Feathered Friends

Easy tips for the care and feeding of wild birds in your yard this winter

Birds bring Charlotte’s trees to life during winter, twittering and chirping inside the evergreens or fluffed and still on bare branches. Cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers, sparrows, and finches are common. Although our season is moderate—we have below-freezing temperatures only half of winter days—those icy, see-your-breath mornings and whipping winds are hard on our feathered friends. Here are some tips for getting them through to spring.

Think of a roost box as a bus stop for birds. They need a warm place to wait out the winter, coming and going in safety. A roost box looks like a big birdhouse without top vents or a front hole, with thick walls and multiple perches inside for a neighborly gathering. The entry is at the bottom to keep in heat.

Black oil sunflower seed is universally loved by birds. Buy it in bulk and you won’t waste money on filler seeds and empty hulls common in premixed bags. Thistle seeds in tube feeders will attract finches, and white millet spread on the ground under feeders will beckon juncos and sparrows. Since nuts don’t freeze, you can even put out whole peanuts. Just remember: Be consistent.

Birds also love suet, a mash-up of fat, seeds, nuts, and even fruit. “I make my own from lard, cornmeal, and peanut butter,” says Jill Palmer, president of the Mecklenburg Audubon Society. She mixes in seeds and nuts and cuts it into blocks. Backyard Birds in Matthews offers a good selection of suet feeders, including ones made of eco-friendly bamboo.

What type of feeder you use is not as important as where you put it. Keep it far enough away from overhanging limbs to discourage squirrel landings (they will leap), and don’t hang it inside large shrubs where cats stalk and pounce. But don’t put it in the middle of the yard, either—birds will be vulnerable to predators like Cooper’s hawks. Instead, mount it 10 to 15 feet from trees or shrubs. Want to watch from a window? Scientists at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service say birds are more likely to fly into glass if feeders are three to 30 feet from a window; hang your feeder within three feet for close viewing.

Don’t haul pruned branches and sticks to the street—make a pile for the birds in your backyard. “Brush piles are especially useful for attracting winter birds, because a lot of plant cover is lost during winter,” says Chris Moorman, a professor of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University. He recommends a loosely stacked pile to a height of four feet. Replenish it throughout the winter, and scatter millet around the periphery to attract juncos, sparrows, Eastern towhees, and brown thrashers.

Bird enthusiasts at the Mecklenburg Audubon Society conduct free half-day bird walks year-round at public parks. A beginning bird walk is held once a month, and they’ll loan you binoculars on the first outing. Children are welcome.

Categories: Dwell, Outdoor Living