Now is the time to do something for birds -- and maybe for yourself too.
"One of the greatest benefits of feeding birds is that the homeowner can easily see what birds are using their land, and develop a greater appreciation of birds," says Michael Ward, an assistant professor in the department of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
So with that in mind, here are a few ideas to help birds withstand the winter weather -- and maybe even provide some education and entertainment for the kids.
Hold off with the pruners. If you haven't already cut back all your dead vegetation from the summer -- don't. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, those plants -- particularly the tall ones that will poke above the snow -- provide shelter for birds. Another idea is to create a brush pile to protect them. You can always tidy things up later -- that's why they call it "spring cleaning." And looking ahead, Ward says landscaping a yard with native bushes and shrubs can make it a welcoming habitat for wintering birds. So plan next spring's planting accordingly.
Repurpose your Christmas tree. Speaking of shelter, your Christmas tree can do double-duty till spring, providing protection as well as a food source. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension suggests placing the tree -- stripped of decorations, lights and tinsel -- on the south or east side of the house to afford cover from north and west winds. To secure it, put the stump in a hole or a bucket of wet sand, and tie a rope from the top to a building or nearby tree. Then redecorate the tree, but with strings of popcorn, cranberries or raisins. The UNL Extension also says to add apples, oranges, leftover breads and pine cones covered with peanut butter and then dipped in birdseed. For best results, push the edible ornaments well into the tree.
Coming home to roost. The Cornell Lab also suggests roost boxes. Birds will seek shelter in nesting boxes in the winter, resulting in overcrowded conditions (they're used as nests only in spring and summer). Besides, these boxes are for nesting, not roosting. But a roost box can protect any birds that nest in boxes: bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and small woodpeckers. A good roost box keeps the birds' body heat contained and has interior perches, and can be placed on a metal pole or wooden post. They're available in stores, or you can make your own. The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife offers roost box-building instructions.
Kid-friendly adventures. Encourage the kids' involvement in setting up a bird feeder and choosing the best food (good information on seed choices is available at allaboutbirds.org.Get a reliable field guide (the Sibley field guides are good and have versions for different geographical locations) or free app (merlin.allaboutbirds.org) to identify the birds that use the feeder. Have the kids keep a journal and report their findings to feederwatch.org or ebird.org.
Avian superfoods. High-fat, high-energy foods such as suet and sunflower seeds are preferable in winter. On a cold night, chickadees lose 25 percent of their body weight. And be consistent in your feeding, putting out seeds or suet (or seed-studded suet balls) regularly. If the birds come to rely on you for a constant supply of food, and you close up shop when a storm hits, they might not survive. Once they know food is always available, they'll keep coming back -- not only in winter but year-round.
Water is key. Just as birds need food, they also need water during the coldest days. Spring for a bird-bath heater to keep water from freezing. There are many models to choose from; check your local independent garden center or big box store. And be sure to keep the bird bath clean.
Embrace the circle of life. Raptors -- hawks and falcons -- have become more evident in urban settings, as people have stopped harassing them and there is abundant food. If you feed birds, know that some of your feathered friends could end up as that food. No reason to be upset; they belong here, and they need to eat, too. "There is not much you can do to either increase or decrease hawks in your neighborhood," says Ward, who also is an avian ecologist for the Illinois Natural History Survey. "As trees get mature and people continue to promote small birds, hawks will come. ... (People) are concerned when a hawks eats a bird off of their feeder, but that is just a sign that the bird community is robust and not something to be particularly concerned about."