Make Your East End Garden a Winter Refuge for Birds

Birds in the yard are a joy to me and my husband throughout the year, and especially in the winter. There are many here now, trading places at the feeders, each with its own strategy.

Cardinals, blue jays and house finches “hog” the perch, cracking and eating many seeds at a time, while the smaller birds sneak in quickly to grab a seed before they are seen and then dart back to a tree where they open the seed on the tree trunk and then eat the kernel. Chickadees go to a very small hole in the back of the feeder for one seed at a time, avoiding the crowd on the other side. A small flock of well-behaved red-breasted nuthatches has just shown up today. The assortment of birds include: brown creepers, titmice, pine siskins, Carolina wrens, white-throated sparrows, gold finches and several kinds of woodpeckers. Mocking birds and catbirds, though insectivores, find the seeds useful substitutes. Mourning doves eat fallen seeds under the feeders, as do juncos, white-throated sparrows and even cardinals and blue jays.

Bird feeders are easy to maintain, valuable to birds and instructive and entertaining to humans. I prefer feeders that enclose the seed and have a perch that can be adjusted. We keep feeders full throughout the year (though this is controversial), especially in the cold months. Avoiding the “cheapseed, as most of it is wasted because birds do not like it, we use black oil sunflower seeds in the shell. Shelled sunflower seeds are less messy but more expensive. There are other kinds of seeds but this kind appeals to the birds at my house. Don’t forget the water sources for birds. A heated birdbath is ideal but not necessary in my experience.

I use all leaves at my house in beds and borders and cut my gardens down in the spring providing, among other things, places for insect- and seed-eating birds.

Birds like various kitchen scraps: whole grain bread, vegetables, fatty meat scraps, pasta, rice, pet food, fruit, cereal, nuts and eggshells. However, if I put any of these things out, I am sure they would be eaten in a very short time because we also have families of squirrels, chipmunks, voles and raccoons. I don’t mind the squirrels and chipmunks eating the fallen birdseed, or the voles eating the remaining cat food we put out or even raccoons snacking on the compost goodies, but I don’t want to encourage them to bring their extended families! Suet cakes are very good for birds in the winter but at my house, they get eaten by the aforementioned critters before the birds have a chance, even when put in a cage. Also, I buy cob corn and peanuts in the shell for squirrels.

It is beneficial to have evergreen and other trees close to the feeders for “launching pads.” We have an ideal yard for birds. On each border are various trees and shrubs providing protection from cold, searching hawks and the neighbors’ lurking cat. Bird houses, leaves, brush piles and roost houses can also afford some protection. Several shrubs provide berries for food. Postpone any large pruning tasks until spring; leave as much cover as possible. We lost a tree in the hurricane and I saved a pile of branches for the winter. It was a Bradford pear so it will also provide food. The branches are tucked under large shrubs and will be removed in spring.

We see birds in the winter and assume they are self-sufficient, but food can be hard to find and in the extreme cold, birds can die.

Providing nesting boxes and material in spring will let you watch the growth cycles of birds and, if you are lucky, you may be able to watch a nest, possibly an oriole’s nest, hanging on a very high oak branch tip just as the catkins appear on the tree. You can see the cardinals change color. You can watch the fledglings learn to fly and mom teaching them how to find food, right at your feeder!

Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener and consultant, for gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067.

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