How to help your birds survive the next winter storm

Most of the year, bird feeding is for your enjoyment, and for the birds it is just icing on Nature’s cake of insects and native plants. But for a few days each year, the readiness of your feeder array will mean life of death for some of your flock, especially ground-feeding sparrows and cold-intolerant Carolina Wrens and Eastern Bluebirds.

One of these mornings, we will arise to an unexpectedly thick cover of ice or snow. While we are listening for school closings and searching through the garage for the snow shovel, the birds in our yards will be facing a much more existential dilemma: how to survive the day.

Birds can tolerate temporary food shortages by dispersing to greener pastures, hunkering down and lowering their metabolisms for a day, or switching to less desirable foods like holly berries. But when the ground and trees are snowed-in over a wide geographic area, and temperatures are low or winds are high, none of these tactics will work for long. That’s when your feeders may save hundreds of feathered lives.

The most important thing is to feed consistently even during good weather, so that birds learn to check your yard. Even if you don’t put out enough food to last all day, they will keep you on their travel itinerary of emergency shelters. During a storm, birds that often eschew feeders, like Fox and Chipping Sparrows, Pine Warblers, and Northern Mockingbirds, will travel some distance to line up with their more domestic cousins, but only if they know where to go.

Always be sure to have enough birdseed on hand to last more than a week. The last thing you will feel like doing during an unexpected frosting is to shovel out your car and run to the store. While nyjer seed does not last for more than a few months, an emergency bag of sunflower and mixed seed will last for several years if kept dry or frozen. Keep some in the garage freezer or in a sealed bucket in the corner of your shed.

To feed the most birds at crunch time, it is best to scatter the seeds widely on the ground so that they won’t need to fight over it. If snow is soft or melting, it will swallow up your seed and even the hungriest birds won’t be able to find it. Place plywood or even cardboard on top of the snow if you cannot clear the area under your feeder. Once that ugly plywood is covered in Dark-eyed Juncos, Eastern Towhees, and Northern Cardinals you won’t even notice it. I learned the hard way that tarps will not work for this purpose because their movement underfoot scares away even starving birds.

Finally, be generous. Your yard can be like a lifeboat during a shipwreck, but unlike a lifeboat, it has no maximum capacity. It is likely that hundreds of aggressive Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds will descend on the feast during these tough times, temporarily displacing your regular residents. If you also scatter food under bushes and deck furniture, on windowsills and railings, and in your flowerpots, the smaller and shyer species will find it and everyone can be saved.

Dan Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary and can be contacted at dacris@wm.edu. To discover local birding opportunities visit http://williamsburgbirdclub.org/

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