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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Helping birds make it through a north Texas winter

Over a typical winter, birds spend about 99% of their time simply trying to stay alive. Many don’t make it to the spring. Or through a cold night. However, there are several ways that you and I can help.

In rainy, windy or cold weather, birds seek the shelter of roosts. Also, every night, birds want to go in roosts too. Why? Simply to stay out of the weather and get a little extra heat (many birds often congregate in a roost to share body heat). They can’t just pack on some fat, like many mammals do, since birds need to stay light enough to fly.

A “roost” can be almost anything. In nature it could be a rotted-out hole in a tree, a pile of fallen branches, or just the center of an evergreen tree.   When these natural roosts aren’t around, birds will roost under your house’s eaves, in an old birdhouse, or in a man-made roost box. It doesn’t need to be fancy. In addition to roost boxes, we’ve planted some evergreens around our yard too (in north Texas, live oak, wax myrtle, yaupon holly, and juniper are good). However, without a safe, cozy roost for shelter, a bird probably won’t be around for long.


It may seem like water would be the farthest thing from a bird’s thoughts in winter.  In fact, clean water for drinking and bathing is probably the most vital and most constant need of a bird – all year long. In cold weather they still need to bathe daily to keep their flight feathers in shape, and to be able to fluff up their feathers to insulate themselves. In the winter, however, water is harder to find, what with birdbaths being put away by many people, and sometimes-frozen lakes, ponds and puddles.

A quality birdbath can be left out all year – I do all three of mine. It’s the “bargain” ones that crack and chip in freezing weather. A few people keep birdbaths ice-free with heaters. But this is Texas and water freezes infrequently! If the water freezes in mine, I just pour in a pitcher of hot water and reap the benefits. Naturalist Val Cunningham observes that a yard that provides open water will attract three times as many birds as a yard where there’s only food.


To a bird, the quality of what they eat often means the difference between life and death. In cool weather, the vast majority of the food they consume goes toward keeping warm. Consequently, if they don’t get fresh, nutritious food they may end us as a statistic. Their foods of choice include suet, shelled nuts, and fresh seed.

The instant seed is harvested from the field, it begins losing its potential for energy – its oil content. So the less time a bag of seed spends traveling or sitting on a shelf, the more potential energy it has. And wild birds will need all its energy. Many species that ate insects in the summer have switched to seeds until the spring. For this reason there will be more birds at your feeders, too.  


Along with all the other rigors of winter, consider this;  winter’s shorter days require that they find energy-food and water in less time. So make whatever’s in your yard easy to find, and worth finding!


OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at in Denton.

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