Winter Landscaping for the Birds

One of the best ways to bring movement and color to your yard in the winter is to attract birds.

All creatures need shelter, water, and food to survive, and birds are no exception.  The better we are at providing these things for our feathered friends, the more likely we will be to attract them to our property.  So what are the best ways to provide these important elements?


This "habitat pile" provides shelter for small birds.

This “habitat pile” provides shelter for small birds.

Of the three elements necessary for our birds, providing shelter is probably the easiest.  While bird houses may be purchased or built, they are really a substitute for habitat that is no longer available, such as dead trees, or snags.  If you have a dead tree on your property, consider removing any dangerous branches and leaving the trunk standing.  Besides providing shelter, you will be likely to see chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, creepers, and woodpeckers looking for food under the bark of these decaying trees.  Planting a variety of shade trees, evergreens, and shrubs also provide shelter for different species of birds that use these different layers for shelter.  Evergreens and thick shrub borders are especially important in the winter months, giving songbirds places to escape predators such as hawks and cats.


Water is the next element, and if you are lucky enough to have natural water on your site, water is already provided.  I am one of those lucky people.   I have a small stream that runs through my yard, along which we have planted native plants to reduce erosion and to provide habitat.  Because of this, water is always available to our avian friends.  The only problem is, it is not anywhere near the house.  To attract birds to view up close, we have a simple bird bath in which we place a heater.  During the few winter weeks in Pennsylvania when the temperatures remain below freezing, this makes a big difference to the birds.  They will gather around this little offering of water and thank us with their presence, while we watch them from the warmth of our home.  During warmer months, the sound of running water attracts birds, and they will play in a stream of water from a small fountain or bubbler.


Using variety, forage, and native plants

Although food is not difficult to provide, not all of our birds eat the same things.  Providing a variety of foods will ensure that all of your winter visitors find something to eat.  Species with thick bills, such as cardinals, have no problem eating seeds and nuts, while others prefer fruit and insects.  Orioles, tanagers, thrushes, thrashers, wrens, cedar waxwings, vireos, and warblers are soft-food eaters, and crave things like suet and peanut butter or other fat-based products, as well as mealworms and fresh and dried fruit. So along with your typical seed feeders, suet feeders and trays of dried fruit are a great winter addition to your yard.

Providing forage is easy, and simply means setting aside areas of your property where birds can find insects and other food.  Many insects overwinter in fallen leaves, so pushing leaves into garden beds or along property lines allows ground birds such as sparrows and juncos, to do a little hunting.  You may see these little birds hopping back and forth in leaves in search of these insects.  Another benefit to keeping some leaves is that you will be providing habitat for some of our beneficial insects, such as native lady bugs, in which to overwinter.  And finally, these fallen leaves are good for the soil as they decompose.

Goldfinch eating Echinacea seeds

Goldfinch eating Echinacea seeds

Stick piles and fallen branches also provide a place for birds to forage.  Piles of sticks can be artfully arranged or just hidden from view, but either way, you will be certain to see little birds, especially wrens, darting in and out while looking for something to eat.  Fallen branches that line wooded paths, or simply left on the ground for visual interest, also provide places for insects to hide, and birds to hunt.

Another easy way to provide places for birds to forage is to leave your perennials standing throughout the winter.  Black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, asters, and goldenrod all provide seeds that birds will eat during winter months.  Goldfinches and purple finches can be found sitting atop these dried stems long after the plants have flowered.  These dried stems also provide winter interest in the garden, and can be quite beautiful covered in snow.  I find it easier to remove these stems in March anyway, when they are completely dried out, and when I am itching to get out in the yard.

Planting varieties of native plants is another excellent way to provide for birds in winter.  Our birds have evolved with, and are naturally attracted to native plants, which can provide them with everything they need.  Below is a chart from the Audubon Society that shows how different native plants provide food for different types of birds.  Dogwoods, hollies, cedars, pine, junipers, hawthorn, bayberry, sumac, viburnum, chokeberry, and crabapple are excellent choices for winter food sources, because their fruit ripens late and may persist through cold winter months.

Food Type Natural Source Some of the birds attracted
Nuts Oak, hickory, buckeye, chestnut, walnut Woodpeckers, nuthatches, jays, turkeys
Seeds Pine, spruce, fir, maple, alder, sunflowers, coneflowers, asters, goldenrod, grasses Woodpeckers, grosbeaks, finches, bobwhites, cardinals, Pine Siskins, chickadees, crossbills, jays, nuthatches, junco, sparrows, wild turkey, titmice, doves, blackbirds
Fruit Holly, dogwood, serviceberry, cherry, elderberry, Red Mulberry, hackberry, bayberry, raspberry, blueberry, High-bush Cranberry, pokeberry, Virginia creeper, grape, cactus Thrushes, Veery, robin, catbird, Cedar Waxwing, mockingbird, bluebirds, sparrows, woodpeckers, tanagers, junco, grouse, thrashers, wren, flickers, vireo, bobwhite, warblers

So let me leave you with a few words of appreciation for our feathered friends, and remember that a few simple offerings will be repaid with beauty, movement, and song.

I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.
‘We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,’
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
—Oliver Herford


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