From the Ground Up: Winter Birds
by Lisa Slattery, ISU Extension and Outreach Linn County Master Gardener
This winter has been brutal. There have been several days that I've had genuine concern for the birds. Winter birds in Iowa are hardy ones, that have adaptations for winter, like down and contour feathers that help keep them warm when the temperature plunges. But food is the key to keeping birds' metabolic furnaces running on high. The smaller the bird the more frequently they must eat. Chickadees and Nuthatches have to eat almost constantly to survive. Some birds will even store food like Woodpeckers and Blue Jays. They tuck seeds and nuts in crevices of branches and bark. I have a Red-bellied Woodpecker that has spent lots of time storing seed in the cracks of my wood fence.
You can enjoy birds all winter long by providing them shelter, water and food. Shelter includes the trees, shrubs and plantings in your yard. Leave plants with dried seed heads like sunflowers and coneflowers to winter over for birds.
Wateris the scarcest item in winter but can still be provided with dripping water, steaming water or just a daily shallow dish of fresh water throughout the winter. Heated birdbaths are also an option.
Chickadees, nuthatches, finches, sparrows, and woodpeckers are easy to attract to birdfeeders. But different birds prefer different types of food. Food sources for birds include seeds, fruits, berries, and insects. In winter you need to rely more on feeders than plants to attract birds. Use an assortment of feeder types mounted at various levels. Provide suet feeders for insect eaters like Woodpeckers and Nuthatches. Offer seed for others, but avoid seed mixes that contain Milo (sorghum) and wheat, fillers that no birds like. It's best to provide the type of seed preferred by the bird species you want to attract but generally a mix with the highest proportion of black (oil-type) sunflower seeds is best. Birds prefer the black sunflower seeds to the stripped sunflower seeds. You can purchase pre-made mixes or make your own. Iowa State University Extension suggests a mix of 50% percent black (oil-type) sunflower, 35% white proso millet, and 15% cracked corn. ISU also suggests peanut kernels (not hearts) in a small tubular or globe feeder.
When considering adding plants for birds, take a look at some of their preferred food sources like the common elderberry, serviceberry, and common chokecherry — all of which produce fruit in the summer, and the American plum and American mountain-ash which produce in the fall. Also on the list are persistent food source plants like the American highbush cranberry (sometimes called “American cranberry bush”), common hackberry, red cedar, nannyberry viburnum, Washington hawthorn, red osier, and gray dogwood.
ISU Extension and Outreach has some excellent publications available online about planting and feeding birds. Two great articles are Iowa Winter Birds and Managing Iowa Habitats-Attracting Birds to Your Yard.
For specific questions - plants for birds or any other gardening questions, call the ISU Extension and Outreach Linn County Hortline at 319-447-0647.
Photo credit: Flickr user gomattolson
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