The habitat garden in winter

Our backyard in winter(Enlarge) ©Janet Allen
Syracuse is known for its snow

Creatures need food, water, cover, and even places to raise their young in our cold and snowy Central New York winter, and we try to provide these habitat basics.


Titmouse ©Janet Allen
Titmouse in bare tree

Birds keep us connected to the natural world in winter. They're much easier to spot in winter's leafless trees, and watching them from the comfort of our cozy family room is something we enjoy.

We provide food, water, and cover for them in the winter and look forward to spring when we can help them raise their young.

Food for birds

Mockingbird ©Janet AllenMockingbird eating winterberries.

One of the more important things we've done is to have planted a number of bushes with berries for birds.

We're lucky that this colorful winterberry is right outside our family room window. It's very cheerful to see.

We've seen a mockingbird eating from this bush every year. Could it be the same bird?

Junco eating seeds from our native grasses ©Janet AllenJunco eating native grass seeds

Seeds don't have to come in a plastic bag!

This junco is enjoying seeds from our native grasses. We have switchgrass, little bluestem, big bluestem, bottlebrush grass and others.

Goldfinch eating hyssop seeds ©Janet AllenGoldfinch eating hyssop seeds

We resist the temptation to deadhead all the flowers, and we leave them most of them standing throughout the winter.

We love to see the goldfinches land on them to get a meal.

Having some vegetation—dead though it may be— also makes the yard much more appealing than seeing just snow everywhere.

Goldfinches eating nyger seeds ©Janet AllenGoldfinch eating nyger seeds

We also have birdfeeders: a standard one filled with sunflower kernels (a lot less messy than whole sunflower seeds), sometimes safflower seeds, thistle feeders for the finches, and suet holders.

Although there are lots of natural sources of seed for goldfinches, it's always fun to see a flock at the nyger (thistle) feeder.

I like this style of feeder. I can fill it up in the top reservoir and just take off the dirty "socks" and replace with clean socks. I have a lot of socks; I save them up and wash them all at once.

Downy woodpecker eating suet ©Janet AllenDowny woodpecker eating suet

Suet provides energy in a concentrated form.

We find that birds (at least the ones that come to our yard) definitely prefer one "flavor" of suet. (I always have trouble remembering which one, but I think it's called "Nutty Treat.")

We provide suet in the spring and fall, too, and sometimes summer. When it's going to be warm, we make sure we buy the year-round suet, though that's generally what we buy anyway.

Nuthatch perhaps searching for insects in the tree trunk ©Janet AllenA white-breasted nuthatch

This nuthatch might be searching for little insects hiding in the tree bark.

They have a beautiful system: they search for insects going from the top of the tree down, so they find things other more-conventional birds going from bottom up would miss.

Their feet look a bit different than other birds' feet since they're adapted for this special type of locomotion.

Water for birds

Birdbath in winter with heater ©Janet AllenBirdbath in winter with a simple water heater

Birds need water in winter, too. How do they get it when everything's frozen? They eat snow. Snow is not in short supply, but we also provide a heated birdbath to help them save energy.

In the past, we tried a few different pond heaters, but they used way too much energy—and climate change is the biggest threat to birds.

Now we use a simple heater coil designed for birdbaths. It just rests in the plastic bath and is thermostatically controlled. We plug it into the pond's GFI outlet for safety.

We added the rocks so that birds would have something to stand on. We also hope the stones discourage them from taking a bath in the cold weather.

Cardinal getting a drink  ©Janet AllenA cardinal enjoying a drink.

A variety of birds enjoy this birdbath.

Still, we'll have to reconsider our use of this device. First, we need to find out how much energy it actually uses (which we can find out with our handy-dandy Kill-a-Watt device), and then make a judgment.

We do save energy in many ways, such as hanging our laundry all-year, but justifying energy use by saying we're saving energy in other ways begs the question. We're trying to reduce our use of energy, not just shift it to "environmentally-friendly" uses.

Cover for birds

Arborvitae providing cover in winter ©Janet AllenArborvitae providing cover in winter

We try to provide lots of natural cover, so we've planted arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), junipers (Juniperus virginiana), and hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) evergreens. They're all well-used.

Robins in rhododendrons in winter ©Janet AllenRobins taking shelter in rhododendrons in winter as seen through our living room window

We've been surprised to see that many birds favor our rhododendron for cover—surprised because their thin leaves don't seem to offer as much protection as evergreens. Besides these robins, we also see cardinals, chickadees, and others.

Shrubs in winter ©Janet Allen
Seen in the neighborhood.
Will these shrubs support birds in winter?

We've left our nest boxes up over the winter, but so far it doesn't look like they've been used. We also installed a tall, narrow bird house called a roost box. Its entry hole is at the bottom rather than the center and has three staggered perches inside. It's designed so that many birds can roost together, sharing body heat. It appears they haven't used these either, though it's installed so high that we haven't been able to monitor it.

Some years, we've had brush piles, too, though not the "official" kinds—basically, just a pile of old Christmas trees we gather from the curb.