Helping Birds and Wildlife Get Through Winter

I tend to hibernate in winter, and emerge only on days that are sunny (common), not windy (rare) and warmer than normal for this time of year (sporadic). I get why animals do the same, and I love the thought that I’m helping them get through winter in some small way.

pine siskin snow
This little bird looks for grass seed under a light layer of snow. Photo by David Higgins, Albuquerque, N.M.

Here are a few ideas for helping area birds and wildlife with your landscape:

Deer have their own diet, thank you

Animal lovers feel empathy for wildlife when severe weather hits, leading to cold and scarcity of plants the animals browse. Unfortunately, tourists in mountain communities appear to be more interested in taking selfies with wildlife. We live near a resort town, where small herds of deer and elk (and bears) live in or enter populated areas. I’ve seen tourists pull over and feed deer. I don’t even want to know what they are feeding the animals. It’s also likely that some people in wildlife areas put out feeders to attract deer. But I don’t agree with that for several reasons.

Buck in garden
Sure, the bucks can trample a few plants in our garden, but I don’t mind that this one feels comfortable and warm here.

Ups and downs of feeders

First, deer take time to adjust to new foods,  many of which are not easily digested by wild animals. The kitchen scraps or Doritos from a car window can do more harm than good. Even if a homeowner sets out a feeder with pellets designed for the deer diet, doing so changes browsing and movement patterns and makes it easier for predators to find and prey on herds. The deer also can depend on humans or compete more for concentrated food sources, which means the weak ones lose out at a feeder. In open areas with natural food sources, the fawns and young bucks can find nearby sources when kicked off the favored spots.

Natural food

We live in a residential area with large lots and our deer are not as used to people as those a few miles up the road. I like it that way, and instead of feeding them, we leave our grass longer in fall to help with their browsing (and we believe it helps improve native grass coverage the next spring). We also do our best not to bother the herd by walking slowly and away from them if possible when sharing space outdoors. That also means teaching our dogs to ignore them.

New Mexico snow with grackles
A light blanket of snow with a big flock of grackles. We seldom see deer with even this light of a layer.

I have wondered and worried why deer don’t come around when we have a blanket of snow on the ground, but I thought it might be too difficult to get to the food below. That is true, and deer know to fatten up and live off reserves, staying close to their trees up higher for shelter. Coming down to graze through a layer or snow would take more energy than the payoff. Other wildlife shelter ideas are piles of dead tree limbs away from the house and in protected areas, along with fencing that is easy for deer and elk to enter.

Birds need food and shelter at various heights in winter.
Sparrows and finches stage in a high tree before taking turns diving to our feeders.

Feeding birds in winter

We do supplement birds’ diets in winter, and although I will continue doing so, I see some evidence of the same problems that can occur at deer feeders. First, hawks and kestrels come right into the garden, hunting near the feeders. They would help me and themselves more by finding some yummy mice to eat instead. Second, we see some feeder competition at times, but we have several different feeders/types of food, and for the most part, the birds all play well together. Placing feeders at different spots and filling them with different energy sources can support more types of birds, especially during migration.

cooper's hawk at feeder
A hawk hangs out right next to a feeder in a redbud.

Natural food and shelter

Of course, natural food sources are great for birds too. But by late winter, the stores of berries, nuts, and seeds on flowers, trees and bushes has dwindled. As I wrote about this time last year, birds need extra food in winter to gather energy to fight cold. And many, such as juncos, must replenish that energy daily in cold weather.

Plants also provide shelter, and placing both shelter and food sources at various heights and spots in your garden offers some protection. Here are some bird-friendly plants:

Sunflower from birds
One of the best natural bird feeders, the sunflower.
  • Flowers for seeds, including sunflowers, Echinacea (coneflower), coreopsis, salvias, and many native grasses and annuals. Milkweed (Asclepias) not only helps Monarch butterflies, but attracts plenty of insects that birds eat.
  • Fruiting vines and shrubs such as Virginia creeper (Pathenocissus quinqefolia), wild grapes, elderberry (Sambucus) and serviceberry (Amalanchier utahensis Koehne, or Utah serviceberry),
  • Native trees for fruits, nuts and shelter. Birds need a high place to land when escaping or looking for predators. Evergreens such as arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) and all spruces offer dense shelter from the elements for landing or nesting.
Rose shrubs provider shelter and food for birds.
This wild rose needs some serious trimming in a few months, but it is a favorite shelter for birds, including a pair of desert cardinals (pyrrhuloxia).

These plants also can provide winter interest for homeowners’ gardens and can feed birds through fall and early winter in some cases.

I’ll admit that part of my willingness to also spend the money on bird seed is selfish. It’s nice to watch the bird show from our window when the plants are dormant and I’m stuck inside. But I also like to think that the shelter and food our place provides help ease the burden for these and other creatures.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside and Wildlife Gotta’ Eat

I’ve been working long hours this week wrapping up a project that’s due soon (cause writers gotta’ eat too). So I haven’t been able to research gardening topics for the blog. I’ve also had some trouble keeping my attention focused on my work task, mostly because birds and deer have been busy stocking up on food and it’s so fun to watch.

snow on rose hips
Snow on rose hips. Birds and other critters eat these in winter, and the birds congregate in our two native rose bushes.

Last week, I wrote about nurturing wildlife instead of flowers this time of year. And I have say it has paid off. Some of the grazing is natural. Deer and wild turkeys naturally roam here in winter, but I’ve never had so much fun with winter birds. We’ve got huge flocks that normally fly by now landing in trees and I have to stay really disciplined to keep from pulling out a book or bringing up my Cornell Merlin Bird ID app to identify them.

The apricot tree is up above the bath and feeder. We normally saw these flocks fly overhead, but yesterday, they circled and landed in the tree. There were 40 or so at once, and I believe most are Lazuli buntings.
The apricot tree is up above the bath and feeder. We normally saw these flocks fly overhead, but yesterday, they circled and landed in the tree. There were 40 or so at once, and I believe most are Lazuli buntings.

When I need to get up and stretch, I peek through the windows at the activity, watching the birds and deer and trying to get photos without disturbing them. I thought I’d share a few this week, then try to get my head back on gardening — and the holidays, of course — next week. I’ll also keep my eye out to get a photo of the latest spotting. I believe it’s a sharp-shinned hawk, who’s attracted not so much to our feeder, but to the small birds around it.

I'll get back to the birds, but check out this buck. He is solid! So gorgeous.
I’ll get back to the birds, but check out this buck. He is solid! So gorgeous.
One of the tiniest fawns I've seen around here came with the latest herd. This one is still fluffy, and not much taller than the bird bath!
One of the tiniest fawns I’ve seen around here has joined the growing herd. And that’s good, because our deer population was affected by a wildfire several years ago. This one is still fluffy, and not much taller than the bird bath!
I believe this is a dark-eyed junco, but am not certain. I call it Ambitious.
I believe this is a dark-eyed junco, but am not certain.I call it Ambitious.
And successful!
And successful!
The scrub jays chase away lots of other birds and each other. But I love how the couples stick together.
The scrub jays chase away lots of other birds and each other. But I love how the couples stick together.
Birds gotta' drink too. And bathe. It has gotten a little crowded at the bath.
Birds gotta’ drink too. And bathe. It has gotten a little crowded at the bath.
We're even getting action on the thistle sock.
We’re even getting action on the thistle sock.

Nurture Birds Instead of Flowers in Winter

Surely, one reason gardeners in cold climates get a little depressed in winter is that we can’t get outside as much. Another reason is that we aren’t growing and nurturing plants. At least I discovered that’s happening to me, because I’m kinda’ trying to grow birds instead.

bird on suet and nut feeder
This is one of my new obsessions. A Pyrrhuloxia, a cardinal-like bird who showed up just before Thanksgiving. The tuft on his head reminds me of Woody Woodpecker. He is so fun to watch! I hung this new feeder more for convenience than protection, but he checked it out the first day.

We’ve always had some birds in winter. Living in a semi-rural location bordered by a river and national forest brings some pretty interesting birds. For example, a solo sandhill crane flies east and west over the river each day, and sometimes lands behind our place. Only once have we seen two cranes.

This year, I have been spending lots of time birdwatching. OK, bird obsessing. Just switching to better bird food helped, and we saw several birds this year we’ve never seen before.A Northern Flicker decided to roost up under one of our beams. I know the bird naturally perches on the side of trees (or buildings apparently), but watching the poor thing huddle into a corner during 25-degree nights broke my heart.

northern flicker on house
I can’t get close to the skittish Northern Flicker. There are three of them on our property. This one claimed our bedroom patio.

I ordered a house specially designed for flickers from the National Wildlife Federation. Tim mounted it in the same corner. The first night, the bird perched near or on the house. By the second night, he checked in. And I check every night to make sure he returns. Just a little obsessive.

Northern flicker bird house
Here’s the Northern Flicker house from the National Wildlife Federation. It’s perfect. Tim mounted it tightly against the corner the flicker was sleeping in (and pecking at), and it took only one night until he checked it out and headed inside. He’s taken up permanent residence.
northern flicker near house
Told you I was obsessed. I spotted our buddy yesterday around lunch time again. You can see his house up to the right. Now that I have the house, I would like a telephoto lens for my Nikon, please?

Now, I’ve moved on to some new winter feeders and other ideas. And I’m having to force myself to pay attention to work during the day!

Leaving birds some shelter, food and water in winter is the right thing to do. And as I was writing this post, I found out that today is World Wildlife Conservation Day. Knowing my efforts give birds a boost in winter helps me justify the expenditure and time. Here are a few tips for keeping birds fed and watered so they can make it through cold and dry winter seasons:

  • In winter, birds need fat and energy to make it through the cold nights. Frankly, I have a feeling a few are regretting settling down in our community this year. Seriously, by going about 40 miles east or west, I imagine their nights would be 5 to 10 degrees warmer. Nuts, suet and fruit provide fat and energy, and black oil sunflower seeds are a year-round preference for many birds.
ice on bird feeder
It gets cold here! This was over Thanksgiving weekend. It took the birds a few hours to man up and hit the feeder.I’m not sure if any made their way into the birdhouse next door.
  • Quality of seed makes a difference. It’s not only better for the birds that stop by, but should bring more birds and more varieties of birds. When we have run out and had to buy seed at big-box stores, I’ve found way too many twigs among the seeds. Plus, much of the selection in inexpensive seed mixes gets cast aside and lands on the ground, making a big mess.
  • Buy the seeds with no hulls to avoid that big mess. The ladies at Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque told me I’d get some different varieties by using hulled sunflower seeds instead of seeds with hulls, and they were right on! Some birds, such as dark-eyed juncos, can’t break open seed hulls. The seeds are well worth the money and actually last longer. So efficient!
bird feeder with sunflower seeds and pigeon guards
Here’s the ice-cold bird diner filled with sunflower seeds, no hulls included. Notice the pigeon guards, also from Wild Birds Unlimited, which work and were well worth the price.
  • Better-quality and no-hull seeds also help keep away nuisance birds. Sorry, but I can do without mourning doves, or as I call them – pigeons. I thought we got rid of them when we left the city. But apparently, they followed the U-Haul. One way to keep them off the feeder is with pigeon guards. With no hulls on the ground, they won’t even gather at the feeder area.
sign about doves
I knew I could taunt my husband with this some day. Unless an ornithologist corrects me, my research (and this wonderful sign from a Maui botanical garden) confirm it: Mourning doves are pigeons!
  • Winter suet attracts birds that don’t eat seed, such as jays, bluebirds, woodpeckers and nuthatches. It costs less than peanut butter, maybe even if you make your own feeders. But if you enjoy making feeders with kids or grandkids, having lots of choices and spots for birds is good for them and fun for you! Suet cakes can go in cage feeders, or more protective wooden ones. Suet also comes in logs, or if you have lots of time on your hands, you can walk out each morning and smear it on a tree.
  • I like to purchase nonmelting suet because some of our winter days get warm and spring can be whacky, with really cold days and nights that alternate with warm days.
  • Our finches tend to disappear in winter, but I left out a sock filled with niger, or thistle, seed that I had just filled before it turned cold. I’ve seen a few finches and sparrows on it.
  • Some articles suggest ground feeders, but I am too concerned about attracting critters (including my dogs) with the seeds to try that one. Next year, I would like to find a spot for a platform feeder, however. I guess some birds can eat while swinging around, but there are some that do better with nuts and fruit on a nice plate, such as cardinals and jays. I’m hoping they’ll try standing on top of my stackable feeder and pecking on some nuts and cranberries!
WIld Birds Unlimited Flying Start feeder
Our Pyrruloxia found the suet and nut feeder yesterday and tried a bite. He’s back in the garden this morning, distracting me while I try to write about him.

Finally, birds need water all year long, and it’s hard to come by anywhere that nights dip below freezing. It’s especially tough in places like New Mexico, where water is scarce as it is. Birds need drinking water and to splash around for feather maintenance (check out a bird pool party I filmed and placed on Instagram). Those feathers keep them insulated at night, and I want them to stay healthy. Our river is running full and fast, but I don’t think there are pools of water down there for small birds. Our bird bath has been a big hit, but it has frozen over every night for several weeks. I’m wasting water when I toss the frozen chunk, and I don’t like to waste water. Heated bird baths or electric or solar heaters to place in the bird bath are available now. I’ve asked for a solar heater for Christmas, so more on that later. If anybody wants to send me a free one to try, please feel free to do so. The birds and I would be so grateful!

Five Low-water Shrubs that Birds Love

It’s easy to attract birds to your yard with feeders, but having a friendly bird habitat is even better. We’re fortunate to have some help from nature in the form of a nearby river and trees. Many bird species can nest or fly to the larger trees when evading us or our dogs. But they also love to hang out in the garden right off our patio, because we have a few shrubs that meet their basic needs of food and shelter. Naturally, needs differ by bird, but many eat fruits, berries and seeds.

dave-higgins-hovering-finch
This finch is hovering near a feeder in our smoke tree, but finches also perch on flowers and in shrubs. Photo credit: David Higgins.

As fall arrives, we’re even more aware of how plants attract both native and migrating birds. I looked out my window the other day and saw at least 20 sparrows feeding on the seed heads of a weed/grass that I have been meaning to pull from a garden bed. I felt a little better about being behind. Although trees are important for bird nesting and shelter, so are shrubs. Here are five water-wise choices that help feed, shade or protect birds.

Cotoneaster. The Cotoneaster species includes shrubs that need a little more water until established than some native low-water plants. They’re cold hardy to zone 3 and actually fare better in high desert and mountain climates. Some cultivars (namely Rockspray) grow more wide than high, and these are the ones the sparrows at our place love. The leaves are tiny, but the plant is sort of prickly and since the branches cross over one another, it really fills in well. The birds can enjoy the late summer berries and perch a few feet off the ground.

sparrow on low-water bush
This white-crowned sparrow is hidden pretty well on a cotoneaster even in winter. In spring, 20 or more sparrows perch here, distracting me from working.

Russian sage. Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is known as an attractor of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds while its gorgeous and fragrant lavender stalks are in bloom, but I’ve seen other small birds feed on the seedheads as they dry. And since this shrub is best cut back in spring, it can help feed birds all winter.

russian sage drying stalk
Right now, a darn grasshopper appears to be eating our Russian sage. The stalks are beginning to dry.

Pawnee buttes sand cherry. Last week, I mentioned the Western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi) as one of five water-wise shrubs that works well in high-desert gardens. The Pawnee buttes is a low-growing form of the sand cherry, which likely won’t produce enough fruit for a pie, but plenty of dark, ripe berries to feed birds. I also love the twisting branches. It just looks like a native plant you might encounter walking around the New Mexico desert, but in spring it has gorgeous white flowers that are slightly smaller than those on our cherry tree, but just as striking.

bird attracting sand cherry
The Pawnee buttes sand cherry is a low-growing, twisted version of the Western sand cherry.

Wild roses. I mention native roses often in my plant lists because they are amazing low-water plants. The Woods’ rose (Rosa woodsii) in particular is a Southwest native that grows in all sorts of terrain from as low as 2,800 feet to more than 10,000 feet in altitude. It blooms in spring or early summer with no supplemental watering and attracts birds all year long. We have a hummingbird that I am pretty sure has deemed one native rose as his territory, and I love watching birds land on the thorny stems. I doubt any nearby cats will venture up there after them! Best of all, the Woods’ rose leaves hundreds of hips on the plant for birds and other critters to enjoy all fall and winter. The hips have plenty of value for people, but this year, we will leave them on the rose. The only drawback to native roses is that they need a deep pruning/shaping in early spring.

woods' rose
Birds can feast on these rose hips all winter and hide in or under the bushy, thorny plant.

Serviceberry. The Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) is another member of the rose family. Native to the Southwest, the plant, which also is commonly called a shadbush, produces white flowers in spring and early summer berries that are similar to blueberries. Although people can make jams from the berries, they are pretty seedy. So I’d prefer to leave them for the birds, while I enjoy the flowers and year-round leaf colors. The drought-tolerant shrub can be shaped into a hedge and grows in zones 2 through 9.