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Winter is for the Birds

By Nikki Keltner, Program Coordinator, University of Illinois Extension

As a gardener, I find joy in the winter months. It is a time of rest and rejuvenation. I embrace the break from the multitude of tasks that face us in the home landscape and vegetable garden during the growing season. This time of year, we can reflect on the past season, enjoying the fruits of our labors as we look out the window at our landscape in winter. It seems almost bare but it is this time of year that I really enjoy the presence of our feathered friends. I consider them the focal point of our winter landscape.

There are simple ways to attract feathered friends to your landscape. Add a feeding and watering station. Supply a constant source of food and water during the winter months. Make sure feeders and waters are cleaned often as these gathering spots can spread disease amongst the birds.

When feeding the birds, place feeders at various levels. Place feeders in an open spot in your lawn 10 feet or so away from trees and shrubs. This will allow the birds to see if a predator is approaching and allow them to escape to nearby trees and shrubs. Feeders can hang at about 5 to 6 feet off the ground attached to a post or pole or hung from a tree. Be sure to place feeders according to the type of bird you would like to attract. For example, you would like to attract cardinals to your yard, consider feeding them near a hedgerow, chickadees like feeders in trees and mourning doves prefer a ground feeder.

The local stores are full of different types of feeders. There are tube feeders, platform feeders, and house feeders all of which can accommodate regular seed. If you are planning to feed thistle seed look for a feeder that is specifically designed for that type of seed. Suet feeders are generally cage like and come in very simple designs to very elaborate designs that include a roof.

The birds in our yard most likely will be seedeaters or insect eaters. During the winter months have suet available for the insect eaters. For seed eating birds, black oil sunflower will attract the widest variety of birds to your yard. White proso millet will also attract many birds. A mixture of black oil sunflower and white proso millet will be your best bet on feeding the widest variety of birds with very little waste. Be cautious of seed blends that contain milo, wheat, oats and rice as most birds will not eat these seeds and the mixture is wasted.

Birds need a clean, fresh source of drinking water. It is especially important to provide this source during dry times or during winter when unfrozen water can be scarce. Place your birdbath in an open area in your yard, away from tall plants and shrubs so that birds that stop for a drink can see any approaching danger. Immersion water heaters can be purchased to add to a birdbath to keep the water open in the winter. Be sure to add fresh water frequently and clean the birdbath every couple of weeks with a 10% bleach solution.

Take feeding the birds a step further and create a landscape that will benefit our feathered friends. Consider adding diversity to your landscape to encourage birds to stay. A variety of native shrubs and plants can be of value to the birds providing them with food and shelter. Evergreens can provide important winter shelter. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a publication that can be downloaded called "Landscaping for Wildlife." This publication can help you decide which plants to add to your landscape to benefit the birds.

A good resource for bird feeding tips is the Cornel Lab of Ornithology website. There you will find information about the best types of birdseeds to feed and the types of feeders that you should be using for the birds that you would like to attract to your yard. Download the "Winter Bird Feeding" pamphlet from this website as well. This publication contains a wealth of information about backyard bird feeding.

I hope these resources will help you create a bird feeding station in your back yard that brings enjoyment to your home landscape. Bird feeding and other home gardening questions can be directed to the University of Illinois Extension at (815) 235-4125.