Birds are the flowers of our winter garden

Besides bringing color and activity, they keep a balance in the insect population

Story by Debrah Dubay
For Taos News
Posted 1/24/20

There is pure joy in watching birds hop about in the snow and seeing them hang on bird feeders in search of a good meal. They may not be polite, some can be downright ornery and often they may be more than a little messy - but what a great delight it is to watch the ruckus in our own backyards, and with so little effort.

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Birds are the flowers of our winter garden

Besides bringing color and activity, they keep a balance in the insect population

Posted

There is pure joy in watching birds hop about in the snow and seeing them hang on bird feeders in search of a good meal. They may not be polite, some can be downright ornery and often they may be more than a little messy - but what a great delight it is to watch the ruckus in our own backyards, and with so little effort.

Simply a cup of bird food thrown out the backdoor onto the snow will draw a rowdy crowd. The lid of a trash can or a plastic saucer filled with seeds will invite a host of visitors to your yard. But there is danger for birds on the ground as domestic cats are among their top threats, so investing in a hanging feeder can be helpful.

If you happen to live in a condo or have a neighboring apartment below your deck and worry about the mess birds can cause, you can still attract birds. Just place a saucer of water out on your deck - preferably on a flat banister or on a plant stand - and you'll attract birds. There will be little or no mess for you or your neighbor. It helps to have a glazed saucer and change the water daily. Birds in Taos desperately need water resources to drink from and will visit you no matter where you are if you provide clean water that is ice-free each morning. If you want to make it easier on yourself, there are birdbath heaters available at local stores.

Birds play a wonderful role in the web of nature by keeping a balance in the insect population, making it worthwhile to encourage birds in your yard. A good example is the northern flicker: a beautiful bird with a spotted tummy and a lovely black bib that makes them easy to identify. They are a member of the woodpecker family and are frequent visitors to Taos backyards. A good 45 percent of their diet consists of ants, explaining why they are often found feeding on the ground. If you have difficulties with flickers pecking on your house you can provide a birdhouse with a hole too small for them to enter. The flicker will most likely be distracted from your house and will occupy itself pecking on the birdhouse to make the hole large enough to enter.

But some still question whether it is important or helpful to feed birds.

An article published in September of last year in The Atlantic, titled "The Quiet Disappearance of Birds in North America," cites new research that "decades of data on North American birds estimate that the continent's bird populations have fallen by 29 percent since 1970."

The article goes on to quote Kenneth Rosenberg of Cornell University, noting that "the fact that 24 million eastern meadowlarks still survive hides the fact that 74 million have gone. 'There are still a lot of birds out there,' Rosenberg says. 'If you have a lot of birds coming to your feeder and they're reduced by 30 percent, you might not see that. This loss of abundance can be happening right under our noses.' "

Since insects are hibernating and are not readily available to birds, you can purchase suet to help the bird population during the cold winter months. Suet is a very versatile, high-energy food that can be used in many ways. You can just hang it in a suet feeder or use it to help make a paste that can be spread on the bark of a tree, otherwise known as "bark butter."

Melt down a cake of suet and add peanut butter, cornmeal and other ingredients such as birdseed, raisins and nuts. After it cools slightly, spread it on the side of a tree. Great recipes can be found online or you can just make up your own recipe. Another way to use suet is to melt it down and mix it with peanut butter. Then roll pine cones in the mixture and sprinkle it with seeds. Hang your pine cone feeder outside on a nearby tree.

Many of our birds also love black oil sunflower seeds for the protein and oil they provide. But, if you find the bigger birds are chasing off the finches, chickadees, titmice, juncos and sparrows, then you can put a thistle feeder in another location for the smaller birds. Having several feeding locations can be helpful, too. If you happen to have quails visit you, bird blocks will encourage them to feed in your yard - but don't be surprised if you attract a few rabbits or other outdoor critters.

When spring comes, remember gardening for birds compounds the benefits as you and the birds will benefit from the healthy fruit. Fruit trees and shrubs provide shelter for birds, as well as food. If you are concerned that the birds will get all the harvest, you can cover a portion of the plant with bird netting to reserve some for your own needs. Indeed, the birds are hungry and extremely effective at cleaning out fruit-bearing trees.

Crab apple trees are beautiful in the spring and birds love to fatten up on small crab apples in preparation for the winter cold. Currant bushes are a favorite for backyard birds and the blooms attract hummingbirds also. Elderberries are a great bird food and have marvelous health benefits for people, too. Serviceberry bushes grow well in Taos; their fruit can taste similar to blueberries that do not naturalize readily due to their need for acid-rich soils.

Berries are rich in antioxidants and healthy eating for both people and bird populations. Research has proven that antioxidant rich berries help maintain bird populations, especially for those birds that migrate.

We hope you enjoy your feathered friends all year-round but especially in winter, as they bring beautiful color and activity to your winter landscapes.

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