Your Guide to Feeding Birds this Winter

Winter months can be tough on our feathered friends. Cold temperatures require them to eat more in order to stay warm, water sources can freeze over, and nuts, berries and insects can be difficult to find. We’ve created the following tips so you can help backyard birds survive this winter. 

Choosing a Feeder 

Easy to clean Dirty feeders can harbor bacteria, mold and disease. Cleaning your feeders every week or two is ideal to keep things spotless for your increase of winter visitors. Clean feeders inside and out with soap and water and an old toothbrush or pipe cleaner to reach tight areas and small feeding holes. A weak bleach solution can be used for deeper sanitizing. Make sure the feeder is completely dry before refilling with seed.   

Good capacity Once birds find your feeder, they will expect there to be food each visit. Select a feeder with room to hold enough seed to last a few days so you won’t have to refill daily. If you know you’ll be travelling for a few days, remember to ask a neighbor or friend for help keeping your feeders filled.

Squirrel-proof Is that even a thing? Well, there are a few tricks to try before giving up. Some have success with squirrel-proof feeders, but if you already have a feeder you love try adding a squirrel baffle. Seeds and suets seasoned with hot pepper are worth a try – squirrels and other rodents should find the capsaicin too irritating to enjoy the seed, but the birds don’t mind it at all.  

Example of a Squirrel Baffle. Photo Source: Birds&Blooms.com

Choosing Seed 

Species specific According to The National Audubon Society, black oil sunflower seeds appeal to more birds than any other type of seed. They’re high in fat, providing much needed energy and the small size and thin shells are easy for small birds to crack open.  Trying to attract a specific bird? Check out the Seed and Feed Chart below. Sunflower hearts, millet, and suet cakes are other crowd flock-to favorites. 

Choose quality Cheaper seed mixes often include a larger portion of filler seed that your birds might ignore or toss aside. Deciding what’s a good or a bad seed mix for you is as simple as making sure it attracts the birds you want. Need help finding a quality product you can trust? Visit a wild bird supply store for assistance from experienced staff.  

Storage Seed has a shelf life. Look for the expiration date on the packaging and select the freshest mix you can find. Use an air-tight container to keep seed fresh and safe from pests, heat and humidity. If your bird seed smells musty, has gotten wet, is discolored or if there is any evidence of mold it should be discarded  

Provide Warmth and Water 

Supply Fresh Water A shallow, easy to clean water source is vital to birds. Check your water regularly to keep it clean and ensure it hasn’t frozen over.  

Provide Shelter Bird houses, dense shrubs, and tall grasses provide a warm place for birds to rest. They are also great places to escape from predators. Winter is a great time to plan for spring garden plantings. Select fruit and nut producing shrubs to provide food and shelter for your feathered friends year-round.

For more resources on creating a bird-friendly yard, contact Environmental Services at enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov 

5 Steps to Create a Backyard Bird Habitat

Did you know Texas is home to more species of birds than any other state? In fact, we host more than half of the 1,100 species in the US. Here in The Woodlands, we’re doubly fortunate: not only are we replete with resources birds depend on – forests, edges, riparian zones, and native plants – we lie at a crossroads of eastern and western habitats mixed with subtropical and temperate ones. From this diverse habitat springs diverse bird life. Best of all for the local avian lover, we sit smack dab in the central flyway where spring and fall migrations amplify an already impressive diversity of species. 

You need not invest in a pair of hiking boots or high-powered binoculars to take in the spectacle. In fact, backyards and even apartment balconies offer ample opportunity to invite birds in for your enjoyment and their support.   

Start by providing the essentials: 

  • Native trees and plants – they’re far superior to non-natives for providing sustenance and they require less water and care to thrive. Check out these lists of native plants for The Woodlands.  
  • Clean feeders – supplementing what your native plants offer is a great idea as long as you provide quality feed and you clean feeders every couple weeks to prevent disease transmission. 
  • Water sources – birdbaths should be no more than 3 inches deep with sloped sides. Be sure to clean them regularly with soap or a vinegar solution.  
  • Nesting and shelter options – trees, tall grass, and shrubs provide cover for resting or nesting; supplement with bird houses and roost boxes suited to local species you want to attract. 
  • Use biocontrol – applying pesticides rids your landscape of an essential food source for most birds (seeds alone aren’t enough). Instead, invite birds in as a natural pest control.  

For more tips, visit the National Wildlife Federation’s page on attracting birds. 

The best habitats incorporate each of these elements. If you want to make your backyard even more inviting, keep it cat-free. Cats kill an estimated 2.4 billion birds in the U.S. annually, making cat predation the largest human-caused threat to birds. If you can’t keep your cat indoors at all times, bring them in at dusk and dawn, when birds are more active.  

For more resources on native plants for The Woodlands or to learn more about upcoming birding programs, contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov 

Creature Feature: Great Egret

Egret
Like a ghostly apparition
the egret did appear
beautiful in its white paleness
though almost unaware
that two strangers were viewing
such a beautiful bird
speechless and in awe
that such a situation
could hardly be put into words.

G Paul Fisher

Whether you know it as the common egret, large egret, great white heron or Great Egret the stunning Adrea alba graces the skies and waters of The Woodlands and has a wonderful story to tell.  

Fast Facts 

  1. Second largest heron in North America, next to the Great Blue Heron. 
  1. Has four subspecies spread across five continents. 
  1. Great Egrets were decimated by plume hunters in the late 1800’s; populations plunged by 95 percent. Their plight spawned the nation-wide bird conservation movement. Legal protection has resulted in a remarkable comeback. 
  1. Symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was founded to protect bird populations.  

What do they look like? 

  • All white with black legs and a yellow bill.  
  • Weigh only 2 pounds despite reaching a height of 41 inches with a wingspan of 55 inches. 
  • During breeding season (late December to early July) the patch of skin on the face turns lime green and long plumes, called aigrettes, grow down the back.  

What do they eat?  

  • Mostly fish. Will also eat crustaceans, frogs, lizards, snakes, and insects.  
  • Hunts in shallow water, impaling prey on its long, sharp beak. 

What eats them? 

  • They have no real predators as adults. Most would-be predators avoid such a large bird. However, raccoons, hawks, owls and snakes raid their nests for eggs and chicks. 

Why do we need them? 

  • Great Egrets play an important role in balancing aquatic and riparian ecosystems by controlling amphibian, insect, and small mammal populations.  

Want more information? 

Within The Woodlands, Great Egrets have at times created large nesting sites in residential areas. Abandoned nests can be removed to deter egrets from nesting in your trees, however active nests are protected by the Federal Migratory Birds Treaty Act and cannot be removed.  

Learn how to effectively and legally address nesting egrets by visiting the Wildlife Section at www.thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov/environment.   

Nests are built high in trees to avoid predators. Males select the location, but it is common to return to the same nesting site year after year.  

Interested in learning more about local wildlife? Check out these past articles:  

Creature Feature: Cormorant

Combine a goose and a loon, stir in a few prehistoric features, and there you have it – the captivating cormorant. You’ve likely noticed this sleek black deep diver with a snake-like neck frequenting Township waters this time of year. Two species are native to our area. The Double – crested cormorant (Nannopterum auritum) resides year-round while the Neotropic cormorant (Nannopterum brasilianum) visits primarily in the winter.  

Distinguishing between the two can be difficult; there are more similarities than differences. The fact that they flock together makes it even more challenging. Perhaps the easiest tell is the white outlining specific to the head and chin of the adult Neotropic. Bear in mind, juveniles of both species have their own color variations, so if you’re keen on identifying correctly, best to bring along a bird identification guide.  

Neotropic Cormorant
Double-crested cormorant

You’ll find large numbers fishing in local waterways, ponds and lakes. A drive past the south end of Lake Woodlands will almost guarantee a glimpse of a few dozen sunning themselves, wings outstretched.

Cormorants spend most of their time out of the water, resting or holding their wings open to dry. 

Fast Facts 

1. When threatened a Double-crested cormorant may vomit fish at a predator. 

2. The name cormorant is derived from the Latin corvus marinus, which means “sea raven”. Not actually related to ravens, this misnomer likely dates to the Middle Ages when most black birds were referred to as ravens. 

3. The cormorant served as a hood ornament for the Packard automobile brand. (Many people mistakenly believed it to be a swan.) 

Cormorants are pellet-makers. Similar to owls, they spit out pellets that contain bones and scales of the fish they eat. 

What do they eat? 

Primarily fish-eaters, an adult can eat a pound of fish a day. Groups of cormorants work together forming a line as they cross the water, hitting the surface with their wings then take turns diving below to catch fleeing fish. Their long, thin bill has a sharp hook at the end – great for catching small fish. 

Cormorants will also dine on crustaceans, snakes, and amphibians.  

What eats them?  

Most predators are unable to access cormorants easily as they  slip into the water or take flight to escape. If given the opportunity coyotes, alligators, bald eagles and great horned owls will prey on adults and juveniles. Foxes, raccoons, skunks and some birds (crows, jays and grackles) will take advantage of unattended eggs and chicks.   

Why do we need them? 

They play a critical role in nature’s complex food web by helping keep fish, and other aquatic organisms, from overpopulating our waterways. 

And that’s not all 

Cormorants aren’t your average waterbird. Did you know they are uniquely designed to be excellent divers and underwater swimmers. More like a seal than a bird! 

And unlike ducks, cormorants’ feathers are not very waterproof. Instead, their feathers are designed to get waterlogged, allowing these feathery fishermen to sink and dive more efficiently. Their bones also have a higher density than other aquatic avians.   

Double-crested cormorants can dive to depths up to 25 feet and stay underwater for over a minute. Check out the video below and see for yourself just how amazing these birds are at swimming.  

There’s no denying it – cormorants are cool. Next time you’re at a local park with a pond or lake, hopefully you’ll get to experience these fascinating feathered friends yourself.  

Interested in learning more about local wildlife? Check out these past articles: 

Backyard Birds Part II

One sunny morning last month, the most unusual visitors appeared at my birdbath. Well, maybe not that unusual. It is a birdbath after all. I snapped off as many photos as I could before they hurried on their way. But after 10 minutes, cat and human noses remained pressed to the window, soaking up the scene. Finally they did take flight and I assumed that would be the last we’d see of them. Until the next day when they returned for another bath. And stayed for an entire week! 

So, who were these unexpected backyard visitors?  A couple of juvenile Cooper’s Hawks.

Like so many of you, I’m fascinated by our native wildlife. And while many critters can’t easily avail themselves of my yard, that’s not the case for birds. Since my hawk visitors have departed, I’ve taken steps to make my backyard more ‘bird friendly’ in hopes of inviting more avian friends in.  Bird baths and feeders were easy to add and cleaning them weekly keeps visitors happy and healthy. Adding in native plants like American Beautyberry, Barbados Cherry and Turk’s Cap were next. These plants not only look great in my yard but provide shelter and food for birds, bees and butterflies.  A few birdhouses are next, once I determine the best fit for my yard. The National Wildlife Federation’s “Create a Bird-Friendly Habitat” has served as a great guide.  

And it’s working. Carolina wrens, cardinals, robins, and even a downy woodpecker are a few of the recent visitors. Perhaps a rufous hummingbird or an eastern screech owl will make the next appearance in my bird-friendly yard. 

I don’t know if I’ll see those Cooper’s hawks again, but I do know that they’ll forever be the catalyst to me becoming a backyard birder. Join me in exploring some of the larger native birds that are likely to stop by – if you lay out the welcome mat.   

Backyard Birds: Raptors

The word “raptor” means “to seize or grasp” in Latin. Raptors use their powerful, sharp talons to catch prey and to defend themselves.  

More on Backyard Birds 

3 Rules All Birders Should Know 

Bird is the Word 

Backyard Birds 

Common Birds of Houston, Texas by Houston Audubon Society 


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