Winter’s for the Birds

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Photo by Getty Images/Kenneth_Keifer

The garden sleeps in winter, and during its months of gentle slumber, there’s a stillness. The garden waits for the seasons to shift so it can awaken again. A lack of birds is a contributing factor to this solemn stillness. From the moment the first robins arrive in spring until the final migrating birds depart in fall, the garden is a busy place filled with cheerful noises and endless activity. But then winter arrives, the snow falls, and a quiet hush resides over the garden.

But here’s the thing: Your garden doesn’t have to sit dormant during winter. In fact, it can provide winter birds with the habitat and resources they need to survive and thrive during the colder months. With a bit of effort, you can encourage wintering birds to frequent your garden all season long.

Plants to Feed Wintering Birds

There’s more to feeding winter birds than consistently replenishing your bird feeders. What you grow in and around your garden can make a huge difference in the lives of local wintering birds. Due to the limited food options in winter, birds tend to make do with whatever is available, but providing a variety of plants, shrubs, and trees will encourage an equally wide variety of birds to take up residence.

Here are some of the best flowers, trees, and shrubs to grow to support your feathered friends during winter, and keep your garden filled with activity throughout the season.

Coneflower and Black-Eyed Susan

Imagine you’re a chickadee, and it’s January. There’s snow everywhere, and you’re hungry. As you flutter by a slumbering garden, you happen to notice an entire bed of last summer’s coneflowers, now dried and dark, their stems brittle, and their seeds clustered in the center of each coneflower, ready to eat.

Photo by Getty Images/suefeldberg

Coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) are proven staples for winter birds, and — good news for you — they’re easy to grow and make a beautiful addition to your garden during the summer and autumn months. When the growing season ends, skip the process of removing the spent flowers from your garden beds; instead, let them dry on their stems. This way, the birds can enjoy a tasty snack all through winter.

Flowering Crabapple     

What’s more beautiful than a flowering crabapple tree (Malus spp.) in full bloom? These iconic trees provide a bounty of winter food for many birds, including waxwings, woodpeckers, and robins. They produce unparalleled beauty in spring with their exquisite cascading blossoms, and when that show is complete, they set towork producing fruit that sustains flocks of hungry birds through the fall and into the depths of harsh winter weather.

The Arbor Day Foundation estimates there are approximately 800 flowering crabapple cultivars, so be mindful when selecting one for your garden. Consider your growing Zone, your desired color (they’re found in a range of shades from white to pink to red), and the mature size of the tree. If you’re planting the tree specifically to attract birds, choose a cultivar that’s proven to be preferred by birds, as some flowering crabapples produce fruit that birds don’t find as palatable.

Sunflower

Sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) know how to make a statement with their impressive presence and stunning blooms. After they’ve finished taking your garden’s beauty to new heights, they provide an excellent food source for winter birds. Leave the dried stalks and heads in your garden throughout winter and wait for the birds to dig in, or harvest and dry the heads and store them indoors until you’re ready to share them in the later winter months.

Photo by Getty Images/Andyworks

From an aesthetic perspective, planting several cultivars of sunflower in different colors and sizes to create additional interest in your garden is a win for both you and any visiting birds.

Viburnum Shrubs

This genus of beloved shrubs and their bountiful berry-laden branches are quite the treat for winter birds. You’ll find an abundance of beautiful Viburnum options, including nannyberry (Viburnum lentago), which sometimes reaches tree size, and arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum), which is more compact. Arrowwood is also a favorite of some butterfly species.

Of all the Viburnum shrubs, the American cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) is one of the most favored for winter birds. It features brilliant red berries that birds seem to find irresistible, and since the berries aren’t soft enough for birds to consume until later in winter, it prolongs the nutritional benefits well into the season.

Winterberry and American Holly

Members of the Ilex genus are also a welcome food source for wintering birds. Two particular favorites are winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and American holly (Ilex opaca); the former is deciduous, and the latter is evergreen, but both produce red berries that birds go crazy over. American holly reaches tree size and winterberry is a shrub, so the available space in your garden may play a part in determining which one is better suited to your situation. 

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is a common sight along the sides of roads, but if you’re looking for a food supply that’ll provide sustenance for birds in late winter, it’s the perfect choice for your garden. It’s an eye-catching plant with striking foliage and upright clusters of red berries, so it provides a lot of visual interest as well. Be prepared for plenty of feathered visitors from varying species — you just may find that your staghorn sumac is the most popular plant in the garden once late winter arrives! It’s said to be especially beloved by chickadees and bluebirds. 

Photo by Getty Images/Jean Landry

Rose

Roses (Rosa spp.) might not be the first things that spring to mind when you think of plants that feed wintering birds, but long after the last rose petals have fallen, birds will happily frequent your rose bushes to feast on rose hips. These seed-packed pods are generally red, and quite a treat for resident birds. 

Optional Additions

Of course, in addition to plants, bushes, shrubs, and small trees, you might also plant other bird-friendly options, such as native grasses (big bluestem is particularly great for winter), fruit trees, and large trees. You can even establish a wildflower area with goldenrod and asters to supply even more options for birds. Goldenrod can be particularly beneficial to downy woodpeckers; they like to eat the larvae of the goldenrod gall fly in winter.

Sharing your garden with winter birds is an intensely rewarding experience, and they’ll show their thanks by making your garden a bird-watcher’s paradise — a picturesque haven of beauty and cheer.

Home Sweet Home

Providing nourishment for wintering birds is a great start, but birds also need appropriate shelter. If you can provide a proper habitat in addition to food, you’ll create the perfect combination to ensure that your birds are happy and well-nourished throughout winter.

Heated birdbaths give passing birds a clean place to drink and bathe during a season when finding a water source is difficult. Birdbaths are wonderful additions to a garden because they’ll keep birds visiting all year long. Photo by Getty Images/natureandbirdlady

The shrubs and trees in your garden represent natural shelter for birds, but you can also supply birdhouses for added protection. While you might associate birdhouses with baby birds and the nesting months of spring and summer, birdhouses also provide valuable shelter from the harsh winter elements, and give birds an additional option beyond hunkering down in the cavity of a tree. You can modify your summertime birdhouses to make them more appropriate for winter use, or you can install roosting box-type birdhouses that are suitable for the season.

Birds appreciate access to fresh water any time of the year, but finding a water source in winter can be challenging for them. A heated birdbath fulfills this need, and gives birds a clean place to drink and bathe, even when temperatures plummet and snow accumulates. You’ll find many models on the market in varying styles and sizes, so you’ll have plenty of options to keep your feathered friends well-hydrated without the added chore of constantly breaking ice from the birdbath. You can also install a de-icer in your existing birdbath.


Samantha Johnson is the author of several books, including The Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, (Voyageur Press, 2013). She lives on a former dairy farm in northern Wisconsin with a Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Peaches, and writes frequently about pets, gardening, and farm life. Visit her online portfolio.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
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