Winterize Your Yard for Birds

With these 9 steps, you can create an avian winter wonderland and get a jump on spring migration season.
Photographs by Getty Images

Get Planting

Choose trees, shrubs, vines, and groundcovers native to your area. In northern climates this will ensure that new plants are in place and ready to resume growing in the early spring; it's also a good idea in the South, so plants can begin growing outside of the hot and dry seasons. One note of caution: Fall plantings are especially vulnerable to predators. Protect trees from bark-gnawing mice and rabbits by covering sapling trunks with plastic wrap. A three-foot-tall circle of fencing around shrubs can ward off rabbits. Where deer are a threat, protect the entire tree with a ring of welded wire or deer mesh up to five feet tall, available at hardware stores and nurseries. Pile several inches of shredded leaf mulch or wood chips around the base of new plantings to reduce the risk of frost heaving that could expose their roots to dry air.

Provide Water

Make sure there's ample water near protective shrubs. Many kinds of birds bathe in and drink from open water in frigid weather. Avoid ceramic baths; they can crack in cold weather. Instead, purchase a plastic birdbath with a built-in heater, or convert a summer birdbath by adding a heater. Baths on pedestals are ideal for reducing risks from predators such as cats, but if neighborhood cats are a regular threat, it's best not to use birdbaths at all. Clean birdbaths as needed with a stiff, rounded hand brush. Frequent refills are necessary in winter because the water quickly evaporates in dry air.

Out With the Old

Clear out nest boxes in the fall. It's wise to remove bird and mouse nests because some birds will use these boxes as winter night roosts. Clean them a second time in early spring to prepare for the coming nesting season.

Push the Limits

Create a songbird border along your property edge with plants that meet birds' needs year-round. Mimic natural flora communities by including indigenous plant species in varied heights that offer a mix of food, cover, nesting, and singing perches. A border that takes the form of a hedge can double as a windbreak if planted on a home's north side. Ideally, yours should serve to connect any isolated patches of habitat. Most plantings thrive best in full sun. Place several of each species to create clumps within your border, with the tallest in the center and shorter ones tiered away from there. Favor berry-producing shrubs such as dogwoods, hollies, chokeberries, and elderberries. Include oak and cherry trees, since they offer an abundance of fruit; in addition, many insects feed on their leaves, providing birds with essential protein-rich food. Also include short trees such as hawthorn, mountain ash, flowering dogwood, and serviceberry, as well as such evergreens as spruce, holly, and juniper for cover and nesting.

Make Mulch

Rake fallen leaves under shrubs to create mulch and to protect natural ground-feeding areas for such birds as sparrows, towhees, and thrashers. Birds prefer leaf mulch to woodchip and bark mulches. Earthworms, pillbugs, insects, and spiders—songbird delicacies—will thrive as the mulch decomposes.

Discard Old Seed

You should get rid of old birdseed, especially if it has been kept in a hot, humid place like a metal garbage can during the summer months. Although these cans are ideal for protecting seed from rodents, they can also encourage mold growth if the seed gets wet and then heats up.

Pile On

Build a brush pile in a corner of your property to offer songbirds shelter in extreme weather. During fall cleanup, set aside downed branches and tree trunks for construction. If they're available, use large logs as a foundation, then heap fallen and cut branches in successive layers. In large fields that are growing up into young forest, create living brush piles by cutting neighboring saplings most of the way through the trunks. Then pull them into a collective heap, and wire the tree crowns together. They will keep growing for years, providing excellent cover through the seasons.

Grab a Brush

Clean feeders with a bottlebrush and a 10 percent solution of nonchlorinated bleach. Rinse thoroughly and dry in the sun before refilling. Rake up soggy seed from under feeders and bury it far away to prevent the growth of bird-toxic mold. Scrub and store hummingbird feeders so they will be ready for spring.

Protect Your Windows

About a billion birds die from glass collisions each year. You can reduce this threat by fragmenting reflective surfaces with multiple window decals such as those found at If window collisions continue to occur, consider installing window netting, films, or ribbons (see