For the Birds: How to Attract Wildlife in Winter

With the right mix of trees and shrubs, your backyard can become a winter haven for birds.

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Go Wild with Native Grasses
Native grasses emerge later in the season, and their flowers' seeds make a wonderful wintertime food source for birds. To ensure your grasses are truly bird-friendly, don't cut them back in the fall; instead, leave them up for the winter, and cut them back in early spring. That way, you'll be providing both welcome coverage and food.

Will that create a less-than-manicured look in your winter garden? Yes. "Nature isn't neat," says Eierman. "We do need to tolerate a little messiness in our garden if we want to be ecologically responsible."

An added bonus for homeowners: by fall and early winter, the grasses' green leaves can turn tan, red or purple, depending on the species. Says Eierman, "You can get a beautiful color show in fall or winter."

Some native grass varieties to consider for cold climates: switch grass (Panicum) and hair grass (Deschampsia), as well as a shorter ornamental grass called Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium coparium), and its taller cousin, Big Bluestem (Andropogron gerardii).

Perennial Power
Like native grasses, perennial flowers produce seeds that provide nutrients for birds late in the season. And just as with grasses, it's important to keep your wildflowers long all winter; don't clip their seed heads back until the spring.

Perennial seeds are wildly popular with birds, notes Eierman, so be sure to plant sizable groupings of flowers, to ensure there will be enough seeds to go around.

Among Eierman's favorites are the many varieties of coneflowers (Echinacea), which feature a long bloom time. "They are workhorses in the garden-very showy and easy to grow," she says. She also recommends Blazing Star (Liatris), a late bloomer that often has purple spikey flowers, and native perennial Sunflowers (Helianthus), which also come in much smaller varieties than the familiar annual sunflower.

Two popular perennial options for sunny spots are low-maintenance, long-booming Coreopsis, sometimes known as Tickseed, and Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), with their yellow petals and deep brown center cone.

For shaded areas, Gagne recommends Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum), which has tubular white flowers

Water, Water Everywhere
Having a clean source of water is also critical for birds-and something that homeowners often overlook during the winter. "Winter is when water is scarcest, and when birds need it the most," says Marinelli.

Don't put your birdbath away for the winter, or let it freeze over. Instead, invest in a portable warming device and de-icer for your birdbath, to prevent freezing. Another option: heated birdbaths, which are available in both pedestal and deck-mounted designs. Whichever type you choose, be sure to change the water daily.

Small Changes, Big Impact
When deciding to be bird-friendly, remember that it's okay to start small; even making some minor changes to your landscape, like mixing in a few perennials or fruit-bearing shrubs, can have a positive effect.

"There's nothing more thrilling than seeing a bird you've never seen before in your yard, just because you've chosen to include a particular plant," says Eierman. "It's a reminder that we are connected to nature, and part of it."

 

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