Gardener's Guide

Resources for Gardening with Nature in Southeastern Pennsylvania

Notes From the Wild

In this region, we are fortunate to have a great diversity of bird species,  from majestic  raptors to the tiniest wrens.  Some, like hummingbirds, wood thrushes, and warblers, spend their summers here or even further north in the boreal forests, where they breed. In winter, they head south, where temperatures stay mild.  Others like woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees, stick around for the winter.  Braving the harsh elements and finding enough food on a daily basis is a challenge for these birds.  How do they survive?

Adaptations are changes in the characteristics or behavior of a species that increase its chance of survival.  Many winter residents have such traits that help them brave the cold.  One is the feathers.  Chickadees, for example, have a thick covering of feathers on their bodies.  On cold days, a bird can fluff its feathers, which helps to insulate against the cold and trap heat from their own bodies.  Smoothing feathers releases body warmth when outside temperatures warm up.  In wet weather, birds stay dry because of the oily water repellant covering on their feathers.

Another adaptation of these birds is their diets.  To survive and thrive in a seasonal climate, birds must take advantage of the type of food that is plentiful at that time of year.  In spring and summer, birds consume insects, whose populations boom with the warming temperatures and the leafing out of plants.  As summer turns to fall, berries and other kinds of fruit ripen, providing birds with the fat and sugars they need to prepare for winter.  As winter approaches, the diets of these birds once again changes to seeds, persistent berries, and for some species, insects.  With this varied diet of insects, fruit, and seeds, these birds are able to remain with us through all four seasons.

In the wild, winter residents seek food in a number of places.  Nuthatches search for grubs under the bark of trees.  Goldfinches pick seed from the heads of wildflowers. Cedar waxwings look for berries and fruit on trees and shrubs.    Foraging for food in the cold stresses a bird’s body, forcing it to produce more heat to stay warm.  That is why it’s important for these birds to be efficient at finding food on those cold winter days. 

Notes from the Garden

What can you do to help our feathered friends survive  through the winter?  Here are some tips.
Keep your feeders full of the seed your frequent visitors enjoy:              

  • Sunflower seed:  a favorite of many winter residents; good source of fat*
  • Safflower:  cardinals
  • Nyger:  finches
  • Corn:  jays, pigeons, doves
  • Cracked  corn: blackbirds, finches, sparrows
  • Suet:  chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice; excellent source of fat*
  • Fruit:  robins, thrushes, bluebirds, waxwings

*Fat is high in digestible calories and helps birds withstand cold temperatures.
Provide unfrozen water for the birds to bathe in and to drink.
Plant native trees and shrubs that produce seeds, nuts, and berries.  Year after year, these plants will keep birds coming to your yard for sustenance.  Dense shrubs and evergreens also provide cover for birds from the harsh elements.
Great Plants for Cover and for Feeding WInter Birds

  • Oak
  • Dogwood
  • Pine
  • Eastern Redcedar
  • Virginia Creeper
  • Northern Bayberry
  • Viburnum
  • Holly

Sources:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology www.birds.cornell.edu
Peterson Field Guides- Eastern Forests

 

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