Winter is a time when everything is asleep. There is a calm to the garden. There is a serenity in the yard. Oh wait, my yard can be as noisy and chaotic as it is during the summer. I have created a bird friendly yard for those that have decided to stick out the winter. You too can attract birds to your yard by providing three main things for winter survival: water, food and cover.
Water is essential for the survival of any animal. This is especially true when it comes to birds. Puddles, rivers, ponds and birdbaths have all iced over. If there is snow on the ground, birds will eat it. But, eating the snow will cause the birds to expend a lot of energy as they need to warm it up to their body temperature. Secondly, birds still need to preen their feathers. Without proper bathing the feathers of a bird will not stay in position and alignment. This may cause them to lose heat from areas where the feathers no longer fall into place. Also, poorly aligned feathers can create trouble flying.
Here are some ways that you can provide water to wildlife in the winter. One way is to place a heater, aerator or bubbler in a birdbath or water source. That will keep the water from freezing over completely. These devices will cost $30 and up. On a warm day, you can place a pan of water near your feeding stations and bring it inside when it starts getting cold. A heated dog bowl will do the trick too. Your feathered friends will flock to the area. Squirrels will come too.
Birds can forage for food in your landscape. Plants like evergreens will provide seeds from their cones. Virginia creeper produce berries which the birds eat. Leaving your Echinacea/coneflower in the landscape till spring will provide seeds that the birds love. Fruit trees, like crabapple trees, provide a great source of food. Juniper berries are edible for birds too. Some birds can find dormant insects in the crevices of trees as a food source too.
Putting up additional feeders out for the birds helps supplement their diet. Tube feeders bring the small birds like nuthatches, siskins, and finches to the yard. Hopper feeders attract larger birds like cardinals, jays, grackles and red-wing blackbirds. Ground feeders bring in mourning doves, juncos, sparrows and goldfinches. Suet feeders are especially good to get woodpeckers and nuthatches to yard.
During the winter, high energy food like suet and peanut butter gives the biggest energy boost to birds. Mealworms added to hopper or ground feeders are a treat. Black sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, cracked corn, nyger thistle seeds, milo and millet are the most common bird food. A mixture of all or some of these is a great way to feed a majority of the birds in your yard. The birds are counting on you, so make sure you keep the feeders full during the winter.
Birds need shelter in the winter from snow, strong winds and cold temperatures. They no longer have a place to spend the night. But you can provide a warm, safe shelter for them. One idea is to make a windbreak out of those used Christmas trees. Piling up old twigs, sticks and branches will give them a place to hide and roost. If your landscape has honeysuckle vines, clematis or dense shrubs, the birds will use these as shelters too. So, wait and clean these areas up in the spring. Roosting boxes can be bought for them as well.
Be kind to your feathered friends this winter and make your yard a bird friendly winter garden. Your yard will come alive. You will be surprised at the birds that will flock to your yard. When you help the birds in the winter you are more likely to have them around your yard in the summer. The enjoyment you get by watching the birds feed is immeasurable.
Let me introduce you to the cedar waxwing. They can be found year around in South Dakota, but flocks will fly through the area and be more noticeable during late fall, early winter and spring migration times. It is one of those birds that seem to be a sign from Mother Nature that seasons are about to change.
The adult cedar waxwing is a medium size bird. It is similar in size to the robin. It is 5-6” in length. It has a wing span of 8-12”. Cedar waxwings have a large head, short neck and a short, wide bill. The tail is fairly short and square-tipped. The wings are broad and pointed. Its song is a very high-pitched trill.
It is pale brown on the head and chest fading into a soft grey on its wings. The belly is a soft yellow. Its tail is grey with yellow tips. The males have a wider yellow band. The wing feathers have red waxy tips. These red tips are more numerous and increase as the bird gets older. The cedar waxwing’s most distinctive mark is the narrow black mask, outlined in white on its face. It has a crest on its head that often lies flat and droops over the back of the head.
The juvenile cedar waxwing is more heavily marked than the adults. It has dusky streaks below and a faint dark mask. It looks fairly silky. The crest is a bit rounder and less elegant. They may not have acquired the red wing tips yet.
Cedar waxwings can be found in woodlands of all kinds, farms, orchards, suburban gardens and any place with fruiting trees or shrubs. Their diet consists mainly of berries all year long. In the summer, they add protein rich insects like dragonflies, mayflies and stoneflies. Many urban landscapes include crabapple trees, mountain ash, junipers, Russian olive trees and dogwoods which are big attractions for the cedar waxwing. These plants produce berries that the cedar waxwings love to feed on in late fall, early winter and early spring. After the berries stop growing, the sugars in them slowly start to ferment turning to alcohol and toxic substances. When they feed on the fermented berries, they may get intoxicated. This will cause them to become uncoordinated, slow in reacting to danger and even fly head long into windows.
The cedar waxwing is a social bird. You very rarely see just one; they travel in flocks that can number up to the hundreds. What makes these birds fun to watch is their acrobatics while they are feeding. One can see them sitting on a branch and plucking fruit or berries then swallowing them whole. Plucking crabapples off the branch while flying is one of their tricks. They will be seen lined up on a branch and pass a berry from one to another until one of them decides to eat it whole.
Cedar waxwings do migrate. But many consider it more a wandering for food, than a full fledge migration. They are nomadic and move about irregularly. Both breeding and wintering areas may change from year to year depending upon the food supply. They can be seen as far north as Canada and travel south to Central America and Mexico.
Keep an eye out for these masked birds. They are a joy to watch and listen to. Come next growing season, plant native shrubs, bushes or trees to attract these acrobatic birds.