Shelter is more than just a safe place to sleep or take refuge from the weather. Shelter also offers safety from predators, a safe approach to the feeders, a place to wait for access to a busy feeder, and a safe place to eat the seeds and other foods you are providing for your birds. Ground feeding birds like juncos and sparrows especially appreciate nearby cover.
Safety can come in many forms. The most obvious choice is vegetation like tall grass, bushes, or trees nearby. Many of these items are already present in many backyards, but often they're not in close enough proximity to the feeding station. Ideally, a source of cover should be within 10-20 feet of the feeding station. This is just close enough to provide a safe escape in case of danger and far enough away to keep squirrels from accessing your feeders.
If live or standing vegetation is unavailable near your feeders, there are other things that can work just as well during the winter months. One of my favorite things to do is create a temporary brush pile near my feeders. I start in late fall, once the mowing season is over, and begin to collect and pile the sticks that fall in my yard on the ground near the feeders. All winter long, juncos and sparrows congregate in and around the stick pile while visiting the feeding station, just the way they would do in their natural habitat. Another simple trick is to place your live Christmas tree in the yard after the holiday season. Birds flock to these discarded evergreens all winter long while visiting the feeders as well.
Discarded Christmas trees in my yard - Winter 2008/2009
Not a fan of leaving sticks or dead Christmas trees on your lawn for the winter? Try making a manger decorated with evergreen boughs, place an outdoor table, bench, or chair nearby, or come up with another appropriate arrangement that provides shelter for the birds without compromising the aesthetics of your lawn.
Winter is an extremely difficult time of year for birds and other wildlife to access water. Though its cold with plenty of precipitation, winter outdoors is very similar to a desert. The air is dry, winter winds accelerate evaporation, and typical sources of water are usually frozen during the coldest periods of winter.
Goldfinch enjoying a refreshing sip of water from my heated birdbathA heated bird bath is the most common method for offering winter water. Some bird baths have heaters built into them. Bird bath heaters can also be purchased separately for other bird baths. Other options include heated pet bowls or heated buckets. If the depth of the container holding water is greater than 3 inches, be sure to place rocks, bricks, or another material in the bottom of the container to keep birds from "swimming" or potentially drowning in the deep water. Be sure to change/refill bird bath water regularly all throughout the winter to keep things clean.
There are a couple of other things to do to make your yard more inviting and create a more natural environment for the birds to feed.
1.) One of the best tricks is to plant flowers, bushes, and trees that provide seeds and fruits for the birds in the fall and winter months. Leaving seed heads on flowers in the garden and planting holly and winterberry bushes and crabapple trees are a couple of options.
2.) Making your own birdfeeder gives you the flexibility to establish a feeding station that fits into your landscape and can provide a more natural feeding experience for the birds. Feeders made or adorned with natural materials also make for great photo opportunities showing the bird in a more natural environment.
3.) Make your own bird food. There are plenty of possibilities here. Make a string of garland out of natural popcorn and cranberries. Create edible ornaments with pinecones, peanut butter, and mixed seed. My favorite thing to do is to make my own suet. Don't know how? Here's my recipe:
Ingredients: 1 cup of lard or vegetable shortening, 1 cup of crunchy peanut butter, 2 cups of quick cook oats, 2 cups of cornmeal, 1 cup of flour, and 1/4 cup of sugar.
Directions: Melt the lard and peanut butter together, mix the dry ingredients, and then mix everything together until thoroughly mixed. Make cakes from the mixture by pouring the fresh suet into empty suet containers or leave it cool in the bowl to scoop onto a plate, dish, or into a suet log as shown above.Try one or two of the above suggestions and see if you don't attract more birds to your backyard.
Happy bird feeding,
-Adam Zorn, Naturalist