Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: Helping Your Backyard Birds Through the Coming Winter

As we enter the most desperate time of year for our birds I thought I would share some helpful tips for getting our backyard birds through winter  as best we can.

As we lose more and more natural places to development and the land that is left may lack the biodiversity needed to sustain wildlife, our backyards become that much more important to the survival of many birds and other wildlife.

Small and seemingly insignificant backyards now become an oasis for birds that will depend on your yard to make it through the harsh winter months.

In winter, countless migratory birds that travel here all the way from northern Canada are calling your backyard home. There are some important things we can do to welcome them and help them survive our long New Jersey Winter.

* Don’t Clean up your yard!

This is the first and most important thing we can do to help our birds. I know this scares the heck out of some of you more meticulous gardeners, but if we are serious about helping our birds, including butterflies, moths and pollinators, then we need to change the way we garden.

Simply put: “DO NOTHING.” Do not rake the leaves, cut back the flowers or the shrubs. By being a neat and tidy gardener you are removing the most important food sources for our birds; the insects and seeds at the time they need them most, not to mention killing off next year’s butterflies, moths and wonderful creatures like lightning bugs that over winter in the leaf litter . So be a lazy gardene; you might be helping more than you know.

*Fill your birdfeeders with a high energy, good quality bird seed mix. 

Studies show that in times of severe weather birds have a higher survival rate when there is a bird feeder nearby. A good quality bird seed mix may cost more than a cheaper bag full of filler or junk seeds that birds don’t need or eat.

Black oil sunflower, Safflower, Peanuts and white Proso Millet should be part of your backyard bird banquet. Try to keep feeders full, especially throughout the bitterly cold snaps. Remember to keep your feeders clean and also clean up any shells that might build up under your feeders over time.

*Provide Suet

Suet is a high fat, high energy food that will help keep birds such as woodpeckers stay warm and healthy as the cold winds blow. When evening temperatures get really low and most small birds can only eat enough to survive the night, suet will provide the needed fat to help them generate enough heat to get through till morning.

The same rules apply to suet as the birdseed. A good quality suet with no fillers is well worth the money. Some winters I have had birds such as Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Pine Warblers eating my suet, so you never know what birds you might be helping to survive in your winter habitat.

*Carolina Wrens and Mockingbirds need other foods

Since neither of these birds eat much seed it is tougher for them than most other birds. Put some suet in a flat tray along with apple halves and mealworms. There are various fruit feeders on the market that will also work well.

*Keep or get your bird houses up!

Birds such as Chickadees, Nuthatches and Tufted Titmouse  use tree cavities to not only nest in the spring but also to keep warm on cold winter nights. Since natural tree cavities are few and far between in suburbia, it is a great idea to keep all your bird houses up throughout the winter.

Also, putting up special roosting boxes, that will allow birds to keep warm and roost together work great. Installing nesting shelves or platforms for birds that don’t use a traditional bird house such as Cardinals and Mourning Doves will help many species through the bad weather of winter

* Provide water

Birds need to drink all year round, but find that in winter it is especially tough for them when temperatures dip below freezing. Providing a thawed out source of water such as a heated birdbath may be the only source of drinkable water for miles around and can mean survival for many of our backyard friends.

Even if you don’t have electric near your birdbath you can pour some warm water out in the morning that will provide water at least until it freezes over. Birds are not concerned if your birdbath cost hundreds of dollars or is just a garbage can lid. The important thing is that the water is very shallow and it is out there for them to use when they need it.

*Create a brush pile

One of the best and inexpensive things you can do to help the birds in winter is to make a brush-pile. By making a mound of old branches you can create a place for birds to get away from predators, be protected from winter’s winds and provide a place to rest.

Many of our winter backyard birds are ground feeders, Juncos ,White-throated, Fox and American Tree Sparrows depend on natural cover for protection. Since many of those places no longer exist in our suburban jungle brush piles can do a good job in replacing some of the natural cover that has disappeared.  For more info on creating brush piles click here 

*Work a backyard wildlife Habitat plan for Spring

As the bitter cold sets in and we spend more time indoors it is a good idea to start working on backyard habitat plans for the coming  season. Research native plants that benefit the birds all year round and decide where to put them in your yard come spring. Make plans for spring nest boxes and if you don’t already know how, learn to garden organically. Your birds and your family will thank you for it

Our backyards are as much a part of the environment as any park, forest or nature preserve. Creating a special place for wildlife this season will help many birds survive the tough, long winter months and, at the same time, help us keep connected to the natural world around us.


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