Backyard Birding Tips for Winter

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Winter is here once again, which typically means we're spending a little more time at home. And thanks to the global pandemic still being a part of our every day lives, we will likely be spending even more time than usual at home & indoors this season. This isolation is hard on all of us, and being stuck in the cold is especially hard on the Snow Birds, but luckily, winter is a very exciting time for backyard birding! Even more so this year with the irruption of many winter finch species including Pine Siskins, Evening & Pine Grosbeaks, and Common Redpolls. Use these backyard birding tips to help make this winter the best one yet.

Attract more birds with water
If you've read any of my previous "tips & tricks" blogs, you know that I mention water often. The reason is that water is one of the most important elements in a bird-friendly backyard, if not the most important element. This is especially true in the winter when there is a lack of open water sources for birds to drink from, and they instead rely on eating snow or drinking from icicles for hydration. You can create an open water source for the birds in your yard by installing a heated bird bath. Heated bird baths keep the water temperature just above freezing which gives birds to opportunity to drink as needed throughout the cold winter months, and may attract species not particularly known to come to feeders such as American Robins, Northern Flickers, and even some birds of prey.

Be prepared for inclement weather & provide shelter
Winter is pretty, but it isn't always friendly to us or the birds. During inclement weather birds are more likely to seek out food & areas that are well-sheltered. To help with this you can add weather domes above your feeders which act as shields from rain, snow, freezing rain, and wind. Domes will not only help the birds to feel safe & secure, but they can also help keep your offerings dry which cuts down on seed spoilage. Having an abundance of bird-friendly habitat is also of the utmost importance during the winter. This can be in the form of trees & shrubbery growing around your yard, man-made brush piles of twigs & branches, or even upcycled Christmas trees. Once the holidays are over and your Christmas tree is no longer needed, just toss it in the yard for the birds to enjoy! 

House Finch with House Finch Eye Disease, a disease commonly found in feeder birds

Clean your feeders often 
In the winter, birds - especially finches - congregate at feeders in large numbers. As we've learned quite well over the past year, when large crowds gather and things they've touched go unsanitized, bacteria and illnesses can spread like wildfire. The same is true at your feeding stations and birdbaths. Since birds don't practice social distancing, and can't wear masks or use hand sanitizer, it's up to us to make sure our bird feeding equipment doesn't become the source of an outbreak. Be sure to clean and sanitize your feeders once per month at the very least, and immediately after seeing a possibly unhealthy bird visit your feeding station, or if there has been particularly wet weather (can cause seed to mold and spoil quickly). Some illnesses like House Finch Eye Disease and Avian Pox can be quite noticeable in birds, but some aren't so it's best to keep a tight cleaning schedule just to be safe. Click here to learn best sanitization and cleaning practices, and what steps to take if you've encountered a sick bird in your yard.

Set up a feeder cam
You'd be surprised who visits your feeders when you aren't watching! Setting up a camera at your feeders is a great way to see the birds at your feeders when you aren't able to see them yourself. You can set up a "feeder cam" using a trail camera, a small action cam such as a GoPro, or a purpose-built camera like the Bird Photo Booth bird feeder cam. If you're tech-savvy you may also choose to step it up a notch by live-streaming your video online to watch 24/7. 

Create a winter birdwatching blind
Birdwatching blinds are perfect for catching a glimpse or photo of those shy species in your yard - you can see them, but they can't see you! You can go big by building your own permanent shed-style blind that can be used year-round, or go with a more minimal approach with a pop-up blind that would normally be used for hunting purposes. I use a single-person pop-up blind with a folding ice fishing chair and it works perfectly. The smaller blinds aren't usually insulated, but you can bundle up and and bring a travel mug of coffee or hot chocolate along with you to help keep you nice and toasty while you watch your feathered friends. 

Dark-eyed Junco in falling snow

Last but not least.. embrace the cold & snow!
I know this can be easier said than done - especially when the temps start to drop to those negative double digits - but there is so much magic to experience in the winter. Big fluffy flakes falling as birds hop along the ground and fly between the trees, wildlife tracks on freshly fallen snow, the glow of the sunrise across a snow-covered landscape, finches flying in synchrony as they search for their next meal, the stillness and calm in the middle of the woods on a chilly afternoon.. I could go on. There is so much to appreciate in winter that we often miss because we're much more comfortable bundled up on the couch watching tv. This winter, try stepping out of your comfort zone and into the cold air with the birds. You may just find that binge-birdwatching is a little more rewarding than re-watching that true crime docu-series for 4th time this week. 😉

Happy trails!
- Shayna 

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