Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Creature Comforts

by Megan Frank on November 11, 2016

by Liz Magnanti

It’s inevitable: snow, ice, sleet, and cold. Winter will be here before we know it. The days become short and the nights are long. Sometimes I think of how rough we have it here in Upstate New York, but in the winter I take one look out the window and see all the life we have outside. While we are snug in our homes drinking hot tea and curling up next to the fire, birds are exposed to the elements every day to find water, food and shelter. There are some species of birds that are here only for the winter as they have migrated from further north. There are a few ways you can make their lives a little easier this winter, and you’ll get a great view of wildlife from the comfort of your home.

One of the most difficult things for birds and wildlife to find in the winter is a source of water. While we have many large bodies of water here, small songbirds need a shallow, unfrozen patch of water to bathe and drink from. Cleaning feathers is very important for birds. Having clean feathers keeps parasites off, and more importantly, allows birds to remain warm. Feathers insulate the warm air trapped in between the bird’s body and feathers. One way to provide birds with water this winter is with a heated birdbath. Heated birdbaths operate on a thermostat and keep water just warm enough so it doesn’t freeze over. You can also get just the heater to put in a birdbath you already have. You will be amazed how many birds will flock to a heated birdbath in the winter!

Providing high fat food to birds and wildlife in the cold months of the year is a great way to attract them to your yard. Throughout the year, and especially in the fall, birds and wildlife will cache away seeds and nuts for the winter. They have a surprisingly high rate of success in finding this food again. Some of these food items, however, is lost or stolen by other animals. An additional source of food can help relieve some of the stresses put on wildlife from lack of sustenance. Black oil sunflower seed or a mix containing a majority of black oil seed will always be a big hit in any yard. Black oil sunflower is a favorite of cardinals and will bring in the most bird diversity of any seed. Look for dark-eyed juncos, one of our winter birds, feeding on sunflower seeds that have dropped to the ground at your feeders. Nyjer seed, with its high oil content, is another great food for birds in the winter. Buy fresh seed. If your nyjer seed is more than a few months old you may want to throw it out and get some new. Because nyjer has such a high moisture content, it can dry out quickly. Goldfinches, who turn a drab yellowish/green in the winter, will feast on nyjer all year long. Pine siskins and redpolls that are here only for the winter, will feed from nyjer feeders as well.

High in fat and calories, suet will bring flocks of birds to your yard. These square blocks of animal or vegetable fat are favorites of woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. Suet helps plump up birds, giving them the fat they need to stay warm. Peanuts are another great option for the winter. Blue jays, nuthatches and woodpeckers will absolutely love this treat.

Plant cover, bird houses and roosting houses can be great sources of shelter for birds. Make sure any nest boxes you leave out over the winter are clean to avoid nest parasites. Roosting houses are similar to bird houses but inside have perches for birds to sit on. Multiple species will use these at one time to stay out of the elements. Roosting pockets, which are made of woven fibers, are also a great option. These are small hanging huts that birds will fly inside of to stay warm and dry.

There are very few things more beautiful than a bright red male cardinal on a backdrop of freshly fallen snow. It is amazing that wildlife can survive so well in such harsh conditions. By providing some “creature comforts” in your yard this winter you will be amazed how much wildlife you can attract! And they just may reward you by staying long enough to get a great photo for this year’s holiday cards.

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House on Monroe Avenue in Pittsford. She has a degree in wildlife conservation and has worked as a naturalist at various nature centers.

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