried grasses or nesting cotton to keep the birds cozy and warm. Wood shavings work well, too, but don’t use sawdust, however; it can retain moisture once wet, which does not help the birds keep warm. Blocking the ventilation holes with cotton, grasses, or hay will also help keep them from getting too drafty when the cold winds blow. Inexpensive thatched roosting pockets are available for purchase, and putting as many of these out as we can will provide good shelter. We can also turn those leftover hanging planters into "birdie hotels" for the birds to roost in on cold, blustery nights. Finally, hanging nesting materials in the form of grasses, cotton, or other materials on shrubs and tree branches will give the birds something to stuff into holes or natural cavities, or any other place they can find to spend the night. Providing these things now will enable the birds to find and get used to the sources available before the really severe winter weather arrives.
Following these tips to help the birds in cold weather can give them a real boost when it comes to surviving the worst that winter has to offer. Keep in mind that it may take them several weeks to get accustomed to these new items in their environment before they figure out where they are, what they're for and know enough to take full advantage of them.
Wintering birds have done quite well in order to survive the coldest months. They've also learned to rely heavily upon humans for food, water, and roosting spots. The more we chip in and help, the better their chances of survival. Happy winter birding!!
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