Your Christmas Trees and Holiday Wreaths Can Double as Bird Habitat

By Rhiannon Crain, YardMap project leader
December 26, 2013
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.

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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—our YardMap project offers great yard-cover ideas.

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. YardMap has more advice on natural foods for birds.

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.


  • Jules Fairfax

    How to help and feed birds, Keep BEARs AWAY (western Montana).

  • June Haley

    I live in middle TN and we just don’t have any birds in our backyard for past 3 months. This is very unusual. Do you have any suggestions on what has happen. I got Sunflower see from Tractor Supply and changed that to the Farmers Co-op but still not birds.

  • Lulu

    My Rose of Sharon bush is very popular with the birds…especially finches but I see chicadees and Juncos eating the seeds from the flowers. I purposely left the spent flowers on the bush because it is great food for my birds.

  • Carol

    I’ve hear it said, that bird feeders in natural areas (where I live) will cause birds to forgo naturally available seeds and berries. Is this true?

  • Julia

    I have found the opposite. The birds ( and squirrel’s – believe it or not ) all prefer the natural food. Moving out to a rural area from a suburb, it was one of the first things I noticed. In December I saw the traffic pick up at my feeders and since the freeze it’s now high volume. Still no squirrel’s on the feeders ?!

  • Sandy

    While the same birds may regularly visit feeders as part of their daily foraging, studies have shown that wild birds only get an average of 25 percent of their food from feeders. There are many wild food sources that birds prefer and while they will visit feeders out of convenience, they are well able to find other sources of food if feeders are unavailable. Feeders may become more critical during harsh winters, but birds will not starve if the feeders aren’t filled. Resource:

  • Carol

    Thank you, Sandy. This winter so far has been very cold here. I’ll put out the suet feeder!

  • Carol

    Thank you, Julia. Squirrels love my feeders!
    We have an abundance of nuts and fruit here, so go figure. I don’t want to tip the ecosystem though I doubt one feeder makes much of a difference ;)
    Since the winter has been so harsh I’ll get the suet out. I’ll keep looking for sources in terms of feeding birds in my area.

  • Barb

    I have feeders attached to my deck rail for the birds. I have hawks frequent my yard also. Even had an immature Coopers Hawk checking out the heated birdbath and feeders, but wasn’t interested. (I have pics.) I put out an artificial christmas tree on my deck thinking it would give extra “cover” for the birds, since my deck is up high. I think I only saw one or two birds in it. Perhaps they knew it was artificial and wanted no part of it.

  • Winifred Reed

    Last year trying to get something for the robins after they denuded my female holly trees.
    I started using dried mealworms because bluebirds and robins like them. Well no robins but most other kinds of birds LOVE them. The robins are on the holly trees now and I hope they get the idea this year.. I live just outside Washington D.C. I also used more black oil sunflower seeds in my feeders and suet blocks.

  • Doris

    I’m jealous! I live in southwest Iowa, and again this year I tried using deck rail mounted feeder holders just like the ones in the picture showing the use of natural greens around feeders. The first morning after the feeders were up they were down…on the ground, pried open and emptied. The raccoon is back and other than using pole and baffle feeder mounts I can’t seem to stop him. I will, however, reuse my holiday greens.

  • DaWanda

    I live in North Central Tennessee. I feed black oil sunflower seed from Wal-Mart abundantly even throw plenty on the ground for the larger birds. I have had tremendous amounts of Cardinals, Blue Jays, Doves, American Goldfinches, Black Capped chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, and House finches among others during this extremely cold weather. You might try making up a mixture of cornmeal, oatmeal, crunchy peanut butter, lard or Crisco, dry cereals and/or small wild bird seeds and put them in a suet feeder. I usually put this in the refrigerator until it is set then put it in the wire suet feeder and hang it near the feeders in winter and during nesting times when they have young. We didn’t have many for a while but keep plenty out for them and they will probably come back. They also need shelter and water sources that are not frozen.

  • Jeffrey

    I had so many problems with squirrels, especially when I provide sunflower seeds. For years, I tried everything to prevent the squirrel invasion, hot pepper, baffles, squirrel repellant, EVERYTHING! This season I began using safflower seeds and the squirrels do not even bother with the feeders anymore. I provide shelled corn for them and we all (the birds, the squirrels & me!) live in harmony….

  • tomp1

    Squirrels are a persistent problem on central Maryland. I tried the safflower solution and found it worked well for one year. This year however the little rascals have learned to love it almost as much as sunflower! Back to the spring-balanced feeders for everything.

  • I have noticed feeding Squirrels as well keeps them off the feeder, in fact, one of our squirrels Smokey, seems to be very obedient, and stays of when I ask him

  • tomp1

    As I posted earlier, this worked for me for one winter season. This year the little buggers seem to have developed a taste for safflower and eat it voraciously! Squirrel proof feeders are the only answer, but that makes it difficult to feed the larger birds like mourning doves.

Your Christmas Trees and Holiday Wreaths Can Double as Bird Habitat