Saturday, November 21, 2020

Helping the snow birds that stick around

When we hear the term “Snow Birds,” we naturally think of a person who migrates from the colder northern parts of North America to warmer southern locales but birds here in the Adirondacks also claim this title and fittingly so.

As winter approaches the mountains, an entire orchestra of song birds migrates to a warmer, southern winter territory.  The morning music of feathered chirpers throughout the spring and summer months have flown away not to return until April-May next year.

These flying migrators range from 29 species of warblers to various populations for thrushes, sparrows, flickers, bluebirds, buntings, sapsuckers, wrens and hummingbirds.  This does not leave winter void of the sound of winged music, there are songbirds that remain and brave the cold.

Many of our singing winter residents are frequent customers at bird feeders. Black-capped Chickadees, Blue Jays, American Goldfinches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, and Purple Finches all continue the sounds of nature during the cold months.  Wintertime can be harsh especially for creatures braving the outdoor elements. Birds are hungry, and the snow piles high.  We can aid these creatures with supplemental feeding in order make it through the freezing months of winter.  Studies have shown that birds with access to bird feeders in winter survive at a higher rate than birds without access to feeders.

How do we go about helping?  Here are a few ways we can lend a helping hand to our winged residents.

  1. Make sure seed is accessible and dry. Hopper or tube feeders are good at protecting seed from wet weather, and they dole out food as it is eaten. Sweep snow off of platform feeders, or clear a place on the ground where you can scatter seed for ground-feeding species such as sparrows, towhees, juncos, and doves, if snow build-up is a problem.
  2. Make a windbreak. A few winters ago, we had a week of dry, blowing snow. The drifts were five feet deep, almost burying the feeders. We couldn’t possibly keep the feeders free of snow, so we switched tactics. We made a windbreak using our old Christmas tree, the remains of our brush pile, and two large pieces of plywood. We placed the tree on its side near the brush pile. The plywood pieces were wedged into the snow and the brush pile to serve as walls that drastically reduced the wind. Behind this contraption (on the sheltered side) we cleared the snow from a patch of ground and scattered seed. The birds swarmed to our new, wind-free spot.
  3. Keep extra feeders for use in bad weather. We keep an extra-large-capacity tube feeder in the garage for use when nasty weather comes. It not only gives the birds another place to eat, which means more birds can eat at one time, but it also cuts down on our trips outside for refilling the feeders. Other extras to consider having: peanut feeder, suet feeder, satellite feeder (for the small birds to use), and a hopper feeder.
  4. Scatter seed in sheltered places. Not all birds will venture to your feeder. Some species prefer to skulk in the thickets, brambles, and other secure places. For these species, consider scattering some seed (black-oil sunflower, sunflower bits, peanut bits, mixed seed) under your deck, in your hedges and bushes, or even along the edge of a wooded area.
  5. Put out high-energy foods. such as suet, meat scraps, and peanut butter. Fat gives the biggest energy boost to winter birds, and without enough energy to keep them going, many songbirds would not survive a cold winter night. Suet (the fat removed from processed beef), meat scraps, and peanut butter all provide fat to birds that eat them. If you don’t have a suet feeder, use a mesh onion bag. Suspend it from a tree branch or iron feeder hook. To feed peanut butter, drill one-inch holes in a foot-long section of a small log. Insert a screw eye into one end of the log. Smear peanut butter into the holes and suspend the feeder from the screw eye. And, no, peanut butter will not stick to the roof of a bird’s bill and choke it to death.
  6. Use a birdbath heater wisely. A water heater can keep your birdbath open in the coldest of weather, which is good and bad. It’s good because birds need water to drink when it’s cold. If there’s snow, birds can use the snow for water. But if there’s no snow they may have no access to water. There is some anecdotal evidence that birds will bathe in open water in very cold weather (below 0 degrees F), and the water may freeze on their feathers before it dries up. This can be very bad—even fatal—for birds. I suggest you place several large rocks in your bath so there is not enough room for a bird to bathe, but still plenty of places for a thirsty bird to get a drink. When the weather warms up you can remove the rocks and let your birds get on with their hygiene.
  7. Offer mealworms in a heavy dish or small crock. I’m a big mealworm fan, although I don’t eat them. The birds at our house appear for their mealworms every morning, especially in winter. Where else are they going to get live food when the ground is frozen? Use a heavy dish so the wind can’t blow the worms and dish away. We use a small dog dish made of glazed crockery. The worms can’t climb its slick sides.
  8. Furnish your bird houses. Imagine you’re a bird roosting in a nest box on a cold winter’s night. Wouldn’t it be nice to snuggle down into some dried grass or dry wood shavings in the bottom of the house? Don’t use sawdust, however; it can retain moisture once wet, which does not help the birds keep warm.

With our hearts and a little effort we can give the birds of winter a reason to continue to sing their melodies strong and loud until the rest of the choir returns in spring.



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Jackie Woodcock was born and lives in the Adirondack Mountains. She is an apiarist, lepidopterist, conservationist, teacher, writer, artist, and a co-owner of SkyLyfeADK. You can find her SkyLyfeADK on Instagram and Facebook.

9 Responses

  1. Nora says:

    Excellent well informed article . Thank you Jackie Woodcock for those awsesome tips especially putting rocks in my electric water feeder/birdbath , based on your article I have already made some positive changes and have shared your article with my friends and family on Facebook.

  2. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Such a thoughtful and helpful article. Thank you ?

  3. Judy says:

    This was really informative. I have fed birds through the winter in the past, but this year I’ll be leaving for a warmer place in mid February through the end of March. Should I continue to use the feeders until I leave? I have a recollection that you shouldn’t start feeding unless you can make the commitment through the winter. Thanks in advance for your advice- Judy

    • Boreas says:

      Winter birds do not rely on feeders. In fact, many of them cache the seeds for future hard times. They won’t mind if you stop feeding suddenly. They just get food somewhere else.

  4. Moose says:

    I love watching the birds at my feeders all year round, and found this article very interesting and informative. It never occurred to me to put seed on the ground – never even thinking there were birds who typically shun feeders. So, this morning, when I filled my feeder, I scattered an extra helping of seed on the ground. You can probably guess what happened next. Even though they have been scarce here during the past couple of weeks, the voracious, opportunistic squirrels showed up before my door was barely closed! I think I’ll wait to follow that tip when there is a good snow cover!

  5. Nora says:

    Hi Judy

    I might be wrong but if it was me I would say yes to feed, this is only late November and you are not leaving until February, that in my opinion is a long way off especially if you happen to be the only one in your area to feed our little feathered friends . Then if possible see if you can find someone to pick up where you left off , if not at least you have helped the birds though a tough part of the winter months and hopefully find a source of energy elsewhere


    • Boreas says:


      As I mentioned above, winter birds will happily accept food at feeders, but they don’t rely on it. If they did, they would never leave your feeders. Instead, they cache seeds, do the rounds of other feeders in the neighborhood, and most importantly – eat natural food! Yes, there may be mortality in long stretches of terrible weather without supplemental feeding, but that is nature’s way of controlling populations. What I usually recommend is sporadic feeding – let the feeders go empty for a week or so, then fill them again. Also, if there are high snowfalls or extremely cold weather I will feed more often.

      When you feed constantly, feeder birds can develop a daily schedule. This can be deadly as routine activity attracts predators to the same routine. I don’t recommend feeding at all if there are feral or wandering house cats in your area. They can easily jump high enough to nab a bird that flies in too low or goes to grab a seed on the ground. Avian predators also can be attracted to these hotspots of activity. Try to keep the feeding more random. Healthy birds don’t rely on handouts.

  6. The services birds provide to our environment and to people are hugely significant. From dispersing seeds and predating insects to cycling nutrients and air purification, birds play environmental roles as predators, pollinators, scavengers, seed dispersers, seed predators, and ecosystem engineers.

  7. I agree. Birds are an essential part of the natural system. They are essential as pollinators and for seed dispersal of many plants, especially native plants. Birds also feed on a variety of insects, rodents, and other small animals, naturally keeping those populations in check and ensuring a proper balance in their ecosystem.

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