Thursday, November 6, 2014

Frosty Feathers: How to help out Minnesota's winter birds

Post contributed Meredith, Conservation Corps of Minnesota crew leader:

As Minnesota transitions from fall to winter (that’s right, it’s happening) we here at Conservation Corps have been lucky to witness many seasonal changes as we go about our work in the city parks. Piles of red and orange leaves, squirrels stashing walnuts and over-wintering birds busy in the trees around us.  As fall colors start to fade and winter’s grays, whites and browns set in its important for us Northern dwelling humans to look for the beauty in these upcoming winter months.  For many, the splendor of winter is glaringly apparent when watching a resident chickadee or cardinal flit around a backyard feeder.  Many bird species endure Minnesota winters along with us and just as they bring cheer to our winter months we can be of service to them as well.
Black Capped Chickadee, a Minnesota winter resident
There are many challenges that resident birds (birds that do not migrate south) face during the winter. Sure, birds don’t have to shovel the driveway but they do have to stay warm, find food, and find water which can often be scarce during the winter.

Birds have a few ways of staying toasty in colder temperatures. Many birds fluff up the layer of feathers closest to their skin, also called down feathers, to trap warm air close to their body. Species that are social, like Black-Capped Chickadees, will roost in colonies to take advantage of each other's body heat. We can provide comfy roosting spots by cleaning out old nests and bedding from bird houses and replacing it with dry leaves or wood shavings.  Sawdust retains water so it is not a good choice for birdhouse bedding. It is also good to seal ventilation holes in bird houses, which are important on a hot summer day, but can be detrimental to birds trying to stay warm in the winter.
Downy Woodpecker, another winter resident
Providing food for birds in your backyard can be helpful as well.  Many people already have tube feeders in their yards but there are other ways to cater to your neighborhood bird’s appetite.  High calorie foods like meat scraps, suet (fat rendered from processed beef), and peanut butter can give birds important high caloric fats to sustain them through the winter. Coating a pine cone in peanut butter and then sprinkling it with a bird seed mixture and hanging it by string from a tree branch is an easy way to provide a meal to winter birds.

A bird bath heater is an option to keep liquid water available for birds throughout the winter. This is particularly important if it is below freezing and there is no snow on the ground that birds can use as a water source. Bird Watcher’s Digest suggests placing several rocks in your bird bath if you are heating it in the winter to keep birds from actually bathing in the bath.  When birds get wet at below freezing temperatures their feathers can freeze solid which can be deadly for them. Allowing enough room in your bath for birds to drink but not bathe is important.

We hope that as you prepare yourself for winter you also think about doing something Minnesota’s (winter) feathered friends! Please visit these sites for additional info about winter bird necessities!