Worried about your winged neighbors? Winter birds will be just fine

Over-wintering birds know how to survive

Last winter at this time, Cheryl in Northwest D.C. wrote to say that she was worried about a wren that had built its nest in a corner of her porch. She was concerned that there wasn’t much shelter in the chosen area and that the bird wouldn’t be able to keep itself warm enough during really cold weather. “What should I do?” she wrote, “to help the bird get through the winter?”

As I always like to remind D.C.-area residents at this time of year: Wrens and chickadees are tough little birds that are well-adapted to winter weather.

They love to live near people — I have wrens nesting right outside of my bedroom window, and I see them flying back and forth all the time, even on the coldest days. They also don’t need our help to make it through the winter, but you can make their life easier by providing fresh water (a heated birdbath is a boon for the birdies) and a high-energy food source.

The best food for winter birds

Lots of birds are year-round residents and well-adapted to D.C.-area weather. And two of those winter wonders — wrens and chickadees — especially love nesting near people. I have several families of each living rent-free on my landscape.

These and other over-wintering birds don’t need to be fed by us; they have been taking care of themselves for centuries. But they would love some help in the form of a high-energy food source. Suet cakes are ideal for this (look for ones with the highest levels of fat and protein on the label).

Suspended from a tree (for shelter and cover from predators) in small metal cages, these cakes of rendered fat mimic the birds’ typical diet of insects. And it’s great fun to watch the birds hang onto the cages and slowly peck away. Birds spend a lot more time at a suet feeder than a seed feeder.

And besides, most birdseed isn’t nearly as nutritious as suet. And seed feeders always attract Evil Squirrels. Spilled seed also attracts disease-carrying mice and rats to your landscape.

So, say “yes” to suet.

The gift these birds will give back to you

The list of birds that spend winter right here is long, but my favorites are woodpeckers, wrens, the chickadee, titmouse and nuthatch.

These meat-eating birds are among nature’s greatest pest controllers, with insects making up 90 percent or more of their diet, especially in the spring when they’re raising their young (and when over-wintering pest insects are just waking up).

To tap into this great natural resource, put up suet feeders: The high-energy suet cakes directly attract the birds that are best at eating bad bugs. Replenish the suet all winter, but stop when the weather starts to warm up. The birds will naturally migrate from the suet you’ve provided to the insect pests that would have otherwise threatened your plants!

Just don’t feed bread to your birds

Nobody in our house ate the ends of the loaves of white bread that were ubiquitous in my childhood. (In my house, it was Bond Bread, specifically — with its suspicious stains showing through the opaque white wax wrapper. I was always curious about the balloon-festooned packages of Wonder Bread I saw in the store, but there was little chance I would ever see such a package in our bread drawer. We drove Chevys, ate Bond Bread and drank Harbison milk. Period.)

Anyway, my mother would let the ends sit out until they were brittle and then let me break them up and toss them to the birds that would line up on our tiny row house lawn for their turn at the crusty treats.

Fun to do and good for the birds, right?

Wrong. We now know that feeding birds low-energy foods like stale bread is worse than not feeding them at all. The bread fills them up, but doesn’t supply the energy they need, especially in winter. So, use that bread for stuffing a turkey (and make it whole-grain bread to begin with!) and put up suet feeders for your birds.

As I have been stressing, suet provides the fat and protein birds need to stay warm in winter.

Yes, sunflower seeds are also a very good high-energy food — but only in a feeder that’s squirrel-proof (good luck with that) and doesn’t allow vermin-attracting seed to spill on the ground.

In other news: Keep off the grass

Some of us in the colder reaches still have a beautiful thin coating of frosty snow on our lawns, protected by the extremely cold weather we’ve been experiencing. And New Year’s Eve is eve-ing soon, a night when people traditionally pull their cars onto lawns after all of the regular party parking is filled up.

And so, a timely warning: Whether there’s visible snow or just a thin coating of frost, frozen grass is at great risk.

Forget driving a couple thousand pounds over top of the turf; just walking on a frozen lawn can cause massive amounts of damage. (Hint: If you can hear that winter “crackle,” you’re killing what you’re walking on.) Blades of grass are 90 percent water and freeze very easily. Apply pressure to those frozen blades and they will break open like a thin glass ornament dropped onto a hard stone patio.

And once broken, those blades are dead. So, when the temperature drops: “Keep off the grass!”

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