Don’t Be a Fair-Weathered Friend

What’s blooming now? The birds! While the flowers in our Northeast Georgia gardens are down for a long winter’s nap, the birds are carrying the water for Mother Nature when it comes to providing color and kick outdoors.

Photo by Carol Carpenter on Unsplash

Unfortunately, it’s easy to be fair-weather friends to the loyal avian pals that stick it out with us through the winter. Sure, we’re happy to feed them and shower them with attention—and fresh water—in the warmer months, when it’s convenient. We’re outside anyway, and they bring so much enjoyment for so little work.

But when the bone-chilling cold sets in, caring for the birds requires a little more effort and a lot more motivation. It’s tempting to abandon them when they actually need us (which they really don’’t the rest of the year). I know, it’s not intentional…just out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

This winter, why not be a true friend to the birds that bring you so much joy all year? They need your support in three areas:  food, water and shelter.

You can get a great start on meeting these needs by incorporating native plants into your landscape. The more, the better; they’re the best source of food and shelter for native bird species. You can kill two—let me rephrase that—you can provide both winter food and shelter by planting evergreens that produce fruit in the winter. Pyracantha, American and youpon holly trees, red cedar and viburnum bushes are great examples of this. Audubon has an awesome native plants database that will help you choose and buy bird-supporting native plants suited for your growing location and conditions.

Berries on the native chokeberry, above, persist well into winter in Northeast Georgia and provide sustenance for song birds, who take cover from predators in the dark green, glossy evergreen leaves. In addition to places to hide, birds need real shelter, which they can find in larger evergreens, like pines, hemlocks and hollies, and even in birdhouses you can place in the garden.

Birds burn an incredible amount of energy just trying to stay warm in winter, so they need plenty of calories. You can supplement the nutrition available from nature with high-fat content bird food. Black oil sunflower seeds and peanuts (shelled or in the hull), thistle seed and suet are great for nuthatches, woodpeckers, blue jays, chickadees and titmice. Ground-feeding birds like sparrows and doves enjoy millet, and many birds consider chopped-up fruit and cranberries an exceptional treat.

Birds can’t survive long without water, and fresh water in liquid form is hard to come by in a deep freeze. Provide shallow water sources, one or two inches is plenty deep, and remember to check frequently to make sure they’re not frozen. Placing birdbaths in sunny spots may help, and there are some pretty neat heated birdbaths available.

There’s so much more to learn about our feathered friends and taking extra good care of them in winter. The Atlanta Chapter of the National Audubon Society is an excellent resource, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has some helpful tips on backyard bird feeding.

If you’re interested in a broader perspective on the topic, read my favorite book about birds and native plants, Bringing Nature Home:  How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, by Douglas Tallamy (Timber Press, 2007).

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