It looks like we are in for a bitter cold week across Southwestern Ontario. High temperatures in the negative teens are forecast, and strong winds will make it feel much colder. As homeowners, there are a few things we can do to make it easier on our feathered friends during adverse weather.
Birds keep warm in several ways during cold weather. One of these methods is by shivering. Shivering raises their metabolic rate, which keeps them warm but uses their fat reserves. Offering a high quality seed will help replenish energy used during this process. Be careful where you buy your seed from. You may be tempted by what seems like a low price to purchase mixed seed from a big box store. The truth is, seed from a big box store is never fresh, often dusty, and contains several cheap fillers that is less desirable to birds. You may think you are saving a few dollars a bag, but do yourself and the birds a favour and purchase your seed from a bird seed retailer. When you purchase seed from a bird seed retailer, it is always fresh and doesn’t contain cheap fillers. Your backyard birds will consume every seed making it a far better deal than the discount seed that gets scattered on the ground as birds search for the few good seeds.
Your local seed retailer can also advise you on what seed is best for the birds in your area. I like to offer a variety of seed because it attracts the widest variety of birds. Some of my favourite seeds to offer are: black oil sunflower, peanuts (both in the shell and halves), safflower, white millet, nyjer, and suet. If you are reluctant to feed the birds because of the seed shells left behind, many retailers offer a mixed seed that contains no shells. Again, the price may seem a bit high, but remember you are only paying for the weight of the seed, not the shells.
Fresh water is equally important during cold weather and often attracts more birds to your backyard than food. A heated birdbath is a great way to offer water to birds during winter months. Remember to change the water frequently to ensure that it is fresh. Heated bird baths can also be purchased from your local seed retailer.
Birds require shelter during extremely cold temperatures. Shelter protects birds form the cold, wind, snow, freezing rain, and predators such as hawks and cats. Evergreens are a great source of shelter for birds year round, but especially in winter. If your yard is lacking evergreens than adding shelter is quite simple. The easiest way to provide shelter this time of year is to put your Christmas tree outside. Juncos, cardinals, wrens, chickadees, and sparrows will all quickly seek shelter in the thick branches of a Christmas Tree. Standing these trees upright may be more aesthetically pleasing, but is not necessary; laying the trees down on their sides provides adequate shelter. Adding multiple trees around your yard is even better. Watch for your neighbours to place their trees out to the curb or gather a few from one of the local recycling depots. Positioning them out of prevailing winds and in the sun makes an excellent spot for birds to keep warm. Place a few closer to your feeders to give birds a safe spot to dive into in case a raptor takes a swipe at them. Make sure the trees are far enough away from your feeder that squirrels can’t use them to gain access. Trees can then be placed at the curb in spring when the city resumes picking up yard materials.
Roost boxes provide excellent shelter for birds during winter. Roost boxes are similar to nest boxes, but have perches inside and the hole is located at the bottom. Several birds will enter, then huddle on the perches for warmth. The hole located at the bottom helps to retain heat. Rising hot air is trapped in the box making it that much warmer. Chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches and other birds typically use roost boxes at night to stay warm. I have noticed birds on cold windy days and during snow squalls enter my roost boxes to escape the elements. I built my roost boxes with reversible fronts, so they can be converted to next boxes in the spring, but commercial boxes can be purchased at a seed retailer. Roost boxes should be placed out of the wind and in the afternoon sun so they will warm up of for the birds to use at night.
Having a backyard refuge for the birds has several benefits. Not only will you be helping wild birds survive when it is unbearably cold, it is also a great way to enjoy nature from the comfort of your warm living room.