Helping birds survive winter in Oklahoma

The Daily Ardmoreite
Pat Neasbitt
Master Gardener

This week has been especially hard on birds because of the extremely low temperatures, snow on the ground, and gale-force north winds. It has been as low as -8 degrees, and that is NOT normal for southern Oklahoma. I have been filling the bird feeders daily, and they are constantly visited by finches, cardinals, woodpeckers, and one really fat squirrel that doesn’t even run anymore when I try to scare it away.

I love looking out my windows and watching birds on the feeders I keep filled with black-oil sunflower seeds, thistle for the tiny birds, and suet cakes the cardinals and red-headed woodpeckers hang from. I feed the birds for the enjoyment I get from watching them and knowing that I am helping them survive the winter when it is so hard for them to find enough food. My hope, also, is that if I feed the birds during the winter, they will repay me by sticking around the rest of the year and feasting on insects in my yard. I have been watching a pair of bluebirds going in and out of a bluebird house where they raised two sets of babies this past summer. I leave the houses up in hopes they can use them for shelter, and I put mealworms that they seem to enjoy immensely in a container on top –peanut butter lid tacked to top of birdhouse.

Birds need the same three things to survive as all other living creatures: food, water, and shelter. In order to maintain body temperature, birds must search for food from sunup to sundown in the winter because the supply of insects they depend on is severely diminished. Suet cakes are inexpensive and provide fat that is a source of much-needed calories that are converted to body heat. You can buy suet cakes, but your own homemade ones will be even better. I have observed the birds always eat the homemade suet I put out before they eat the store-bought ones. The following is a good recipe for suet cakes.

• Homemade Suet Cakes: In a large pot like a stock pot, melt 2 lbs of lard - make sure it is lard which is made from animal fat and not Crisco which is made from vegetable oil - and a large jar of natural crunchy peanut butter together. You will need a really strong utensil like a heavy wooden spoon to mix in 5 lbs of cornmeal, black oil sunflower seeds, old fashioned oats and nutritious ingredients such as unsalted peanuts, raisins, dried cranberries, and dried mealworms. I always save the plastic containers from store bought suet to recycle because they fit the suet feeders perfectly; however, you can line cake pans with plastic wrap and pour the mixture in or use muffin tins (put in a piece of yarn for hanging). Keep the suet cakes in the freezer and use them all winter. This is a great project to give kids something to do and help them learn about caring for birds.

• Birdseed is high in carbohydrates that are turned to glucose to meet the high-energy needs of birds. If you buy pre-mixed birdseeds, look for those high in black-oil sunflower seeds and white proso millet. Avoid the cheap birdseed mixes that are mostly fillers like wheat seeds and milo. They will attract sparrows, but the birds you want to attract will not eat these. They will just scatter them on the ground where they will attract other creatures you don’t want like starlings, squirrels, and mice. If you only feed one thing, make it black-oil sunflower seeds (not striped). They are highly nutritious and liked by more species of birds than anything else.

• If possible, put your bird feeders about 5'-10' from shrubs or trees in a south-facing area that provides protection from the cold north winter wind and predators. Mine are on the south side of the house in front of large windows so that I can enjoy watching all winter from my warm living room. If I could just figure out how to keep the squirrels off the feeders, I would enjoy them even more. It took two squirrels 15 minutes at most to figure out how to work together to bypass the squirrel-proof feeder I had high hopes for.

• Water is an absolute necessity for all living creatures, and birds can die in a few days if they don’t have easy access to a water supply. Make sure to keep the ice broken if it freezes, or use a small birdbath heater to keep water from freezing. It has been so cold that even the birdbath heater wasn’t enough to keep the water from freezing in a large concrete birdbath near the bird feeders so I keep my hammer handy. Some bird lovers have found heated pet water dishes to work well for an emergency water supply.

• Shelter can mean life or death for birds in the winter. Make sure your landscape is designed to attract birds by planting some evergreens that provide good shelter in the winter. I see lots of different kinds of birds sheltering in the Yaupon, Burford, Carissa, and Nellie R Stevens Hollies that I have planted. I love Hollies for the birds because they have really dense evergreen foliage that gives good protection all year. They also look really great all year and provide color in the winter with their beautiful green leaves and red berries.

• Plant some native Oklahoma shrubs and trees that have nuts and berries. Not only will you be helping the birds, your yard will be more attractive. Native Oklahoma plants will grow well and will attract native insects that will attract native birds. Some really good plants for birds in Oklahoma are American Beautyberry, Leatherleaf Mahonia, Lantana, Evergreen Hollies, and deciduous Possumhaw Hollies. “Blue Muffin” viburnum and black or red chokecherry are midsize shrubs that are deciduous but have a lot of fruit for birds in the winter; they are also both Oklahoma Proven plants.

• Don’t deadhead or cut back perennials until late February. I’ve seen finches and many other birds eating seeds from purple coneflowers, sunflowers, salvias, asters, sedums, black-eyed susans, and ornamental grasses during the winter.

• If you want birds in your yard, DO NOT use insecticides. If there are no insects, birds will move to a friendlier yard where they can find food. If you help the birds survive winter, they will help you the rest of the year by eating half their weight in insects every day. That makes the saying, "she eats like a bird", a lot ironic!

OSU has a terrific fact sheet on Landscaping and Gardening for Birds at Stay Safe & Help the Birds!