Gimme Shelter…for the Birds

Happy New Year to my blog followers! With apologies to the Rolling Stones for this blog title, I’ll start the year talking about  some ways to help overwintering wild birds stay safe from bad weather and predators in your backyard. With many of our native bird species declining at an alarming rate, our feathered friends need all the help they can get from those of us who care about their future….

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With the exception of hummingbird feeders, winter is the only time of year I hang bird feeders here on our farm. To be honest, feeding wild birds is more about making us feel good than about really helping birds. Birds rely on a variety of natural food sources (seeds, berries, buds, and the various insect life forms that overwinter in leaf litter, plant stems or tree bark) to get themselves through winter, and the best way to help them is to plant as many bird-friendly plants and trees in your surroundings to provide food and habitat throughout the year.

But hanging a feeder is a great way to supplement natural food sources for birds especially after heavy snowfall has buried many seed plants and ground-level food sources, and a bird feeding station near the house is an low-impact way to enjoy nature from indoors. Especially in the worst of the horrid weather when even I (who LIVES to be outdoors) prefer to stay inside…

If you do hang feeders, locate them somewhere that birds can quickly dive for cover if necessary. Birds visiting a crowded feeder in an exposed location are sitting ducks for predators such as hawks looking for a quick meal. Evergreen shrubs and trees (including rhododendron, mountain laurel, yew, hemlock, pine, spruce, fir and cedar) are the best, because they also provide shelter from wind and harsh weather. But any shrub or tree with a twiggy or dense branching structure will give birds a safe place to rest in between feeding. Shrubs such as holly, crabapple and native viburnums are all great “shelter” trees for birds, plus they retain their fruits well into winter to feed hungry birds.

Any plant with thorns, including wild rose or hawthorn, also provide a safe haven for birds to hide from danger. Not many predators (especially cats!) are willing to fight with thorny stems for a meal.

If your family puts up a live Christmas tree at the holidays, consider re-using your discarded Christmas tree as temporary evergreen cover near your winter feeders. The very first year we tried this, within hours, we saw finches, sparrows and chickadees begin to use the tree as a hideout in between visits to our nearby feeding station. And within days, we witnessed real drama when a sharp-shinned hawk held some of them hostage inside the tree:

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Can you imagine his beady little eyes watching you inside that tree? This photo still makes me shiver…

The truth is, this hawk was just too slow for our speedy songbirds. At one point (after a good 20 minutes of waiting), a group of brave birds mad e a dash for the shrub border at the edge of our property. The hawk watched and waited a while longer, but after a few minutes, he gave up and flew away in search of easier pickings elsewhere.

So remember, feeding the birds is a nice idea, but make sure you’re not luring them to certain death at your feeders. Resolve to add some “bird shelter” to your gardens this year. I’ll be posting over the next few days with some more ideas…

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