Do you put seed out for birds in winter? Millions of Americans enjoy this hobby, even those who might not otherwise be nature-lovers. We string up suet for woodpeckers and scatter sunflower seed, millet, or corn to attract our personal favorites, perhaps the cardinal, or goldfinches. Some birds are finicky about visiting feeders, and we delight in adding another species to our list – mine is currently at eleven for 2017, but should reach fifteen or so before winter is over. I like to watch the Red-bellied woodpeckers, which are much more numerous this year than last. They are expanding their range further north as our winters grow more mild.
When I visit my mother in Vermont in a few days, I look forward to seeing her regular birds, so different from mine: crossbills and snow buntings, and red-breasted nuthatch. I might see a Cooper’s hawk in either location as they too have expanded their range, to prey on the birds that we attract to our feeders!
Some of you may wonder, is it necessary to feed birds, and can it be harmful? There are no conclusive data showing its benefit or harm to bird populations, although centralized feeding areas can be reservoirs for the spread of disease. It is a good idea to scrub down your feeder periodically, and to offer fresh water if you are providing any. The availability of water is a limiting factor for bird distribution, especially during freezes in winter, when I find dense concentrations of birds near flowing streams. Will the birds starve if you stop feeding them or miss a few days? Unlikely. Their numbers are determined by many factors in addition to food, and birds are adapted to move and forage over a wide area.
It is more important to support birds with a healthy habitat of native trees and plants than it is to provide supplementary foods in any season. Trees moderate our climate, provide shade and shelter and seed, and most critically, harbor vast numbers of insects. Some birds are almost entirely insectivorous, like the Eastern bluebird, while others depend upon insects for short periods of growth and transition. According to entomologist Doug Tallamy, ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds rear their young on insects, especially caterpillars. Many non-native plants do not support the kind or number of caterpillars that birds need, and when those plants become numerous enough to compete with native plants for space and light, the number of birds on the landscape will be diminished. Even non-native plants that appear to feed birds, like Asiatic bittersweet, can be low-quality food sources that provide less nutrition than native plants. We have seen a tremendous increase in the number and diversity of birds at the Armstrong Preserve and Education Center after we replaced our invasive non-native plants with native species.
Here is a list of things you can do to attract songbirds to your property, including suggested native plants for food sources, taken in part from bird habitat specialist Dr. Stephen Kress:
- Maintain a border of native trees and shrubs around lawns, and minimize the area of lawn.
- Create a brush pile.
- Remove invasive plants.
- Rake leaves under shrubs to create feeding areas.
- Clean out bird nesting boxes in early spring.
- Create a water source for bathing and drinking.
- Clean feeders with a 10% non-chlorine bleach solution.
- Keep cats indoors.
Spring and Summer Seed Producers = Red maple, American elm
Early Summer Fruit Producers = Black raspberry, High and Lowbush blueberry, Pokeweed, Shadbush
Autumn Seed Producers = Sugar maple, Eastern hophornbeam, the ashes
Autumn Fruit Producers = viburnums, dogwoods, Common elderberry, Spicebush
Winter Fruit Producers = Bayberry, Eastern red-cedar, Highbush cranberry, American holly, Inkberry, chokeberry, Wild grape, Virginia creeper, Winterberry, Staghorn sumac
Herbaceous plants = asters, Black-eyed susan, thistles, phloxes, sunflowers, goldenrods
Nectar Plants for Hummingbirds = Jewelweed, Cardinal flower, Trumpet honeysuckle, Indian paintbrush, Tulip tree