Finding suitable habitat and food in urban areas is becoming increasingly difficult for overwintering birds, with urban stresses such as pollution, light, noise and low species diversity creating many challenges. When planning your yard, consider how you can build quality habitat for local birds by adding features that provide food, shelter, water and nesting sites. Check out these tips on how to create a backyard sanctuary for overwintering birds:
1. Focus on Native Species
A simple approach to creating quality habitat is to plant native trees, shrubs and flowers. Native birds are most familiar with —you guessed it — native plants! They easily recognize these species and tend to flock to them in times of need. By planting native species, you will also attract other local wildlife year-round, like bees and butterflies.
Species Highlight: Hackberry
Attracts: Robins, cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, woodpeckers.
The hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is a hardy, native tree species that brings a lot to the table for local birds and other wildlife. Its orange-brown, pea-sized berries mature to a purplish black in late summer and persist on the tree during the winter months. Throughout the year, a variety of caterpillars call this tree home, including the hackberry emperor, tawny emperor, question mark and mourning cloak.
2. Provide Food Sources
Many overwintering birds in Canada will increase their metabolism to help maintain their internal body temperatures during the cold months by eating more food. Planting a variety of native trees and shrubs can help with this. Pay particular attention to species that carry food sources into the fall and winter months (species that hold on to fruit, seeds, cones or nuts or trees that harbour overwintering insects and larvae in their bark).
Some native species that provide great fall/winter food sources include bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), and eastern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) . For more information, check out the species we offer.
Species Highlight: Red-osier dogwood
Attracts: Robins, bluebirds, thrushes, catbirds, vireos, kingbirds, cardinals and warblers.
The red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) is a great shrub choice for creating both food and shelter for birds. Fat enriched, white berries are produced in the summer and mature in the fall, which provide birds with much needed calories for the tough winter months ahead. With densely packed branches close to the ground, you will also spot birds using it for cover throughout the year.
3. Build a Diverse Landscape
You can mimic a natural landscape by planting a variety of native species in vertical layers, taking into account heights and textures. Be sure to include a combination of tall canopy trees, understory trees, shrubs, perennials and other ground cover. When maintaining your yard, don’t be afraid to let things be. Allow your plants and shrubs to fully go to seed and consider keeping or creating a brush pile for habitat. By creating different habitat areas, you will be sure to attract a diversity of birds that rest both along the ground and high up in tree canopies.
Some excellent species to help create a variety of habitat include red oak (Quercus rubra), white pine (Pinus strobus), sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and tamarack (Larix laricina). For more information, check out the species we offer.
Species Highlight: White spruce
Attracts: Crossbills, migrating warblers, woodpeckers.
White spruce (Picea glauca) trees produce seed-bearing cones that mature in the fall and stay on the tree through the winter, providing birds a source of much needed food during the winter months. Insects can be found hiding in the grooved bark, offering variety for birds. They are large growing trees with dense branching that create a safe place for nesting and resting.
Jon is the Residential Planting Programs Field Coordinator at LEAF
LEAF offers a subsidized Backyard Tree Planting Program for private property. The program is supported by the City of Toronto, the Regional Municipality of York, the City of Markham, the Town of Newmarket, the Regional Municipality of Durham, the Town of Ajax, the Township of Brock, the Municipality of Clarington, the City of Oshawa, the City of Pickering, the Township of Scugog, the Town of Whitby, Ontario Power Generation, Ontario Trillium Foundation and GrandTrees/Canadian Trees For Life.