Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Help Birds Survive Our Winter
October 28, 2022
By Steve Grinley
Last week I told you about this winter’s finch forecast predicting that several boreal species could migrate down to our area and that some could show up at feeders. A pine siskin has already joined some goldfinches at a thistle feeder in Byfield. Many more have been heard around our area. Evening grosbeaks have also been heard flying over in many localities, and at least one pine grosbeak has been reported.
A few red-breasted nuthatches have found their way to feeders. Many of the winter finches will seek natural food including seeds from conifers, birch and aspen trees. As natural food is depleted, more will visit feeders.
Many sparrows are migrating through including juncos, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows. Some will even stay for the winter. The latter two are feeding on millet under our outside store feeders. Many other migrants have already left for warmer climates, but many backyard birds, including cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and woodpeckers will stay and endure our New England winter.
So how do birds survive the harsh New England winters? Birds have a number of ways of dealing with the cold. The most obvious way is that they have feathers. Feathers have the means of trapping pockets of air that insulate birds against the cold. Birds, like humans, also shiver when they are cold, generating short-term heat. Birds also roost together, sleeping against each other to keep each other warm.
Even with these tricks, birds still struggle to survive the cold. People can help birds through the cold and harsh weather. Providing birds with high calorie foods and places to roost will help them survive the cold late fall nights and the winter months.
The best seed that you can have available for the seed eating birds like cardinals and chickadees is black-oil sunflower. These seeds have thinner shells than striped sunflower and provide higher oil content, making them more efficient and nutritious food for birds in the colder months. Sunflower hearts, without the shell, provide even more energy per bite.
For finches, thistle and sunflower hearts are high in calories, which helps birds store fat and keep them warm during the colder months. With goldfinches, pine siskins, and possibly redpolls visiting us this winter, these foods will help attract them, and provide the nourishment they need to get through our winter. For woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and many other birds, suet and peanuts are great food that provides high calories and fat.
Seeds can be placed in a variety of feeders to accommodate more variety of birds. Tube feeders will protect the seed from the weather while the smaller birds perch and feed. Many have removable bottoms for easy cleaning. You can also add a tray to accommodate the larger birds such as cardinals. A separate open tray feeder will attract a large variety of birds and is the favorite of cardinals and evening grosbeaks. A weather dome over most feeders will help keep seed dryer during inclement weather.
Providing spots where birds can roost at night is another way to help them huddle together and stay warm away from predators. Evergreen thickets in your yard are one way to provide roosting shelter. Many birds huddle together in nesting boxes at night to get out of the harsh weather, so make sure they are cleaned out from the summer’s activities. There are also roosting boxes that are like nesting boxes, but they have the hole at the bottom and the top seals in the heat. These often have perches inside to accommodate many birds. Roosting pockets made of straw and other grass-like materials also serve as insulated havens for birds at night.
As temperatures start dropping at night, now is the time to think about adding a heated bird to your yard. There are a variety of deicers that can be placed in any birdbath to keep water open during the cold fall and winter nights. Baths with built-in heaters are the way to go if you don’t already own a birdbath. Today’s models of heated birdbaths and deicers are low wattage and thermostatically controlled, so they don’t use much electricity.
So remember to start filling your feeders with seed and suet if you haven’t done so already. As the cold months take hold of our area, the birds will visit and you will enjoy their presence on those cold, dreary days.