During recent snow and bitter cold, I've been watching. Of course my feeders hang well stocked, but more interesting is who's eating what in yard and garden. Trickier, where do birds find shelter against blustery, icy nights?
The who's-eating-what is an easy I-spy exercise.
White-throated sparrows yank aster seeds from snow-mashed stalks. Cardinals perch on blackberry lilies, methodically plucking seeds. Other cardinals cling to beautyberry branches, plucking now rapidly diminishing lavender-colored berries. Then, alas, the mockingbird commandeers the bushes as its own.
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But I need to think about what birds will eat when they deplete this berry supply. Coral berries certainly won't fill the bill, even though I planted them because certain nurseries gave them high marks as bird food. Every year, come spring, berries still hang, dry, ugly, untouched. Lesson learned.
Other plants, however, provide abundance. Goldfinches already stripped black-eyed Susans and coneflowers of their seed, leaving only stalks, now sheltering ground-loving birds like white-throated sparrows and our resident Carolina wrens and song sparrows.
Also ground lovers, a pair of towhees flips leaves, seeking insects and larva to meet their dietary needs.
Downy and hairy woodpeckers hitch their way up and down tree trunks, hammering out insects and larva tucked inside tight bark. Nuthatches cover the same territory, finding insects and larva the woodpeckers missed, thanks to the nuthatches' upside-down perspective.
Jays, though, really prefer busying themselves with pecans and acorns. They work steadily, picking up the perfect nut, flying off to some secret spot, and burying it for colder days to come. I watched one cache an acorn. Using his hefty beak, he dug a hole big enough to conceal the acorn, dropped it in, raked the dirt back over his stash, stepped back to study his efforts, then picked up a nearby leaf, dropped it over the dirt, added a second leaf, patted it in place, checked that no one was watching, and left. My spying didn't count.
Multiple brush piles and bramble patches give birds ready shelter even during daylight hours. So do cedars, pines, hemlocks, hollies, and other evergreen shrubs and trees. Fence rows laden with vines protect many. Arching goldenrod and other garden stalks form cave-like hideaways. Nest boxes turned roost boxes along with natural tree cavities offer cavity lovers winter shelter. A few species may even tuck under man-made structures, roosting under awnings or overhangs.
Studying your bare-bones yard now will help you decide what to plant next spring to increase your yard's bird friendliness. For lists of recommended bird-friendly plants, check out Birds in the Yard Month by Month: What's There and Why and How to Attract Those That Aren't, available at most bookstores and online.