A season on the wing

Your garden can help birds weather the winter

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Your garden may look shut down until spring, but plenty of important stuff is happening. Roots are resting, bulbs are chilling – and with a little effort, your garden can be a haven for birds spending the winter here.

Creating and maintaining a backyard bird sanctuary can get complicated. There are the basic needs of food, water and shelter. But then you have different bird species competing with one another – and with squirrels or other mammals – for resources. There are outdoor cats and tall picture windows. It’s a delicate balance, and nature is not always kind. So how does one begin to offer even a bit of aid to the avian world?

In Advanced Master Gardener Pam Snyder’s northeast Fort Wayne back yard, birdbaths and birdhouses large and small dot the landscape. Busy roads, businesses and apartments are a stone’s throw away, but a wooded area – also nearby – means there is no shortage of wildlife traffic, including birds, deer and, of course, squirrels.

Snyder and her husband, who has since passed away, moved into the house in 1988 and put up one feeder, “just to see.” Within a couple of years, they’d documented 49 bird types – wrens, sparrows, finches and more.

“p3″>Two tall silver maples used to stand in the yard, but had to be removed due to interference with sewer lines. However, birds still have plenty of places to hide and nest. There are two climbing hydrangeas – massive vines with dark, heart-shaped leaves and clusters of white flowers that bloom in late spring and summer. “The birds love this,” Snyder said, fingering the dense foliage. The trumpet vine and bittersweet bush are other popular bird hideaways.   

Birds like to find food in different places, she said. In addition to providing seed and suet, she leaves the seed heads on some plants, particularly the anise hyssop, for the birds to dine on over the winter – although the bunnies get some of it.

A former vegetable bed is now a sizable raspberry patch bearing plenty of fruit – all of which was being snapped up by winged berry-pickers in autumn. “I would like to eat some, too,” Snyder said, laughing – but she is happy to share.

During the winter, she puts a small heated birdbath on the edge of the deck where she can see it from inside the house. A heated birdbath is not a bird jacuzzi – the heat just keeps the water from freezing. Water evaporates quickly from a heated birdbath during cold weather, and any water source has to be be regularly cleaned due to the rapid growth of algae and the tendency of robins to leave their droppings in the water.

For those who want to start giving the birds a hand over the winter, Snyder suggests hanging up a single feeder, as she did years ago – but put some bird seed in a foil pan on the ground near it to help the birds find the food source. Suet, which you can buy in many different forms, is a good winter food choice; woodpeckers are especially fond of it, she said.

“You can have a nice little bird sanctuary without a lot of trees,” she said. “They’re so fun to watch.”

Master Gardener and Master Naturalist Cynthia Powers said she takes down her hummingbird feeder in October and replaces it with suet, which is too messy (and too attractive to raccoons) in the summer. She, too, has a heated birdbath. Over the past 40 years, she and her husband have seen 128 different species of birds, “counting flyovers,” she said.

She has three wren houses, but “we gave up on bluebird houses as the house sparrows kept harassing them too much.”

Powers said the first priority for anyone who wants to start bird feeding is to offer black oil sunflower seed, as most birds like it. Another good way to contribute to the bird world is to participate in Project Feeder Watch, a winter-long Cornell Lab of Ornithology project that collects data about what birds come to what feeders. “It’s easy to do, and the data from all over helps with scientific studies,” she said. Find out more at feederwatch.org.

Another good resource is our local Wild Birds Unlimited store at Northcrest Shopping Center. The folks there not only know birds but love them. That is the key to caring for creation.

First appeared in the December 2016 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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