Backyard Nature in Winter

By Edie Parnum

Most people give little thought to nature in the wintertime. People like to stay inside where it’s warm and dry. Outside excursions are preferably just a quick dash to the car. This is quite natural and, after all, human activities like eating and socializing can take place perfectly well inside. However, wild creatures reside in the chilly outdoors.

The best opportunity to observe nature from the comfort of your home is to have well stocked bird feeders close to the windows where you frequently spend time. I, myself, close down the feeding station by our porch and position all the feeders where we can see them through the windows over the kitchen sink or near where we eat our meals. The feeders are filled with a variety of foods including black oil sunflower, safflower, plain white suet, peanuts, and millet. The bird activity at the feeders is most intense during and after snow or ice storms when natural foods are not readily accessible.

One of the best places to watch the birds is at the brush pile, which is located within view of the kitchen. Many different backyard birds seek shelter in it. Undoubtedly, they can find food, too, such as dormant insects and spiders along with their eggs and pupae. Often the birds will venture out to use the nearby birdbath, which is equipped with a heater to keep the water from freezing. During the cold months of the year, I spread millet seed around this area. Sparrows, including the Song, White-throated, and Dark-eyed Junco, like these seeds. Sometimes a Fox Sparrow or a White-crowned Sparrow will spend a few days here, too.

On days when the weather isn’t nasty, I make a foray out into my yard to see what’s happening in nature. It’s actually a little easier to see the birds when the leaves have fallen and the branches are bare. Usually some of the regular backyard birds like robins and mockingbirds that don’t use the feeders are about. It’s a treat when I get to see less common birds like Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Cedar Waxwing, Hermit Thrush, or Yellow-rumped Warbler. On cold, windy days it’s easiest to find the birds in a sunny, sheltered spot out of the wind. Naturally, they quickly escape into the evergreens or other dense vegetation when I venture too close or a hawk flies into view.

If I watch carefully, I sometimes can see what the birds are eating. The goldfinches eat the seeds of the native grasses and perennials that I purposefully don’t cut back until spring. Both the goldfinches and House Finches seem to enjoy the Tulip Poplar seeds. Other birds like chickadees, titmice, and both species of nuthatch will search the pines and other evergreens for seeds and insects. The sparrows prefer to eat their seeds on the ground. Often before I see them, I hear them jump and scratch, their preferred method of foraging in the dry leaves that I leave unraked in certain spots. Robins, cardinals, woodpeckers, and the occasional Hermit Thrush will eat berries on the hollies, winterberries, cranberry bush viburnums, red cedars, bayberries, and crabapples as well as buds of trees.

Mammal activity is often hard to observe, but after snow has lain on the ground for at least one night, I enjoy looking for tracks. The hoof prints of deer are all too common. Evidence of squirrels and the neighbors’ cats are easily found as well. Occasionally I’ve been thrilled to see the tracks of a passing fox. Chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, and groundhogs are not around, because they are either hibernating or in a state of torpidity for most of the winter. At those times when a deep snow cover has nearly melted, I can see the tunnels that have been made by voles and mice. Someday I’ll likely see a spot of blood on the snow together with some feathers or fur that will show me that an owl, hawk, or cat caught a rodent or bird.

Back inside in our warm homes, winter is a good time to plan for spring planting. Knowing that in winter wildlife need food and shelter above all, you’ll probably want to add dense evergreen and deciduous shrubs and trees that have fruits or seeds that persist during the winter months. In all likelihood, you’ll plan for more wildlife friendly plants in your flower garden, too. Or perhaps you’ll want to create a small meadow where native grasses and perennials are grown close together and left uncut over the winter. Personally, tops on my wish list is River Birch, a tree with seeds enjoyed by many birds and with peeling bark that looks attractive in the winter landscape.

Let’s not forget nature in winter. Pets and houseplants are not enough for most of us who are nature lovers. Inside or outside our homes, we can cherish wild birds and animals as well as the plants on which they depend.