Helping Our Birds in Winter

“For the birds” is an idiom used to describe something as trivial or nonsense. Originating during WWII, it is believed to be a reference to birds pecking at manure to find birdseed. It is a mistake to call birds trivial—they add so much to our landscapes and ecosystems, not to mention the pleasure they bring to birdwatchers!

Birds contribute to the ecosystem by dispersing the seeds of plants to faraway locations and keeping populations of insects and rodents in check by feeding on them. They are vital to the economy both by keeping pests in check and through the billions of dollars spent annually by bird watchers on seeds, bird feeders, photography and travel to interact with our feathered friends. Yes, that is billions

Birds are literally the canaries in the coal mines and warn us of environmental dangers. It was the decline of bald eagles, osprey and other birds that signaled that DDT was a hazard and led to it being banned. Vultures prevent rabies, tuberculosis and other deadly diseases by cleaning up dead animals. In 1994, a decrease in vultures in western India led to an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed dozens of people and cost the country $2 billion.

Birds have been warning us about out-of-balance ecosystems through the decline in their numbers. While conservation efforts have helped increase the numbers of ducks and other waterfowl, the journal Science reports that one in four North American birds have disappeared over the past 50 years.

One way we can help birds is through our gardens, especially during the winter. Bird feeders are not the solution, as the congregation of birds helps spread disease and those birds that eat fallen seeds become vulnerable to cats. Yes, outdoor cats are believed to be the second largest threat to birds behind habitat loss, so please keep your cat indoors. Don’t clean up the garden—leaving plants standing provides seeds for birds during cold winter months. Don’t rake leaves. There is a lot of life hiding in these leaves during the winter months, such as caterpillars, that birds can feed on. 

As for plants that will sustain birds from late fall to winter, American holly (Ilex opaca) provides shelter and berries. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a deciduous holly whose bare branches hold on to its berries until the birds get to them. Native viburnums such as highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), nannyberry (Viburnum lentago), and blackhaw (Viburnum trilobum) are important food sources, especially for migrating birds in the fall. Bayberry (Myrica Pensylvanica) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), a native vine with beautiful fall color, are also helpful. Don’t be fooled by berry-producing plants that are not native; the berries these produce are higher in sugar, whereas our native berries are higher in fat needed by our overwintering birds. 

When considering plants for your garden, plant native trees and native berry-producing shrubs that will help feed our declining bird populations. Avoid pesticides because they are harmful and can kill birds. This effort is not at all trivial. Learn more about helping birds during the winter months in this video.

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