”I heard a bird sing in the dark of December
A magical thing, and sweet to remember.”
— Oliver Herferd
Does your garden area seem way too quiet in the winter? It doesn’t have to be that way. You can bring life, color and entertainment just by looking out your window.
With urban sprawl and population that requires more housing, we have encroached on a great deal of land that was home to birds and many other wild creatures. Sometimes trees and shrubs are destroyed to make way for housing, and very little is planted around those new houses. If there is planting done after a home is built, it takes time for those trees to grow.
Birds require the same things as all other animals: food, water and shelter. Winter is a great time to think about your yard and how you can make it easier for birds during the cold season.
Let’s start with what to feed them. Depending on the season and what birds you will attract, you could put out seeds, fruit or suet.
We think of seeds first because many birds prefer them. You can buy a mix of many different types, but you can also buy some seeds that you specifically want, such as black sunflower seeds, or thistle seeds. Those two items can be in the mixes, but there will also be millet, flax and other grains.
You might also want to buy feed that is appropriate for ground feeders such as doves, quail, pheasants, towhees, juncos and woodpeckers. This might be cracked corn or shelled peanuts. Suet is the perfect food for those birds that are carnivorous and is especially appreciated during winter because there are very few insects around for them to eat. Cardinals and jays will feast on suet.
Just like us, birds like a treat, too, and you can provide it by putting out crusts and crumbs of bread, that stale doughnut, and pieces of fruit such as apples, grapes and oranges. Clean your feeders often to lessen any spoiled food being served, and do not overfill the feeders. You will soon learn just how much to put out for the day.
Where you locate your feeders is important. Birds do not like their feeders out in the open, far away from somewhere to find quick shelter where there might be a predator in the neighborhood. Put the feeding station near shrubs or trees that are dense so that they can quickly hide.
Water is important too, even in winter. Ideally it is nice to have a heater that keeps the water vessel unthawed, but if you don’t, try two bowls so you can bring in one that might have some frozen water in it, then use the second bowl. Birds need to bathe, too, so be sure you choose a bowl that allows them to take a dip but not so deep that they can’t stand in it. It is a good idea to create a small brush pile in an out-of-the-way spot in your garden to help provide cover and create nesting spots for birds such as quail.
We hope during these winter months you will use the time indoors to go online for a few good sites to view that will help you to encourage wildlife. The Washington Fish and Wildlife site has so much to read and to guide you about how to create the best habitat for living with wildlife. It also has a great write-up on the shrub steppe of Eastern Washington. Here you will read about the surprising variety of birds, mammals and reptiles that live among us in the Valley. This site also guides you in how to register as part of the Habitat at Home program. Another great site is birdwatching-bliss.com, which includes a complete chart about how to create birdhouses, including the size of entry holes and the height of where they should be placed for the bird(s) you have in mind to attract.
Winter is also an ideal time to get out into the garage and build some nesting boxes to be put out in the spring.
One of the goals of the WSU Master Gardener program is to seek research-based, innovative solutions for environmental stewardship, and one way is to protect and encourage wildlife. It is our goal for all to work together to further this cause and enjoy the beauty of nature.
Additional information and photographs on this subject are available on the Master Gardener website at https://tinyurl.com/mg-columns.