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Your Christmas Trees and Holiday Wreaths Can Double as Bird Habitat

By Rhiannon Crain
american goldfinches at a winter feeder
American Goldfinches at a winter feeder by Linda Roa/PFW.

When the temps drop and the snow flies, birds need thermal cover—that is, a place to get out of the cold and wind. Even in warmer climates, an unusually cool night can send birds looking for a place to get warm.

But in January and February, with no leaves on deciduous trees, shelter can be harder to come by. You can give birds a place to hide from the cold by adding an evergreen element to your backyard.

Forest birds naturally seek winter cover in evergreen trees, which have dense needles that offer protection from heavy precipitation and wind. Right now, you can even put out your holiday trees and boughs near feeders and birdbaths—breathing new life into them as they provide shelter to birds and a place for them to linger. If you’ve already sent your tree to the chipper, just snip or purchase a few treetops or spruce boughs and arrange them in an evergreen bouquet near your feeder.

When spring gets here, you could plant a few conifers (spruces, firs, cedars, yews, and pines) or shrubs to provide good thermal cover.

Adding evergreens to your backyard will also give birds a place to duck for cover from predators, like hawks. And, evergreens can provide food, too—some shrubs, like juniper, also provide berries, which persist in the winter and provide a much-needed food source when other foods are scarce.

One study showed that Dark-eyed Juncos sheltering in dense conifers spent 10% less energy each night (enough energy to save them 1.3 hours of feeding the next day). Photo by ritchey.jj via Birdshare

More tips to help your yard support and shelter birds:

Give them a warm place: Besides evergreens, small birds also shelter in tree cavities, brush piles, and even nest boxes. Nest box cameras have revealed that birds use the boxes as shelters during winter, not just during summer. So leaving your nest boxes up year-round can really help. Alternatively, you can build roost boxes or brush piles to provide shelter.

Those aren’t weeds—they’re food: In summer, many yards grow up in tall plants such as Eutrochium (commonly called Joe pye) and goldenrod (Solidago spp.). Many people think of these as weeds, but during winter their seed heads stick up above the snow to provide an important natural food source. Goldenrod stems also house many gallfly larvae that spend the winter inside the plant’s stems. These larvae are a rare source of insect protein in winter for birds such as chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers that can peck into the galls.

Nuts and berries, all year-round: Here’s a list of plants that still offer up nuts and berries for birds during the lean winter months.

  • Holly tree (Ilex spp.)
  • Chokecherry (Aronia spp.)
  • Most Hawthorn trees (Crataegus spp.)
  • Eastern Juniper (Juniperus virginiana)
  • Sumac (Rhus spp.)
  • Crabapple (Malus spp.)
  • Viburnum shrubs (often called arrowwood)
  • Native roses (e.g., Rosa arkansana)
  • Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
  • White Oak (Quercus alba)
Photo by -jon via Birdshare.

Offer fatty foods in winter: Putting out more oily seeds (like sunflower seeds) and suet at feeders in winter will help birds stock up on much-needed energy to survive cold days. Birds metabolize fat more efficiently than humans, so these kinds of foods are good for them.

Morning joe for hummingbirds: Some species of hummingbirds are increasingly being found in backyards in northern climates in the winter: Anna’s Hummingbirds are common in the West; Rufous Hummingbirds are rare but regularly seen in the East. If you are lucky enough to have these tiny winter visitors, consider warming up their morning cup of nectar for them.

For even more tips, keep an eye on Project FeederWatch’s Feeder Tips from FeederWatchers page.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library