Ten steps to help birds survive as they migrate to their winter homes
Millions of migrating birds are passing through the U.S. now on flyways to their southern destinations. Some may use our backyards as stopovers or even for their winter home, depending on the species. Millions of birds won’t migrate at all—as goldfinches in my West Michigan area that are year-around residents. And many birds that would typically migrate for warmer climates, as our eastern bluebirds and American robins, have now become fairly common winter residents.
Here are ten steps I’ve learned from years of birding to create a backyard habitat that will support birds’ survival as they struggle with finding quality food, fresh water, and shelter while migrating and in winter:
Birds can’t survive without a fresh water supply, so a heated birdbath is indispensable. I purchased mine from Wild Birds Unlimited ten years ago, and it’s still working great. It’s well worth it, and is a lifesaver for birds.
Suet is probably the least expensive and easiest food to offer birds. It’s simple to refill, and will last longer than seed. Invest in several different styles of feeders if possible. I like the ones made from recycled plastics for two reasons: they’re incredibly durable and very easy to clean. It’s good to have at least one upside-down feeder that larger birds can’t dominate, so the smaller species always have a feeder to go to.
Start a small brush pile in your yard that will give birds and small mammals protection in winter. Just start collecting any branches that come down in storms, and build the pile in an area on higher ground for good drainage. If you have evergreen trees or shrubs that’s a good location for added cover and protection.
Black oil sunflower is probably the highest quality and value overall in birdseed, and it’s eaten by a wide variety of species. Stock up on the largest bags possible in the fall for the best price, and store in a cool, dry spot to keep it fresh. Try a simple ‘fly-through’ feeder which works for almost all birds; it’s fast and easy to fill in a snowstorm (just pour seed into the open tray). Again, choose one made of recycled materials for durability and ease of cleaning.
Start creating a thicket. Fall is a great time to plant native shrubs, and they grow quickly. In five years or so you can have a young thicket well-established. Do research for recommended native shrubs for your geographic area. Here in the Midwest-Great Lakes region, red twig dogwood, silky dogwood, and arrowwood viburnum, all natives that provide berries for wildlife, are great choices. Find a native plant nursery nearby and get advice on soil and planting tips.
Invest in a well-made peanut feeder. Peanuts are one of the highest protein birdseeds available and especially important to help birds maintain their body temperatures as temperatures plummet. Peanuts can be susceptible to mold so be aware of effects of rain and moisture. I never fill my peanut feeder entirely full, preferring to add fresh seed every other day or so as needed.
Be relaxed with your fall backyard clean-up; it’s better for the birds and wildlife. Don’t trim down the flowers or clip flower heads, leave the beach grass intact. All of this seemingly ‘dead’ plant material offers winter food, cover, and nesting material in early spring. Goldfinch will eat seeds from dead native liatris (blazing star) stalks all through early winter. And, try to plant at least three new types of native wildflowers each year in your yard to build diversity.
If you have goldfinches (or are trying to attract them) be sure to invest in at least one nyjer thistle feeder. Most are a metal mesh-style and are long-lasting, if made well. If house sparrows are a problem (and they do eat nyjer thistle and can monopolize the feeders and intimidate goldfinches), be sure to have at least one upside-down tube thistle feeder which effectively deters them.
If you have nest boxes in your yard, be sure to clean-out the inside well and leave them out through the winter. They can work as a roost box for birds to survive very cold nights. This can be a real lifesaver for birds continuing to lose natural roosts since so many neighborhoods, as mine, suffer from suburban sprawl, losing more trees and habitat each year. For excellent tips on transitioning nest boxes to winter roost boxes, please see this BirdWatcher’s Digest article, Top 10 Ways To Help Birds in Bad Weather.
Some birds will rarely or never eat from a hanging feeder (as juncos). Designate a few spots that have some natural shelter from snow drifts and use these spots consistently each day for ground feeding. Keep a small (child-size works well!) snow shovel to clear the area easily each day. Make a simple high-protein mix of black oil sunflower, peanut chips (roll-out peanuts on a cutting board), and white millet which will be loved by the juncos as well as white-throated sparrows, goldfinches, mourning doves, and migrants passing through, using your yard as a stopover.
A backyard can relatively quickly transform to a thriving habitat that birds seek, especially as native plants and thickets grow in. Make it a goal to work on improving your yard each year a bit more, and you will be rewarded every year with an even greater diversity of birds that will visit and reside in your yard.