Creature Comforts

By Paul James

Not every bird is lucky enough to find a warm, cozy spot when the weather turns foul. Even those that do find shelter still need food and water to survive. And there’s a genuine payoff for gardeners who tend to their flock: The birds will call your garden home and eat everything from weed seeds to pesky plant pests.

Bird houses are generally thought of as nesting sites, but they provide much needed shelter as well, especially during the winter months.  They should be installed roughly six feet off the ground to discourage cats, and face south to southeast so that they warm up quickly when the sun is shining. Birds will gather materials from the wild to build their nests, but you can help them out by placing shredded newspaper, bits of yarn or string, even lint from the clothes dryer near the house, whether on the ground or hanging from tree limbs.

When it comes to food, there are lots of choices, from suet to seed blends to single-seed varieties. Suet is basically fat, and it provides a high-energy boost to hungry birds. Pre-formed suet cakes are great, but you can also ask the butcher for suet and simply wedge it in the crotch of a tree. Birds also love peanut butter, both smooth and creamy, which you can smear on a branch. Seed blends are great for attracting a number of different species, but most birders agree that the best all-round seed is black-oil sunflower. If squirrels are a problem, consider safflower (which they don’t like) or use seed to which hot pepper -- which doesn’t bother the birds -- has been added. You might also consider buying a squirrel-proof feeder.

And speaking of feeders, the choices are many. Tube feeders are hard to beat, but those made of wood have a more rustic look and are available in a number of different types and styles. They too should be mounted high enough to keep cats away, although there are bird species that prefer to feed off the ground (doves in particular). Placing a bell on your cat’s collar will give the birds advance warning.

It’s tough to keep fresh water available when temps drop below freezing, but an inexpensive heater made specifically for bird feeders can solve that problem quite nicely.

Beyond knowing that you’re providing birds with all the comforts they need to survive the winter, you’ll also experience the joy of having them hang out in your yard. And that’s pretty darn comforting too.