CORVALLIS, Ore. – Wild birds can sometimes use a little help from us to thrive in winter.
"In the springtime we focus on providing nesting sites and food for migratory birds, whereas in winter our winter residents and migratory birds still need food, shelter and water," said Dana Sanchez, wildlife specialist for the Oregon State University Extension Service.
“These things are not found so easily in winter.”
Lesser gold finches, robins, juncos, chickadees, varied thrush and other species call Oregon home during the winter. They're scrambling for what little there is to eat in the cold days – namely, insects, seeds, and berries.
"In addition to winter residents we get some altitudinal migrants," Sanchez said. "When it's warmer in the Willamette Valley than the higher elevations, we have birds that come down to the lower elevations to try to root arthropods out of the moss on tree branches and visit feeders. Some birds also eat the fruits of hawthorns and snowberries."
During these frigid months, it is more important than ever for birds to conserve energy, Sanchez said. As humans keep a financial budget during leaner times, birds must maintain an "energy budget," she said. Birds are limited in their ability to store excess fat because of their biological need to fly.
Oregonians can help birds by providing dense shrubbery or evergreens to serve as shelter from the weather and other challenges. Small birds, especially songbirds, need to find shelter quickly from raptors and other predators, Sanchez said. They also need shelter in close proximity to food so they don't have to expend as much energy flying to find sustenance.
"Consider native plants because they are more adapted to conditions we have here in Oregon in the winter, and many are adapted to resist heavy deer damage," Sanchez advised. "Choose shrubs that offer a perching structure." Oregon grape is one good choice. Birds also look for insects to eat in leaf litter and under the moss and lichen that grows on shrubs.
Below are some additional tips to attract wild birds to your yard and to help them survive the long winter.
- When choosing shrubs for your yard, include wildlife-related questions in your research. Some non-native shrubs produce berries and fruits that are acceptable to wildlife, but have fruits or berries that are toxic. For example, although long hailed as a wildlife-friendly landscaping shrub, berries of the Nandina species contain toxins that can harm birds or other animals.
- Prevent water in birdbaths, hummingbird feeders and other dishes from freezing by rotating with fresh water throughout the day or covering it lightly.
- Be sure to clean bird feeders regularly to prevent disease.
- If you add a water feature such as a pond, "realize that other things could use that water, like raccoons and bullfrogs," Sanchez said. "Providing habitat for native wildlife is really important but be careful about what comes uninvited."
- Offer a variety of feeders positioned at different heights and locations around your yard. Also provide a variety of feeds. The diversity will attract a variety of birds with different feeding habits.
- Consider providing suet, a high-energy food for birds. Other good choices include specially designed feeders that offer black oil sunflower seeds or Nyjer thistle seed. Other birds will enjoy a standard style feeder that supplies a mix of seed types. Finally, some Anna’s hummingbirds now remain in the valley through winter. Feed them the standard mixture of dissolved sugar – four parts water to one part sugar. But keep an eye on nighttime temperatures. It might be necessary to bring your feeders in at night and set them out again each morning so that your hummers will have liquid food available.
For more information about wild birds, see the OSU Extension guides below.