Gardening

Give birds a winter boost

By Kim Tuscano January 2023

Oklahomans can keep backyard feathered friends thriving

Red cardinal on snow covered limb
Photo by Clay Billman

Winter brings flocks of birds to Oklahoma from northern breeding grounds. More than 20 species of sparrow winter in Oklahoma. My feeders are always busiest in winter, when goldfinches, cardinals, titmice and Carolina chickadees show up in force. Groups of dark-eyed juncos and mourning doves arrive to scavenge the grounds beneath feeders, while my trees are a flutter with robins, wrens and blue jays. While birds are attracted to Oklahoma’s relatively moderate winter conditions, extreme weather events and dwindling food supplies can take their toll. Give the birds in your backyard a boost with these tips.

High Energy Food

Individual bird species have different diets, but in general, they must eat one-third to one-half their body weight each day to survive. One of the easiest ways to support birds is by hanging feeders filled with high energy foods such as suet and seed. When purchasing birdseed, select those with a high oil content such as black oil sunflower, thistle, safflower seed and peanuts.

You might notice different bird species visiting suet feeders versus seed feeders. Many of the birds that feed on insects and fruits during the summer months turn to suet in winter. Suet provides a rich source of fats and proteins to sustain birds like downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, and wrens. Seed feeders, on the other hand, are usually busy with cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, finches and chickadees. If you put out peanuts, blue jays will visit.

Reliable Source of Water

Birds can struggle to find a source of unfrozen water in the winter. Fresh water is important not only for drinking but bathing as well. Birds must bathe even in winter when clean feathers are critical for regulating body heat. You can help by maintaining a reliable source of clean water.

Water features with moving water often remain unfrozen throughout winter, but water in birdbaths easily freezes. A simple heater, such as the type used in poultry water containers, can be used to warm the water in birdbaths and prevent freezing. Heated bird baths are also available through specialty outlets. Water evaporates more quickly from heated water sources, so keep an eye on water levels. 

Shelter

While birds do not build nests in winter, they do rely on trees and shrubs for roosting at night and sheltering from cold winds. Broadleaf evergreen trees and shrubs such as magnolia, holly and cherry laurel provide excellent protection. Even our common eastern redcedar makes a great winter home for birds and provides a valuable food source. In fact, one common winter visitor, the cedar waxwing, is named for the plant. My redcedar trees are always filled in winter with cardinals, juncos and yellow-rumped warblers.

Other plants in our landscape also provide a natural source of winter foods. Many ornamental flowers and grasses produce seed heads that linger well into the winter months. Little bluestem grasses, rudbeckias and asters provide food for finches, juncos, sparrows and other songbirds. The seeds of sumac are a great winter food. They tend to be passed over in fall, when the seeds are bitter, but sweeten up over the winter to provide a late-season food source for thrashers and robins. 

Keep your feathered friends in mind this month. Provide them with plenty of food and fresh water. They will provide you with hours of enjoyment in return.

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