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 

Creature Feature: Armadillo

The Aztecs called them turtle rabbits. German settlers called them armored pigs. Some Southerners refer to them as opossums on the half-shell or Texas speed bumps. Whatever you call them, these fascinating creatures play an important role in the health of our ecosystem. Read on to learn more about the official small mammal of Texas! 

Fast Facts 

  • The name armadillo means “little armored one” in Spanish.  
  • Nine-banded armadillos almost always give birth to four identical quadruplets. 
  • Contrary to popular belief, nine-banded armadillos are unable to roll their shell into a ball. Of the 21 species of armadillo, only the three-banded armadillo can accomplish that feat. 
  • When surprised, nine-banded armadillos tend to leap straight into the air, up to 5 feet! 

What do they look like? 

Here in Texas, only one species of armadillo can be found: the nine-banded armadillo. These little guys are distinguished by the presence of seven to eleven “bands” across the middle of their armor.  

Roughly the size of a small dog, averaging 2.5 feet long and 12 pounds, they don’t have any fur on their brown body save for some hairs under their head and belly.  The most distinctive feature of an armadillo is the bony, armor-like plates that offer protection from predators. They have a long snout they use to root through the soil and powerful claws to dig up dinner.  

What do they eat? 

Armadillos are primarily insectivores and use their keen sense of smell to track invertebrates such as beetles, fire ants, snails, spiders, white grubs, cockroaches and more. They will also eat fruits, seeds, and occasionally carrion. 

What eats them? 

Because of their small size and poor eyesight, nine-banded armadillos fall victim to both larger animals and humans. Coyotes, wolves, bobcats, alligators and even large birds of prey are known to attack armadillos. Most nine-banders are killed by humans, either on purpose for their meat or accidentally by cars. Despite this, the nine-banded armadillo population is considered stable and classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.  

Super swimmers 

While they may not look like it, our regional armadillos are fantastic swimmers! However, their methods are unusual, to say the least. In order to keep their heavy shells from sinking, armadillos will inflate their stomachs to twice their normal size to stay afloat. They’re also known to walk directly across the bottom of rivers and lakes. These unique abilities to cross the water have contributed to the armadillo’s wide population distribution across the United States; nine-banded armadillos primarily reside in the Southeastern U.S. but have been found as far north as Illinois and Nebraska.  

Check out this video to see them in action! 

Regulations and removal 

While armadillos may be considered a nuisance due to their tendency to dig in your yard, it’s important to remember that they consume many creatures we consider pests -cockroaches, grubs, scorpions, termites and more. If you can’t exclude them and are concerned about damage to your plants or lawn, contact a professional for humane removal. Although it is legal to trap armadillos at any time, you must notify the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department before relocating the animal.   

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

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 

You’re rethinking your landscape to favor bird food and habitat?

Wow, that’s awesome!

Doug Tallamy, author of  Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, wrote in a  2016 article in Bird Watcher’s Digest, “Some plants are far better at producing insect bird food than others. For example, oaks support 557 species of caterpillars (bird food) in the mid-Atlantic states alone, whereas non-native Zelkova trees from Asia support no caterpillars at all.

“Ninety percent of the insects that eat plants can only eat specific plants; if those plants are absent from our landscapes, so will be the bird food they produce. Unfortunately, this is the case in our yards and managed landscapes when we remove native plant communities that are good at making insect bird food and replace them with vast lawns and ornamental plants from other parts of the world that produce few insects in North America. This oversight must end if we want birds in our future.” 

Are you telling me you’re removing some turfgrass to make way for native plants that actually attract insects? That’s really smart of you! In case a neighbor asks you why your lawn is getting smaller, tell them a lot of research is being done on why birds are in decline, and urban landscapes are proving to have great potential to help, see the article below.

Oh, and you can also mention that people who already feed birds are the most likely to transform turf to native plants that birds need. And, by the way, many younger homeowners are getting savvy to gardening for birds, too. So, you are definitely part of the in-crowd when it comes to forgoing the “old school” vast expanse of lawn for bird and wildlife-friendly plants.

Look back at this previous article and learn more about the critical ways native plants support local bird populations.


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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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