Yard MD: Bring magic of songbirds to your garden all winter long

Bring magic of songbirds to your garden all winter long

Nov. 15, 2013
American robins don't all migrate south for the winter. By planting lots of fall fruit-producing trees and shrubs, you may be surprised by robins even during the dead of winter.
American robins don't all migrate south for the winter. By planting lots of fall fruit-producing trees and shrubs, you may be surprised by robins even during the dead of winter. / ROB ZIMMER/Gannett Wisconsin Media
The northern cardinal is one of the most common birds to visit backyard feeders during the winter months. / Rob Zimmer/ Gannett Wisconsin Media


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Unexpected treasures

Everyone’s familiar with cardinals and chickadees, so here is an assortment of lesser-known but amazing birds you may see at your feeders this fall and winter.
White-breasted nuthatch and red-breasted nuthatch

The nuthatches are fun fall and winter birds that have a distinct, nasally, laughing call. They are one of few birds that actually climb upside down along tree trunks. White-breasted nuthatches are colored distinctly black and white, while the red-breasted nuthatch is slightly smaller, with a wash of red across the breast.
Pine grosbeak and evening grosbeak

These are highly specialized birds that actually migrate south into our area for winter. Grosbeaks are large, chunky birds that feed on fruits and seeds. Pine grosbeaks eat berries and fruits left over on winter trees. Evening grosbeaks prefer to feed on the ground or platform feeders, like their relative, the northern cardinal.
Varied thrush

This amazing bird, a resident of the Pacific Northwest, makes several appearances throughout Wisconsin each winter. These robin-like birds, with beautiful orange and black patterning, migrate west across the northern tier of states.
Red-bellied woodpecker

One of the most striking birds found in our area, the red-bellied woodpecker features a distinct black and white “ladder” back, tan face with a red crown and a buff-colored breast.
Pileated woodpecker

The largest woodpecker found in North America, the pileated woodpecker is about the size of a crow, colored striking black and white with a dramatic, red-crested head. When one of these shows up at your feeder, you’ll know it.
Pine siskin

The loud “buzzing” trill of the pine siskin often announces its arrival before the bird is actually seen. Related to goldfinches and other finches found in our area, the pine siskin feeds in evergreens such as pines, spruce and white cedar. If you have these trees on your property, you may see them stop by on their roaming winter journeys.
Cedar waxwing and Bohemian waxwing

With their elegant, tawny plumage and black robber masks, the waxwings are beautiful, sleek birds. Both species feature beautifully crested heads, as well as patches of the telltale “wax” at the tips of the wing and tail. Bohemian waxwings are slightly larger and lighter in color and are sometimes mixed in with cedar waxwing flocks.
Tufted titmouse

The tiny little tufted titmouse, a bird of the southern states that is slowly making its way north year by year, is a cheerful little songster closely related to the chickadee. This bird is colored gray and white overall with a distinctly crested head. It’s voice is a loud cheerful warble that bursts forth in late winter and spring
American Robin

Yes, that’s right, robins don’t all leave for the winter. By planting berry-producing trees and shrubs, as well as crabapples, you will increase your chances of seeing robins in your yard year-round.


For video featuring some great ideas for landscaping for birds, see this story online at wausaudailyherald.com.


Rob Zimmer serves up a video tip each week. Battling buckthorn will be the topic Tuesday at wausaudailyherald.com/yardmd.


Barberries are one of the most attractive late-season shrubs for their long-lasting fall color and the bountiful berries they produce. Yard MD Rob Zimmer will introduce you to some of the finest varieties for your yard and garden.

Sleek and elegant, cedar waxwings move about in roaming flocks during fall and winter searching neighborhoods and woodlots for stands of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs such as crabapples, red cedar, northern white-cedar, highbush cranberry and more. Plant a few of these trees and shrubs in your yard and garden and watch the show. / ROB ZIMMER/Gannett Wisconsin Media


Even on the coldest days of late fall and winter, your garden can come alive with brilliant color and cheerful song as dozens of songbirds decorate the trees and shrubs on your property.

Feeding birds in winter, using standard bird feeders and seed, is an increasingly popular activity.

But there is much more that you can do to attract birds to your property than simply setting up a feeder. By planning your garden beds and borders carefully, you can ensure a healthy population of colorful songbirds throughout the year.

By far the best way to attract songbirds to your garden, no matter what time of the year, is to use native plantings whenever possible.

Using a combination of native flowers, trees and shrubs that bloom and fruit at various times of the year, you will attract the greatest variety of bird life to your yard.

Supplement your plantings with bird feeders and baths of various styles and you will enjoy an even greater abundance of colorful songbirds.

Berries for birds

By planting trees and shrubs that produce large numbers of berries and fruit, especially during fall, you can ensure feeding birds will be present during much of the season.

Excellent shrubs to consider include dogwoods, red cedar, American mountain ash, highbush cranberry, barberry, flowering crabapples and hawthorn.

Increase the variety of bird life by including trees and shrubs that produce berries at other times of the year as well. Some of these include elderberry, mulberry, black cherry, wild plum, serviceberry and sumac.

Native plantings

Native plantings, especially prairie plants, attract a large number of songbirds to the yard and garden during fall and winter. Some of the best seed producers include purple coneflower, cup plant, milkweed, prairie dock, compass plant, prairie coneflower, Jerusalem artichoke, iron weed and liatris.

Allow these plants to remain standing during fall and winter, when they are of the most benefit to birds passing through the area. Resist the urge to chop back your perennials during fall and you will see more bird life on your property.

There are many annual garden flowers that also provide seeds for birds. Some of these include cosmos, zinnias, marigolds, sweet pea, nasturtium and, of course, sunflowers.

Shelter and cover

Be sure to provide areas of shelter and cover for birds as well, especially during winter.

The simplest way to create shelter and cover is to create a brush pile on your property using twigs and branches as well as leaves. Use evergreen boughs, as well as bare branches, sticks or boards to create space for birds to escape not only the cold, but predators as well.

When setting up bird feeders, place the feeders in an area where songbirds can quickly escape into evergreen trees or shrubs. This makes them much more comfortable, and more likely to visit your feeder.

Songbird predators include cats, dogs, foxes, as well as other birds such as hawks and even wild turkeys.

Squirrel-proof your feeders

One of the most common questions I receive during winter is how to keep squirrels out of bird feeders.

Often, people are more interested in poisons and traps than humane methods, which is disappointing.

By far, the best way to deter squirrels from your feeders is to position them appropriately and with proper spacing from nearby trees, rooftops and other structures from which the squirrels can leap or climb.

Simply positioning the feeder appropriately is a far better option than using poisons, hot pepper or other harmful substances that can injure the squirrels.

By positioning your feeder pole or platform high enough and far enough from living or man-made structures from which squirrels can leap, you will deter most of these furry creatures from your feeders. Installing an effective squirrel baffle, at the correct height, will also help.

Of course if you can’t beat them, join them. Many residents are perfectly happy feeding the squirrels as well, for the joy and playful antics they provide all winter long. Purchase a few of the specialized squirrel feeders, give them their own place to play, and enjoy the show.

— Rob Zimmer: 920-419-3734 or yardmd@postcrescent.com

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