Keeping Wild Birds Happy in Winter

tip: it’s easy to do, and can look pretty fantastic, too

By Kate Bryant January 16, 2012

Layered plantings offer optimal feeding, shelter and nesting opportunities for birds. Add some native species such as native cedar and Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii, in background) and lots of shrubs with edible seeds and you’ve got yourself some magnificent bird habitat.

The Willamette Valley is a superhighway for migrating birds in spring and fall. From November through March, many wild bird species overwinter in the Portland area, allowing us to observe an abundance of species in our own back yards.

It’s a great time to take walks in the local woods and meadows to watch birds in the wild. (Portland Audubon offers a variety of bird classes and walks throughout the year.) But you can also create bird habitat in your own garden that will attract dozens of interesting species.

How can you create idyllic habitat for wild birds in your garden?

Remove invasive plant species including English ivy, Himalayan and cutleaf blackberry, and clematis. For more information on invasive species removal, check out East Multnomah County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Plant suitable plants including abundant native plants. When adding ornamentals, consider not only their aesthetic qualities but also their contributions as food, shelter and nesting sources for native birds. Looking for resources, including native plant lists? Start here.

Group several plants of the same species together for maximum feeding and shelter opportunities for birds. On a design note: most native plants really look their best when grouped, anyway. One single snowberry (Symphoricarpus albus) can look kind of non-descript. But plant five or six and you have a veritable cloud of stunning white fruit in winter. It’s a show-stopper!

Plant in layers. The more plant height and species diversity you offer, the more bird species you’re likely to attract. Plant trees, shrubs, herbs, and ground covers in order to supply food and shelter for both tree-flitting birds and ground feeders.

Plant diverse types of plants. Evergreens (broadleaf and conifers) offer winter cover; thorny or tangled shrubbery provide safer nesting opportunities; and fruit and berry producing plants* such as snowberry, thimbleberry, salmonberry, red currant and huckleberry supply food.

Create a brush pile from downed tree limbs and loose piles of branches. Brush piles provide birds with shelter in tough weather

Provide a source of water. Best is a flat-bottomed, shallow bowl with 1/2 to 1 inch of water. It should be changed every other day – and when frozen, you can pour a kettle of hot water water over it. (Best in concrete bird baths – boiling water can crack ceramic!) It’s best to change the water every other day.

Offer bird seed or suet. Natural habitat offers birds the best kind of food source, but a bird feeder can provide birds with easier access – and lets you see them better! Use natural, fresh seed or suet (support the Portland Audubon Society by purchasing feeders and seed at their shop) and clean feeders weekly with a 10% bleach solution.

Install nesting boxes. Consult with Portland Audubon for advice on choosing the right nesting box for your area.

Avoid the use of pesticides and excess fertilizers. That’s a no-brainer for most of us – as we know, pesticides and excess fertilizers pollute streams and rivers, poison wildlife and kill insects upon which birds depend. Grow plants that are well-adapted to our climate and properly situated in our gardens and you won’t need pesticide or chemical fertilizer. For more information, see Metro.

Keep cats indoors: Cat predation accounts for nearly 40% of the injured and orphaned animals brought to Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center each year. Studies show that even well-fed cats kill birds. Audubon suggests keeping cats indoors, not only for wild bird safety but for cat safety.

Reduce window strikes: It is estimated that window strikes rank second as a cause of bird death, after habitat loss. Hang bird feeders within 3 feet of windows or at least 20 feet away from them. Try hanging Mylar tape strips from the top of windows or use decals in necessary.

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