by Esther Lutz, East Central Illinois Master Naturalist
Each year when December rolls around, thoughts of outside creatures and their challenges in winter come to mind. Looking out we see first rain and wind, then eventually snow and ice, and can't help but marvel at the ability of the birds and wild animals to withstand the harshness of the outdoors during this season. It's a miracle that they make it until springtime, and it makes one wonder how they manage to venture out as the weather warms up and new growth greens up the environment. Somehow or other, though, they always do.
There are many ways that we can help our bird friends survive when winter wreaks its havoc on the east-central Illinois landscape. As mentioned in last month's column, they are pretty well-equipped when it comes to winter coats - their feathers fill that job nicely. But even though they fare pretty well on their own when it comes to food, water, and shelter most of the time, there are occasions when those three requirements for survival are in pretty short supply. That's when we, their human friends, can do a great deal to help them cope. And surprisingly, the things we do don't have to cost a lot of money to really make a difference. Following are a few easy and inexpensive tips that can help:
Set the table. When the snow swirls and the cold winds blow, the birds could use a little help finding something to eat. Birdfeeders that hold a good seed mix, or separate feeders that offer a variety of seed types will attract a lot of birds throughout the season and can mean the difference between life and death when conditions become severe.
If you have hanging planters left over from the summer (like I always do), turn them into inexpensive bird feeders this winter. Simply put a potted plant saucer, the kind used to catch water dripping from the pot, on top of the hanging planter and fill it with birdseed (can't go wrong with black oil sunflower seed - it's a perennial favorite). You can hang this right outside your kitchen, bedroom, or living room window and enjoy the birds from the warmth of your home. So entertaining for you, and the birds will love it!
When it's very wintery out, we don't always feel like bundling up and venturing outside to fill the feeders. So we can use our windows to our advantage in avoiding the cold by adding a tray feeder to a window sill or ledge. Simply making or buying an inexpensive wooden tray and attaching it to an already existing window sill or deck railing will give you another available feeding station to observe and the birds to enjoy. Or try an inexpensive suction-cup style of feeder that easily attaches to the outside glass of your window and fill as needed. Turn old window planters into bird-feeding hotspots by adding trays of seed on top of last summer's soil. Putting these things in place right outside or near our windows will draw the birds in and give us many opportunities to observe their wonderful coloring and endearing personalities up close.
Use fallen tree limbs or branches to set up natural feeding stations for the birds. One couple I read about in a bird magazine retrieved a large old branch that had fallen from one of their backyard trees and set up a metal fence post next to it, attaching the branch to the post with sturdy wire so that it appeared to stand upright on its own. They then added peanut butter in several holes that the branch already had, and hung several different styles of feeders from it to attract a variety of bird species. It instantly became a popular feeder tree with birds feeding by the dozens! It took the birds no time at all to feel at home on this innovative and natural addition to their feeding areas. I think if I can find a suitable tree branch in the woods near our house, that I might try this idea soon in my own backyard!
Add a homemade bird bath or other inexpensive water source. Offering water in the wintertime is a big help to the birds when natural water sources are all locked up in ice and snow. But supplying fresh water is hard to do when temperatures drop below freezing and the water turns to ice. If you already have a heated birdbath in your yard, that is sure to attract a number of feathered friends that don't use feeders, and is a great way to increase the overall bird population. But adding a heat source for water doesn't have to be expensive. Using a heated dog water dish on the ground or placed on top of a regular cement birdbath will work just as well and is cheaper than a heated birdbath. Place a clay flowerpot in the center for the birds to stand on while they drink, and you're sure to have plenty of visitors.
Another option is to place a regular birdbath over your dryer vent. The warm air rising from the vent will help to keep the water in the bath from freezing solid. Or you can position the birdbath underneath an easily accessible window. Even though the water might freeze, it's easy to reach outside with a pitcher of water to freshen it up. Water is a precious commodity this time of year, and fresh water sources are magnets for the birds in winter - they will simply flock to them. Following these easy tips can help birds searching for a fresh drink and will keep them happy even on the coldest winter days.
Make your backyard a safe haven by providing shelter. The easiest way to help protect birds from the harsh elements is to provide lots of evergreen trees and shrubs for excellent protection, and leave brush piles in place through the winter months. Instead of disposing of fallen leaves and dead branches, putting them in a pile in a corner of the yard can provide a wonderful shelter for the birds. We can also leave nesting boxes and ledges up year-round. Simply remove the old, used nesting materials and stuff the boxes with dried grasses or nesting cotton to keep the birds cozy and warm. And blocking the ventilation holes with cotton, grasses, or hay will help keep them from getting too drafty when the cold winds blow. Inexpensive thatched roosting pockets are available for purchase, and putting as many of these out as we can will provide good shelter. They can also be stuffed with nesting materials such as cotton and dried grasses for warmth. Or we can turn those leftover hanging planters into "birdie hotels" for the birds to roost in on cold, blustery nights. Finally, hanging nesting materials in the form of grasses, cotton, or other materials on shrubs and tree branches will give the birds something to stuff into holes or natural cavities, or any other place they can find to spend the night. Providing these things now will enable the birds to find and get used to the sources available before the really severe winter weather arrives.
Following these tips to help the birds in cold weather can give them a real boost when it comes to surviving the worst that winter has to offer. Keep in mind that it may take them several weeks to get accustomed to these new items in their environment before they know enough to take full advantage of them and figure out where they are and what they're for. In the meantime, we can remember that helping the birds in a big way doesn't have to cost a lot of money. On those nights when the wind blows icy cold and the snow swirls up, down, and sideways with no end in sight, our feathered friends will be puffed up and cozy in the shelters that we provided, well-nourished and hydrated and ready to face the next challenging day. And when they finally appear once again, happy and healthy in the warm days of spring, rest assured that if they could, they would say "thank you!"