Creating Bird-Friendly Habitats

Winter in the Northeast is the perfect time to spot both local and visiting birds. The air becomes crisp, the trees are bare and the natural world can seem still and silent. Blue jays, mourning doves, crows, cardinals and others will linger throughout the season. But besides inclement weather, many of our feathered friends face a variety of other dangers — predators, overexertion, starvation and collisions — that can make their winter survival a challenge.  

Collisions occur when a bird tries to fly through a window that seems transparent or when the glass surface reflects the surrounding landscape. According to Bird Safe Philly, up to 1 billion birds are estimated to collide with buildings and other human-made structures like residential homes in the U.S. every year. Most of these collisions — which can occur either day or night — are fatal.  

Despite the weather, certain birds will not leave their habitats, preferring to forage for food instead of migrating. This can be an especially enticing option if there are plentiful resources, such as a replenishing feeder. However, arguments abound on whether providing food for outdoor wildlife is helpful, with considerations on population numbers, disease transmission and potential for detrimental habitat expansion of certain species.  

There is a good case for feeding local and migrating bird populations if you pay attention to the timing, species, location and quality of food. Some studies have shown that birds who make it through the winter in decent physical condition will see an improved nesting season to follow. Providing food for birds can help increase egg clutches, produce higher chick weights and support overall breeding success across a wide range of species. 

Determining which species of birds live in your area and during which seasons will narrow your choices of which bird feeders and houses to consider. Environmentally focused organizations such as Audubon Pennsylvania and New Jersey Audubon are great places to start your research if you live in the Philadelphia area. 

Make your own environment a bird-friendly habitat this winter by following some of these nine tips.

Mealworms are an attractive, and nutrient-dense, food source for Eastern Bluebirds.
© Barry Miller/VIREO

1. Turn your lights out! 

At night, simply turning off your inside lights or closing your shades, curtains or blinds will help prevent birds from seeing through windows. Keep any external lights on a motion sensor and direct them downwards to reduce their impact.  

2. Reduce reflectivity and make your windows opaque.  

For those sunny hours, apply adhesives, stickers or tempera paint in a dense pattern, such as stripes or dots, on the outer surface to deter our feathered friends. Commercially designed and ready-to-use products are available, or you can create your own solution with materials such as paper, tape, stickers, paint and markers. Be sure to follow the recommendation: no open spaces that are larger than 2 x 2 inches and no spaces wider than 4 inches apart.  

3. Keep feeders within 3 feet of the window, or keep them 30 feet away. 

Moving your feeders to within 3 feet of the window or keeping them at least 30 feet away can help reduce collisions. When feeders are close to a window, birds cannot gain enough momentum to do harm if they strike the glass. When far enough away, birds will naturally avoid the potential danger zone when feeding. Anything in-between, however, can be problematic, so consider your feeder location carefully. 

4. Offer specific seed types.  

During harsh weather seasons, such as cold and wet winters, providing targeted, high-quality seeds can increase the survival rates of overwintering birds. Especially attractive to bluebirds, mealworms are a protein-dense option for your local titmice, wrens and nuthatches too. Oats and cracked corn are great for doves, ducks and quail. Sunflower seeds, either hulled or black oiled, will certainly draw a crowd that usually includes cardinals, sparrows, woodpeckers, house finches and chickadees. Be sure to keep stored seeds dry to prevent mold and rot! 

A male and female House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus, at a sunflower feeder in New York.
© Johann Schumacher/VIREO

5. Add a variety of feeder structures. 

Different birds eat differently. Doves, towhees and sparrows like to keep a low profile; since they will not usually dine on a platform, offer your seed directly on the ground. On the other hand, woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees prefer to hang out, so consider a dangling suet cage for these visitors. Tube feeders, both large and small, help minimize the monopolizers such as blue jays and grackles.    

6. Don’t forget clean water! 

Despite the temperatures, birds do need to drink all year round. Place rocks or stones — large enough to stick out above the water level — in the bath to prevent ice formation and help birds keep their feathers dry while sipping. Be sure to rinse, clean and refill your birdbath regularly.  

7. Place birdhouses away from high-traffic areas. 

For finches, locate the house 4 to 10 feet off the ground near walls but away from walkways. Position a bluebird shelter 5 to 10 feet above the ground, facing an open area away from human movement. Most owls like to be near forested areas and prefer their housing to be 10 to 30 feet off the ground in a tree. Colonial nesters, like purple martins, require a group setting, so be sure to offer these kinds of birds several cavities in a single house at least 12 feet high.  

8. Protect birdhouses from predators. 

Even if we can’t see it, hungry predators exist constantly for many smaller birds, nests and hatchlings. From the ground, they fear raccoons, cats and snakes; the sky brings hawks and owls. Provide baffles, cages or guards around your birdhouse to protect the tenants. Keep the entrance hole appropriately sized for the specific bird you want to invite — too large and the nest is at risk. Consider whether a starling-resistant hole, or one placed at the bottom of the house, is an option. 

9. Get involved! 

The more we know, the better we can understand local and visiting birds and the challenges they face from harsh weather, loss of habitat, climate change, predation and collisions. Set up a feeder and join the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch. Have an unknown visitor? You can use Visual Resources for Ornithology (VIREO), the worldwide bird photograph collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences, to help you identify your bird sightings. More than 700 photographers from around the world have contributed to VIREO, with over 100,000 images accessible online for educational, scientific and commercial use for students, birders and researchers alike. 

Visit our Small Action Spark Big Changes webpage for more information and resources on how to create a bird-friendly habitat in your own backyard. 

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