How to help birds survive winter weather

January 24, 2019 GMT

If you feed the birds this time of year, one main consideration is to place your feeders where you can easily get to them, even in the midst of a snowstorm or bitter cold snap. These conditions are the most important times to keep feeders full. I’ve had folks tell me in the last month or so that they have cleared paths through deep snow to reach their feeders. Choose feeders that are easily opened while wearing gloves. If you have any feeders that are just too far away to keep filled, move them closer to the house. Birds don’t mind, and if closer means more consistent food, you’ll be rewarded with more birds.

Typically, your feeders serve as a supplemental source of food for birds. During extreme cold and severe winter weather, your birds may switch to utilizing them as the critical source of food that enables them to survive from day to day.

Normally, birds that come to feeders obtain about 20 percent of their daily calories from our feeders, with the rest being obtained naturally. However, the story changes dramatically during periods of colder than normal or even freezing temperatures. Even a light snow can cover most natural food sources. Wind, storms and wet weather also can rob birds of their ability to stay warm, even at moderate temperatures.

The most often overlooked winter survival challenge for birds is having to endure the long period of darkness during a winter night. During winter nights, songbirds must sustain themselves through 12 or more hours of darkness by utilizing only their fat reserves for fuel.

Songbirds may use up 80 percent of their fat reserves in one winter night. This is equivalent to 10 percent of their body weight being shed and replaced every day as they consume, store and utilize their body fat. This is comparable to a 200-pound person losing and then gaining back 20 pounds of fat every 24 hours.

High-fat foods are a critical necessity that you can provide your birds to help them survive the long winter nights. Choose a high-fat winter bird seed blend with plenty of sunflower, sunflower chips, nuts and suet nuggets. High-fat seed cylinders also provide a long lasting high-fat option for winter feeding. Suet or bark butter (spreadable suet) gives a potent shot of fat and calories to your backyard birds. Bark butter can be spread directly onto the trunk of a tree, essentially making every tree a bird feeder.

It’s also helpful to keep a patch of ground snow-free so juncos, towhees, quail and other ground feeding birds can access food easily. For ground feeding, use a blend with some white millet, which ground-feeding birds really like, and toss it directly onto your clearing or feed in a ground feeding tray with legs.

Just a few of the winter birds reported lately include: White-breasted nuthatch, mountain chickadees, evening grosbeaks, cedar waxwings (eating berries), robins and bluebirds (eating berries and at the birdbath), bushtits, pine siskins and lesser goldfinch (eating thistle), juncos, flickers, brown creepers, Bewick’s wrens, screech owls, spotted and canyon towhees, ruby-crowned kinglets and many more. Most can be attracted to your backyard with ice-free water, suet, high-fat seed cylinders and a good winter seed blend. A good overgrown native winter habitat helps too, not only providing cover and roosting spots but also berries and seeds that birds eat.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and Birdhouses of the World.