Let's Talk About Birds: Caring for backyard birds in the winter

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This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

The weather outside may turn frightful, but caring for our feathered friends during winter can make the season delightful. Freezing temperatures and limited food supplies can challenge our resident species. A few simple additions to your backyard can transform it into an attractive winter habitat for birds and other wildlife, and bring nature to your doorstep to observe and enjoy.

Although they are covered in layers of insulating feathers, birds have a high metabolism and need plenty of food to stay warm and active. To survive cold winter days, our resident species rely heavily on high-calorie foods such as sunflower seeds and suet. You can supplement bird diets with a quality seed mix in a tray placed on the snow. Or you can purchase or make more elaborate seed and suet feeders, installing them around your yard.

Whenever possible, feeders should be 5 to 12 feet away from bushes and ground cover. This lets birds fly or run to safety if needed but does not allow ground predators, such as domestic cats, to ambush them. Clean your feeders regularly and ensure the food is fresh. Old or moldy seed is unhealthy for birds. And if you go on vacation or your feeders run dry, our resident birds will not starve. They will simply forage elsewhere until you return.

Water is an important winter necessity to our resident birds that is often overlooked. Birds lose water in their droppings and as they breathe, and they need to replenish water often in the winter. They also need a place to bathe in the winter to keep their feathers clean and in top shape to insulate. A reliable source of unfrozen water can attract many species of birds to your yard, especially when natural sources are frozen over. You can provide a saucer of water on the ground, but you will need to replace the water regularly to keep it clean and from freezing.

A heated bird bath set on a pedestal is optimal to keep birds safe from predators and to minimize maintenance. You'll want to place the bird bath in view of your windows for your enjoyment. But do not place it under hanging feeders--falling seed and bird droppings will contaminate the water and increase your workload.

During extreme winter weather conditions, birds need sources of refuge from the elements. Natural shelters in your yard provide valuable cover and protection and can add value to your backyard landscape. Consider planting native trees and shrubs that provide beauty and shelter but also supply fruits, nuts or seeds for wildlife. For a quick and easy temporary shelter, your Christmas tree can be placed outside where its thick evergreen branches can offer birds a cozy retreat from the elements.

After providing for the birds in your backyard this winter, warm up at the National Aviary. Spend an afternoon in the tropics to learn about how we provide for the birds in our care. Our wetlands and tropical forests remain balmy all winter long, and daily Wetlands and Tropical Forest feedings are free with general admission. The National Aviary is open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. year round (except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day).

-- By the National Aviary Education Team

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