The Common Grackle is a ground feeder,
and also very rare in Inyo County!
Photo by Tom Heindel

Winter is a very stressful time for wildlife but providing cover, water, and food will insure an interesting Discovery Channel in your own backyard! Immaculate yards are less interesting since there are few places to hide from predators, at least, that is the excuse we use for letting ours go wild! A quick and easy modification is to build a pruning pile with all the branchlets that are too small to use as firewood. This can be out in an open area with no other shrubs or trees and the small birds quickly know where their safe haven is or it can be nearer your home where it is visible from inside. Homes with extensive plantings of shrubs and trees already provide lookout perches and cover but a brush pile is helpful for the birds who prefer to feed on the ground.

Steller’s Jays prefer eating from a platform tray
Photo by Tom Heindel

As the winter gets colder, water is not always easy for birds to access in residential areas yet it is just as necessary then as the rest of the year for both drinking and bathing. Maintaining a water supply requires a little preparation and attention but is well worth the time and small cost. In order to keep water from freezing in our area, one of two methods is necessary – heating or re-circulating. A small hole in the ground, layered with plastic or rubber sheeting edged with rocks, and a small heating unit designed for outdoors placed in the water will provide open water in all but the coldest winters. Occasionally it may be necessary to pour some hot water in (after removing the thermometer). Another option is a small, ready-built pond with a small pump that will circulate the water quickly enough that, while the edges may freeze, the rest of the water will remain open. The water feature need not be large in order to attract birds. They are scouring every yard to see which ones are worth returning to for their needs. Build it and they will come!

Pine Siskins at a thistle feeder
Photo by Tom Heindel

Food resources run the gamut from native fruits, berries, and seeds through commercial wildlife food. Many of the plant species used for landscaping are already providing ephemeral sustenance and cover for the birds so if your yard is well decorated with provisioning plants you are already providing some necessities for wintering birds. Many bird species prefer to eat on the ground (such as the Common Grackle pictured above) or on flat platform trays above ground level like sparrows, finches, blackbirds, (and our friend the Steller’s Jay, pictured), etc. while others, such as goldfinches, siskins, etc., prefer using tube, sock, or globe feeders hung above the ground especially near shrubbery. Thistle feeders have very small holes primarily for siskins (pictured) and goldfinches but House Finches are able to get some seeds out with their larger bills and a heavy dose of persistence. Sunflower seeds are envied by many larger-billed species, such as the Evening Grosbeak pictured below, and your supply will dwindle quickly if the birds don’t have to work to wedge the seeds out of the feeder. Scratch is devoured by quail, dove, and blackbirds and commercial mixed seed is eaten by species not addicted to thistle.

Evening Grosbeak at a sunflower seed feeder
Photo by Tom Heindel

Pine cones and a 3″ diameter by 2′ long log with 1″ diameter and 1″ deep holes, drilled down the sides can be filled with peanut butter, chunky of course, or suet, commercial or homemade. Woodpeckers (such as the rare hybrid Northern Flicker, pictured below), chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, etc. don’t need perches, so suet and peanut butter feeders eliminates all species that do, although you will see a few birds that can’t cling try to hover and snag a bite. Suet cakes and baskets to put them in are available at local retailers and recipes are online for homemade suet. Dried fruit and freeze-dried mealworms can be put in a variety of feeders or added to homemade suet; these supply a real energy boost during the coldest days. Remember that the variety of feeder types will increase the variety of bird species since they all have strong preferences.

While most hummingbirds escape the cold by heading south in fall, two species, Anna’s and Costa’s Hummingbirds are recorded in winter. We wrote a WAVE article years ago giving details on feeding hummingbirds and from that we quote

“If you keep the feeder out in fall and winter there are three ways to prevent freezing: take the feeder in the house each evening and replace it early the next morning; hang it against a warm, sheltered, south-facing side of your house; or place a heat lamp near the feeder and turn it on each evening and off in the morning.”

Rare Hybrid
(Red-shafted Flicker x Yellow-shafted Flicker)
at suet feeder, photo by Tom Heindel

Two modifications are that even a flood light, if close to the feeder, keeps it from freezing and some mornings are so cold (15-25°F) that we leave the light on until it is nearly 30°F since sugar water doesn’t freeze until about 27°F. Not a year goes by that we don’t get the question, “Doesn’t leaving your nectar feeders out prevent the hummingbirds from leaving?” There is no evidence to support that belief. In fact, feeders seem to be changing the distribution of many hummingbird species both geographically, many western hummingbirds are showing up at feeders in Louisiana and other southeast locations, and temporally, Anna’s Hummingbirds were not recorded in the northern Owens Valley until 1995 and have been regular, in very small numbers, every winter since. Remember that Ridgecrest is a three hour flight for a hummingbird and they have been regular winter visitors there since records were kept.

Costa’s Hummingbird
Photo by Tom Heindel

During one snow storm we looked out at the nectar feeder hanging under the eave and watched an Anna’s perch on a stick we had next to the feeder with the light shining down on his back and the snow falling just inches away. It would dart down, chug-a-lug, and back up to the warm perch where it would ruffle its feathers and crouch down so the belly feathers would cover its feet. It spent the rest of the winter with us adding its dashing red head to an otherwise colorless yard.

If you offer sustenance and solace to wintering birds, you do not get to invite which species you want to visit. You, by definition, are a non-discriminatory provider and this means that you likely will have more Eurasian Collared-Doves and European Starlings than you ever wanted. Hopefully, you might take comfort in the fact that they are a great food supply for the Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks that will also utilize your yard for cover, water, and food. You will learn the various alarm calls of the species that are in your yard when one of them becomes aware of an Accipiter approaching and you might learn to identify the piles of feathers they occasionally leave behind. Winter is a whole new opportunity to learn bird behavior of species that are on the edge of survival on a good day and pushed even closer by a bad weather day!

A Cooper’s Hawk may dine on the buffet of birds at your feeders! Photo by Jo Heindel

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To conserve and restore natural ecosystems.