Extreme Weather Strategies for Birds

Cardinals cluster on a snowy day

Birds have many strategies to survive without our help but as a concerned birder, I like to think that my feeding them nutritious food tips the balance in their favor during extreme weather.  Mortality during extremely cold weather is much greater for birds and it has been proven that bird survival improves with ready access to backyard feeders.

Hawks prey on birds at feeders

Predation of birds will occur at your feeders and is the way nature happens. Hawks and other prey birds have to kill and eat one to three other birds or rodents a day to survive. Your best strategy is to provide cover such as hedges or shrubs near your feeders so that feeding birds have somewhere to shelter if a hawk comes hunting.

Sometimes you just see a streak plunging through the sky when a hawk appears and all the songbirds scatter for cover. Flocks of crows will also descend on my feeders and empty them out. If I see them I let my dogs out to chase them away. The same for squirrels…. I don’t mind squirrels raiding the feeders once in a while and my dogs make sure they keep their visits to a minimum.

Cardinals are regular visitors

Top Three Strategies

Shelter

Evergreen trees provide the best place for a roosting bird to hide from predators. An alternative to planting coniferous trees is building a brush pile of repurposed branches and debris from your yard.  Gather branches, moss, and other yard debris pile them up in a sheltered corner. Birds like to hide and settle in these brushy havens.  I have a meadow with towering spent goldenrod and other wildflowers that over the course of the winter tends to flop over and create hidden pockets for animals to find sanctuary in.

Thickets of goldenrod in my meadow create pockets for birds to take shelter 

Re-purpose your old Christmas tree as an instant shelter. Put up old plywood sheets as a windbreak. Keep up old birdhouses/nesting boxes over the winter which allows birds a safe haven from weather also. Empty the old nesting materials and place old cotton, scraps of fabric and yarn into the cavity.

I have reused an old planter as a smorgasbord with pine cones smeared with peanut butter, wool for nests, and millet branches
I have reused an old planter as a smorgasbord with pine cones smeared with peanut butter, wool for nests, broom seeds, and millet branches

Placing your feeders close to shelter, evergreen and deciduous, allows birds to perch and zoom in on the feeder when it is safe.

A fluffed up Bluebird is perching in a nearby tree close to my feeders

Birds in extreme cold puff up their feathers in order to trap more air in them, which is then warmed by their body heat and keeps them warmer.

Fluffy Cardinal perched in a tree overhanging my feeder

Fresh Water

Birds more than any other time of year need fresh water in the winter. It is a precious commodity and if you provide it, birds will take advantage. The cheapest way is to buy a heated dog bowl. Simple but effective.

My pond is almost frozen but the waterfall is still running and I find birds hopping in the running water.

The birds can still access water in my waterfall

I also have a pond de-icer to keep a ring of water free around the unit. An alternative is to buy a bird bath heater to keep the ice away in your bird bath. Even if you put out a bowl of water, in this weather, the water freezes very quickly, and a heater is a must have.

Place a rock in your bird bath for birds to perch on

Set the Table with High Fat Food

If done right, feeding birds can be very beneficial, both for the bird and bird watching friends. Make sure your seed is high and dry. A hopper or tube feeder keeps the food dry and free flowing. I use a high capacity triple tube feeder to lessen my trips to fill it up. Peanut feeders, suet feeders, and platform feeders are all options to increase your odds of attracting the largest variety. Think fatty things! After cutting fat off of a chuck steak, I placed the chunks on a platform feeder and it was gone in a few days. Meat scraps, meal worms, peanuts, suet, and peanut butter are all healthy options for a high fat diet.

Homemade suet- see my recipe below

Also, don’t forget to have clean, bleached (one part bleach to nine parts water) bird feeders ready to go when your old ones get all soggy from precipitation. Scatter seed at the edge of woods, under hedges, and in brambles to encourage shy birds to eat, especially in snow covered areas.  Some birds won’t venture to feeders and compete with others.

High fat smorgasbord- meal worms, sunflower seeds, beef fat, and sunflower seeds
A starling on a suet cage
Woodpeckers use their long pointed beaks to dig out suet

Suet is easy to prepare and you can add lots of types of seeds and berries to improve over bought varieties.

Suet Recipe

Peanut Butter Bird Suet

This makes a simple high fat suet cake that you cut up to make any size or shape. I use lard or beef suet for the fat. Lard is easier to find. I also throw in many additions like raisins, sunflower seeds, nuts, etc.   

Ingredients

  • 2 C Crunchy Peanut Butter
  • 2 C Lard or Beef Fat
  • 4 C Oatmeal
  • 4 C Corn Meal
  • 2 C Flour, white of whole wheat
  • 2/3 C Sugar, brown or white

Instructions

  1. Melt lard and peanut butter in a dutch oven. 

  2. Stir in the remaining ingredients. The mixture will be very stiff. 
  3. Spoon into a 9 x13 glass casserole or disposable aluminum pan and spread flat. When hard, cut into squares and you can store any excess in the freezer.
Suet supplies
Melt suet and peanut butter in a large saucepan
Stir in dry ingredients
Spread mixture in pan to harden completely
Put in refrigerator to harden completely and cut into chunks; I added raisins to this batch

These strategies don’t cost you much but on those nights when the wind blows icy cold and the snow swirls around, our feathered friends will be puffed up and cozy in the shelters that we provided, well-nourished and hydrated. To read more about Bird Buffets go to my post Berry Bird Buffet.

Dueling birds

6 Replies to “Extreme Weather Strategies for Birds”

  1. I tried a heated dog water bowl, Claire, and none of the birds would touch it. I spoke to the owner of the Wild Bird Store and he said those are too deep. He suggested putting a rock in the middle for the birds to perch on. I finally broke down and bought a heated bird bath.

  2. I purchased a heater for my birdbath several years ago. The birds love it! I located the birdbath near the feeder (maybe 10 -12 feet away) and it seems to round out the bird friendly environment. One thing to remember is that evaporation takes place more quickly than you might expect, so frequent refreshing and occasional cleaning are a must.

    1. Lorri, Thanks for the info! We really need to remember that birds need water when everything is frozen outside and it sounds like many people are taking it to heart!

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