The Garden Column: Diversify your feed to attract birds

Even roadrunners get thirsty and may be attracted to your yard’s birdbath. Photo by Cheryl Fallstead
Even roadrunners get thirsty and may be attracted to your yard’s birdbath. Photo by Cheryl Fallstead
Wow! I’m certain it’s winter now, with some of our night temperatures dropping into the 20s. Our feathered friends could use some extra help over the next few months. We get different birds wintering here than we have in the summer, and some of the wild birds that linger year round will come into our gardens seeking food, water and shelter during these cold months.

Some bird watchers are seeing Western blue birds this time of year. We also will spot dark-eyed juncos. I am visited by rosy breasted nuthatches that slip in for a black oil sunflower seed while the fig tree is bare.

There are several actions gardeners can take to encourage birds in the winter garden.

1. Provide a variety of different bird feeders. A hanging feeder will appeal most to seed-eating birds such as house finches, pine siskins, and even the occasional red-breasted nuthatch that feed naturally at tree level. Ground level platforms, or those just a few feet off the ground, will appeal to towhees, darkeyed juncos and pyrrhuloxias. Suet feeders will bring woodpeckers — and many others, too! We cannot hang suet feeders here in the summer, but they work quite well during the colder months. We’ve discovered feeding jelly delights kinglets, house finches, and other birds. A variety of feeders with several types of foods will bring the greatest number of species of birds.

2. Feed the birds their favorite: Black Oil Sunflower Seed. Not appealing to pigeons, sparrows and grackles, this type of seed is a favorite of small songbirds. There are several good seed blends — but many birds love this favorite on its own!

3. Offer shelter. Shelter on a cold winter’s night can be a lifesaver for wild birds. A nest box, if cleaned out, can provide such shelter. Another backyard haven can be a pile of brush where birds can take refuge from the elements and predators. Don’t forget evergreen trees planted in the landscape also provide shelter for many types of birds in winter and good nesting sites in the spring.

4. Provide ice-free water. Water is a necessity, especially in the desert. In cold weather, natural water sources freeze over during the night, though they may thaw out during the day. Empty ice from birdbaths early and refill them with warm water.

5. Do not keep the garden too tidy. Allow flower seed heads to remain through the winter. Many small birds will eat the seed heads of perennial flowers such as purple coneflower and chocolate flower. They also
prefer the seeds from many native grasses, such as purple three awn. Quail and other wild birds dine on the seed pods from mesquite and acacia trees. To create brushy areas for wild birds to shelter and hide in as needed, do not prune all trees and shrubs up off the ground.

These actions by gardeners are like an embossed, gilded invitation to the many birds that remain in our region throughout the winter. Now that the trees have dropped their leaves, bird watching is much easier. We can be warm inside the house, but still enjoy the activities of the birds we have invited into the garden.

Jackye S. Meinecke is a freelance writer and garden consultant and designer. Contact her by e-mail at