Birds in the Winter Wildlife Garden

Cardinal in Winter Wildlife Garden

Caring for birds in the winter wildlife garden means providing three essential elements: Food, Water, and Shelter

It snowed this weekend and the temperatures have plummeted to below freezing, and will remain there all week. And I have to admit, being cold makes me cranky. But I am tucked cozily under a blanket inside my house. It’s the birds that live in my wildlife garden that I’m thinking about now.

While I will venture out into the cold this weekend in hopes of being able to get a good view of one of the many Snowy Owls who have appeared far out of their normal range during this Owl irruption, I’m reminded of the sad fact that there are so many Snowy Owls around because there is not enough food for them in their normal tundra habitats.

As I watch the Cardinals, Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Carolina Wrens in my snow-covered wildlife garden, I’m thinking about how an Ecosystem Garden can provide the three essential elements these birds must have to survive the cold winter weather.

Providing Shelter for Birds in Winter

One essential element of Ecosystem Gardening is to provide shelter for birds in winter. And shelter means more than just hanging a few birdhouses (although I have Chickadees who find shelter from the winter elements in the birdhouses in my wildlife garden).

When planning your wildlife garden, make sure to add lots of shelter for birds and other wildlife so that they have a variety of places to stay safe, warm, and dry.

Hang basket for winter birds

After I found a Wren perched in this corner on a winter night, I hung this basket for it to get out of the cold

Shelter for birds in your winter wildlife garden can include:

  • Brush, rock and wood piles provide nooks and crannies for birds, reptiles and small mammals to hide in.
  • Dead trees or snags provide places for owls and woodpeckers to create nesting cavities, and other birds will use old nesting holes to find shelter from winter wind and cold
  • Dense native shrubs provide temporary shelter from the wind for birds to stay warm and dry.
  • Eaves, porches and overhangs give birds shelter from storms if there are no trees in your yard. One night I noticed a Carolina Wren perched precariously in the corner of my porch on a tiny bit of molding. I hung a basket on a swing hook in that corner, and the Wrens have roosted in that basket every night since.
  • Roosting baskets–although meant for nesting, when left hanging through the winter roosting baskets provide warm shelter for Carolina Wrens and other small birds.

Providing Water for Birds in Winter

The second essential element in Ecosystem Gardening is to provide access to clean water for birds, which is a necessity for drinking, bathing, and even reproduction for some wildlife species. Access to clean water is especially important in winter, when natural sources have frozen over.

Wild birds need access to clean water all year round, but when winter temperatures dip into the freezing range, this may be harder to find. Birds can quench their thirst by eating snow, but this requires large amounts of energy which they need to keep themselves warm.

Heated dog bowl for birds in winter

A Robin makes use of the heated dog bowl filled with water I put out for birds in winter

I use a heated dog bowl, which I’ve filled with a layer of stones to keep the water shallow enough for the birds. It only turns on when the temperature is near freezing, and automatically shuts off when either all the contents evaporate or the temperature rises.

Birds need access to clean fresh water year-round, but especially in winter, when natural sources may be frozen or unavailable. Your wildlife garden can make a critical difference for wintering birds when you learn to make water available through this season.

Providing Food for Birds in Winter

The third essential element in Ecosystem Gardening is to provide food. When you think of providing food for wildlife, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For most people, it’s bird feeders. But what we really want is to plant a garden full of natural sources of food which will provide all the sustenance your local wildlife will need.

The vast majority of food in my yard comes from the plants, of course—seedheads from the river oats, berries from the American holly and beautyberry, rose hips from the roses. ~ Ursula Vernon

Your wildlife garden can be a real haven in autumn for migratory birds and in winter for those hardy year round residents if you have laid out the welcome mat and planted your garden with lots of  berrying shrubs to sustain these birds on their long journeys and through the winter. (Clicking the link at “berrying shrubs to sustain these birds” will take you to a great resource for finding the best berry producing shrubs for your winter wildlife garden.

Many native plants offer delicious seeds to entice graniverous birds. Native grasses, peppers, goldenrods, trees, asters – the list goes on.

In addition to planting trees and shrubs that provide berries, nuts or cones, we can simply leave the seed heads of many flowers, grasses and herbs on the stems for our bird friends to enjoy.

Bird Feeders for the Winter Wildlife Garden

A Carolina Wren picking through the snow for some Black Oil Sunflower Seed

A Carolina Wren picking through the snow for some Black Oil Sunflower Seed

Despite much popular advice in birding and gardening magazines, making treats for birds out of bread is not advised, and may even harm birds. Plant your garden full of native plants with seeds and berries instead.

The bird seed industry is a many billion dollar a year business, but did you know that much of that seed is smothered in pesticides and other harmful chemicals? Learn how to safely feed birds in your wildlife garden.

Bird Feeders are not saving the world: Feeding the birds with backyard bird feeders is a popular thing to do. It’s a “feel good” activity that gives joy to those that watch the birds from their window and delights the birds that are willing to visit them. The more birds that visit, the happier the humans are… ~Ellen Honeycutt

Locavore” Birds. Grow your own Birdseed: Are we being a bit unrealistic about this business of buying bird seed? I don’t quite understand all this farmland devoted to growing bird seed. I assume that the farmer has to prevent birds from ruining his crop. So, all and all, I don’t think that we are truly helping the birds this way. Instead, we are bringing them to our yard for our own selfish pleasure and depriving them of habitat somewhere else… Beatriz Moisset

Don’t assume that just because it’s cold that all migratory birds have moved on to warmer places. Pat Sutton talks about some hummingbirds who have spent the late autumn and into the winter in some wildlife gardens, so learn how long to leave your hummingbird feeders up in the fall.

If you’re using birdfeeders in your wildlife garden, make sure you avert the tragedy of window strikes by learning to place your feeders the right way. Loret T. Setters shows us how.

By providing these three essential elements: Food, Water, and Shelter to your winter wildlife garden, you will be helping to ensure the survival of visiting winter birds. Plus there’s the added benefit that you get to observe the birds through your kitchen window in the warmth of your cozy home.

What do you do for winter birds in your wildlife garden?

Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.

© 2013 – 2014, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Hey Carole! Thanks for your timely post! I must be warmer here than you are. I’m at a balmy 33º this afternoon. Many good ideas here, but I particularly appreciate the basket at the ceiling of the porch idea. I’m going out on the porch now to hang up one or two! Though we have a little bit of snow on the ground, I’m hoping for more very soon!

    • says

      Brenda, it’s so amazing that such a simple thing as hanging a basket can make such a big difference! After I saw that tiny little Wren huddled in the corner of my porch, I was out there the next morning hanging the first basket I could find. It’s protected by the porch beams, so it’s out of the wind, and I often hear the Wrens in there during the night. I know it’s not the most pretty thing I could have put up, but it was at hand and the Wrens seem to appreciate it, and that’s enough for me :)
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Remembering The Call of the Owl

  2. Marilyn says

    We’ve had temps in the single digits overnight, and more snow in the last week than we had the entire season last year. At Pat Sutton’s suggestion, I hung a couple of roosting baskets on the deck and in the Hawthorn tree—both places I’d seen Carolina wrens. I honestly don’t know if they’re getting any use since the birds are out and about before its light enough for me to be able to tell see. But at least the baskets are there and will be available for them should they want to use them. I also bought several of these to give as Christmas gifts this year. The ones I got have a peaked roof on the top to keep out the weather.

    After Christy Peterson’s recent post about Feederwatch, I decided to sign up this year. The exercise in site analysis called for me to report on how many deciduous and evergreen shrubs and trees are within 100′ of my feeder site. Doing this exercise turned out to be highly educational. There are lots of of mature trees and shrubs within 100′ of our yard, but the one thing the area seems to be short on is evergreen trees. I’d really never thought of that. We’ve been deliberating about how to replace some of the trees we lost in an ice storm a few years ago. The adjoining properties analysis made me realize that in planning a wildlife garden for the birds, you don’t just want to analyze your own yard, but the surrounding area, because sometimes there can be a lack of something vital, and you want to be sure to include that in your own plan.

  3. Nancy says

    I maintained a heated bird bath until I read that after drinking and bathing in it could cause birds’ feathers to freeze. So this winter, I haven’t done it. Any thoughts?

  4. Terry says

    Chickadee’s are tending to 7 eggs in the birdhouse I put up on the side of my house under the eave. I’ve heard that after the brood has grown and flown, you should remove the nesting to prepare for another potential resident. If I leave the nesting in the birdhouse, will this male and female live in there over the winter? If not…..why?

    • says

      Terry, I would opt for cleaning it out and wiping it down with a 10% bleach solution. Parasites, mites, and other organisms will gather in the nest during nesting season, and you’ll want to get rid of them when nesting season is over. Chickadees will gather their own winter roosting materials to make a cozy spot to spend the winter.
      Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..What Plants Attract the Most Wildlife?

      • Terry says

        Carole, – Thanks so much for your reply! I hope they’ll use it over the winter, plenty of shelter where their house is located. I bought a couple of baskets to hang up under my front porch corners like you’ve done for the winter wrens, etc. They’re covered in fake moss and lined with plastic inside to help shelter from wind and I’ll put an inch of wood chips on the bottom. So many good ideas from your site. Thanks again. :)

        • says

          I sure hope you know the answer to this! Yesterday, I saw one of the adult Chickadee’s bringing a morsel of food into the birdhouse. The birds are now a fair size but still not able to fly. Lots of peep peeping going on at feeding time.
          Today – no activity at all around the birdhouse. I go up the ladder to see how things are going. Nest is totally unoccupied and much of the nesting has been removed. It was quite high before, almost up to the entrance hole. Now, it’s as clean as a whistle and only about one inch of nesting left in there. No Chickadee’s at all in my backyard or anywhere around my property, I can’t even hear any of them calling in the distance.
          Is it possible for the adults to move their babies? I know they make a few other nests before they choose to use one. I wrote to you on May 23 when the eggs weren’t even hatched yet & it is only June 10 now – the babies didn’t fly off. I can’t imagine adults carrying any babies the size those must have been. There were 7 babies – do you think they moved them because they had run out of room in the birdhouse as the babies continued to grow?
          What do you think could possibly have happened?? I’m very worried about them all.


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