Winter in Illinois is an excellent season for birdwatching. Many different kinds of birds, big and small, spend the winter in our state. Whether it’s wrens, finches, or sparrows, many kinds of gulls, geese, and diving ducks, to bald eagles along the Mississippi, we get lots of birds here!
While birds are very self-sufficient creatures, it doesn’t hurt to give them a helping hand. Here are a few things you can do to help keep local bird populations happy and healthy this winter.
Birds still need somewhere to roost at night in the winter, and many of them will use birdhouses if they’re available.
Set up a Feeding Station
Setting up a feeding station for birds in your yard is one of the easiest ways to help support bird populations in your neighborhood, and it doesn’t need to be complicated or elaborate. Aim to have 2-4 different styles of feeders, with a few different kinds of food. If you only have space for 2, aim for one that suits small birds and one that suits larger birds. If you’re not sure where to start, you can’t go wrong with a tube-style or a house style feeder.
Set your feeders up in a sheltered place that’s easy for the birds to access and where you can enjoy watching them from the windows. Near trees and shrubs on the south side of the house is excellent. Just be mindful that they have lots of open escape routes, and there’s nowhere for neighborhood cats to hide nearby.
There are many ground-feeding birds, so don’t be afraid to spread some seed on the ground near shrubs where they like to forage. It’s also helpful to provide high-fat food options, like suet, peanuts, and mealworms, since birds burn many calories keeping warm in the winter.
Try to take your feeders down and sanitize them once every other week or so. Before you fill them up, give them a quick scrub down and a rinse in bleach water to prevent disease transfer.
Keep your water source 6-10 feet away from feeders, so it doesn’t end up full of birdseed every day.
Water is something else that’s pretty important for birds to have during the winter. They will eat snow if that’s the only option, but they prefer open water. If you live close to a spot where the river stays open all winter, like near a set of locks, they’ll probably head there. But if you’re not close to the river, consider providing a water source for the birds.
Heated bird baths are available, or you can get small bird bath de-icers to put in a bird bath you already have. Another alternative is to use a heated pet water dish. Most importantly, keep your water source 6-10 feet away from feeders, so it doesn’t end up full of birdseed every day. You’ll still need to clean it regularly, at least once per week.
If you’re using a pet water dish, set it up on something, like a stump or some sort of pedestal, so the birds can see all around them for things like cats while they have a drink. It’s a good idea to add a few different sizes of branches and twigs around and across the water dish so that smaller birds can land easily. You may also want to put some larger flat-ish rocks in the water so that the birds can’t fully submerge themselves for a full-fledged bath.
Most of us think about putting up birdhouses in the spring, but birdhouses aren’t just for summer. Birds still need somewhere to roost at night in the winter, and many of them will use birdhouses if they’re available. If your birdhouses have tons of ventilation holes, you might want to block some of them off for the winter to help retain heat inside, but don’t block all of them; ventilation is still important.
When you clean your birdhouses out in the fall, you can help winter birds stay warm by putting a nice soft layer of dried grasses, dry crumbled fall leaves, or wood shavings to help keep birds warm. You can also mount perches inside the house, as multiple birds will often roost together for warmth. If you don’t have perches to add, just include a few twigs propped up against the sides to give multiple birds places to rest.
Need some supplies to set up the welcome wagon for your feathered friends? Stop by the garden center; we’ve got plenty of bird feeding accessories to start an open buffet for all the Quad Cities birds.