Gardening Etcetera: Take Extra Steps to Attract Winter Birds | Local
As I exchanged greetings with a visitor from Phoenix on a chilly winter’s day, he asked me, “Why do you have birds in your yard?” I replied, “Doesn’t everyone have birds in their garden? He explained, “I thought in cold climates like Flagstaff, the birds would fly south for the winter.”
Having finally gotten the point, I acknowledged, “Oh yes! Birds that depend on a diet of insects or nectar fly south in search of food. These include swallows, goldfinches, warblers, and most hummingbirds, among others. The birds you see in my yard are adapted to feed on seeds, nuts or berries during the cold months.
Avid birders like myself often take extra steps to attract our feathered friends to our yards. We strive to provide three basic necessities in cold weather: water, shelter and food.
Because winter storms in northern Arizona can be rare and natural water sources can be frozen, every morning I add fresh water to my birdbath. Birds are wary of deep water and slippery surfaces, so I keep a flat rock at the bottom to accommodate smaller species. It never fails to delight me when I see an assortment of birds splashing happily in their birdbath even as temperatures outside approach freezing.
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Trees form the basis of winter shelter for birds in the High Country. Since conifers are green all year round, they are bird havens in freezing weather. I often see a flutter of activity in our Colorado Blue Spruce from dark-eyed Juncos, white-crowned sparrows, and flickers among the densely packed branches of the trees all winter long. I often envy Flagstaffians who have towering mature specimens of native ponderosa pine on their properties, providing year-round shelter for a plethora of wildlife. We have a young beetle, but it will be a while before we hear the sounds of chickadees and nuthatches tapping into their winter caches of nuts and seeds high in the canopies.
A variety of fruit-bearing and seed-bearing vegetation serves as a magnet for birds in the cold season. Native juniper berries attract cedar waxwings, nutcrackers, jays, robins, crossbills and more. The highly intelligent and fascinating pinyon jay relishes pinyon and ponderosa pine nuts. Wild rose hips are delicious as tea and jam for us humans, but also serve as a mid-winter snack for songbirds and bluebirds.
Another native, Virginia creeper is an attractive perennial vine with palmately compound leaves that turn crimson in the fall. It sports clusters of navy blue berries, which cling to their branches throughout the year and are devoured by a multitude of birds such as woodpeckers and robins. Although not native to our region, hollies provide irresistible brilliant red berries to foraging herds.
In the wild, sumac is one of the most valuable winter food sources for birds. Although not particularly appetizing, the upright, terminal clusters of dull red berries break loose easily from the snow while other food sources may remain buried. Bluebirds have a special fondness for them.
Bird aficionados leave a patch or two of non-invasive annual flowers, grasses and/or weeds to improve the birds’ winter diet. I leave a number of plots growing the ubiquitous wild Flagstaff sunflowers until most of the seed heads have been pulled out. I enjoy watching the antics and acrobatics of the native pine siskins and sparrows as they strive for the last bit.
A variety of treats placed in feeders or spread directly on the ground is another method of attracting winter birds to our properties. Most birds crave high-energy fats at this time of year, and an easy way to do this is to purchase a hanging wire basket, which can be filled with various flavored suet cakes. found at most bird seed stores. I sometimes mix bacon grease with cornmeal to make a crumbly mixture that I throw on the snow. Other high-fat food sources include nuts, sunflower seeds, and commercial birdseed.
For me, no winter wonderland would be complete without glimpses of bluebirds fluttering around their birdbath, black-eyed juncos cowering in the shelter of an evergreen branch, or a flock of jays. pinyon descending on a peanut feeder. And catching sight of a flock of brilliantly colored meadowlarks searching for bits of birdseed strewn across a carpet of shimmering white snow is enough to make any dreary winter day a day to celebrate.
Cindy Murray is a biologist, co-editor of Gardening Etc. and Coconino Master Gardener with Arizona Cooperative Extension.