Winter Habitat for Birds in Your Garden

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Mourning dove

It is a sad truth that bird numbers are in decline worldwide. In Europe and North America, populations of many species have declined by half, with greater losses among birds that inhabit wetlands or grasslands, which are increasingly scarce. Feeding birds in winter can help, because birds that get better nutrition tend to live longer and raise more healthy offspring. But where are your feeder birds going to wait out winter storms or other nasty weather? Birds don’t breed in winter, so they are not likely to nest in birdhouses. Instead, habitat for winter birds may come from brush piles, trees, bushes, or dense stands of dead grass.

“Brush
A brush pile made from fruit tree branches hosts many types of winter birds

Brush Piles for Birds

Bird-aware visitors are always surprised to see so many mourning doves (shown at the top of the page) at my house, but then I show them the brush pile that gets refreshed each winter when the fruit trees are pruned. The doves love hanging out in the brush pile, along with some sparrows and wrens. According to ChooseNatives.org, a brush pile provides birds and other animals with sanctuary, shelter, and snacks in the form of small insects or crustaceans like pill bugs.

Free and fast to assemble, brush piles intended to provide habitat for winter birds can be free-form affairs, or you can follow expert advice by placing the large limbs and logs at the bottom, with smaller branches and twigs on top. If you have an old piece of pipe or broken flowerpots, they make good hiding places for critters when placed at the bottom of the pile. Locate brush piles a short distance from your house, in a spot you can watch with field glasses from a convenient window. There is always someone at home in a brush pile.

“Zebra
A big clump of seed-sterile zebra grass provides protection for little birds that feed close to the ground

Grasses for Ground Feeders

Many declining bird species once inhabited vast grasslands that are now cities and highways. I don’t have the room to put a prairie in my yard, but I can grow a few big ornamental grasses. Large ornamental grasses make a great habitat for winter birds that like to stay close to the ground, for example juncos and white-throated sparrows, two species in serious decline. The protected space around the base of a large clump-forming grass stays clear of ice and snow even when the top of the plant is flattened into a frozen igloo. I wait until the winter birds leave in spring to cut back the old growth.

The same goes for the thicket of grasses, weeds and raspberries that grow along one edge of my garden. Birds that live and feed on the ground often avoid feeders, so providing grassy habitat for them increases the diversity of birds that visit my yard.

“Evergreen
Birds find secure winter cover in boxwood and other dense evergreens

Easy Evergreen Winter Tree and Shrubs

I do not particularly like the big boxwood in front of my house, but the birds love it, especially in winter, so I’m keeping it. The crowded leaves and branches tame strong winds and block snow, so much so that the inside of the bush serves as a sort of bird playground on the worst winter days. Most evergreen shrubs share these benefits, and some evergreens like hollies also provide berries the birds can eat.

Evergreen trees are hugely popular with winter birds, too. They often find roosting spots among the branches of pines and other conifers, which make cozier quarters than bare branches. Some birds prefer to stay high up in the treetops, so they are naturally more at home in tall evergreen trees.

“Dead
A dead pine in Barbara’s yard served as a wildlife haven for seven years. Behind it, the stray limbs formed a bird-friendly brush pile

Keep Dead Trees for Wildlife

Holes and crevices in standing dead trees are the main type of shelter used by woodpeckers and many other birds. They spend winter nights in their favorite holes, which are often just big enough for a snug fit.

Wildlife experts advise having four or more dead trees per woodland acre to meet the needs of birds and other creatures, but sometimes just one will do. When a white pine at the edge of the yard died, we had a tree expert top it off 20 feet (6 m) from the ground, so it would not be a hazard. The main trunk stood as a wildlife tree until it finally fell seven years later, serving multiple generations of insects, birds, snakes, and at least one little opossum. It’s now a rotting log, and I know I’m not the only one missing what the birds perceived as their crumbling winter mansion.

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