Blue Jays and Cardinals
Steve Brown, Washington, submitted this photo he took after the ice, sleet and snowstorm Feb. 1-2. There were about 10 Cardinals and four or five blue jays along with dozens of smaller birds that were all sharing a bird feeder.

Now that we are in the throes of winter, and the coldest month of the year is upon us, it is a good time to assess how the birds are doing. This time of year is especially difficult for them. If given a little assistance, their chances of survival are greatly increased.

One of the easiest things to provide, and high on the list of needs, is water. Adding a heater or deicer coil to an existing birdbath, or purchasing a birdbath with the heater built in, can provide the perfect winter oasis for your feathered friends.

Just be sure to keep the birdbath clean. Frequent cleaning with a mild bleach and scrub brush and thorough rinsing prior to refilling will ensure a healthy water source.

Providing shelter is another way to help. There is a shortage of nesting sites for cavity-nesting birds due to land development, introduction of competing species like starlings, and the use of pesticides.

The use of birdhouses and nesting boxes has helped many species make a comeback. Landscaping that provides shelter can also be a great help.

Evergreen trees and shrubs provide a welcome resting place out of the wind, snow or rain. Birds gather in groups toward the inside and huddle together to create more warmth. Placing food and water near these nesting or respite areas allows them to make shorter journeys for these things, which means less time battling the elements and using up their energy reserves.

More than 50 species of birds will use birdhouses, including chickadees, bluebirds, titmice, woodpeckers, wrens, swallows and nuthatches.

Requirements for a good birdhouse are: It must be able to open up for cleaning, and must have ventilation holes in the bottom (these should be plugged up for winter roosting). The houses should have a slanted roof to allow for water runoff, and they should not have perches. Cavity-nesting birds do not need them and the perches only allow predator access to the nest.

Placing the birdhouse on a pole will help discourage predators. However, certain species, like chickadees and woodpeckers, prefer nesting in trees, thus attaching the house directly to a tree is what works best for them. The house should face south or southwest so it is facing away from the direction most storms approach. Be sure you have provided a clear flight path to the entrance but approximately 10 feet away from other trees or structures. It should get direct sun for a good part of the day.

At the end of the fall, be sure to clean out the old nesting material. Another source of shelter can be provided by your used Christmas tree, particularly if you have few or no other evergreens. Next year, once the holidays are over, take your tree outside and set it up near your house, feeder or winterized birdbath.

The final piece of the puzzle is providing food. Particularly here in Missouri, winter is a difficult time for the bird species that have chosen to overwinter here. The days are short and cold. There is little to no vegetation, and most of the insects are dead or dormant.

Now is an excellent time to purchase a feeder if you do not already have one. Most songbirds feed on insects and spiders during the spring and summer; however, the non-migratory species switch to fruit and seeds in the fall and winter.

Black oil sunflower seeds are preferred by the largest number of bird species. Not only are these seeds very nutritious and high in fat, but their small size makes them easier for smaller species to split them open. Be sure to scatter some seed on the ground and beneath trees and shrubs for birds that prefer to feed in these locations.

Feeders with platforms provide the right type of feeding station for species that do not perch, such as cardinals.

High-energy food, like suet and peanut butter, are an added benefit for all birds and provide much needed fat. So with this information, I hope now you will enjoy the antics of our feathered friends.

It is also time to think about starting any garden and flower seeds in the house that you may want to grow this year. The choices are many. Our last frost date is around May 1, so back up the weeks on the calendar for seed starting so you know when the best time for planting in the house would be.

Ample light is very important for this task. Seed varieties can be found in many forms also. Besides the tried and true varieties grown for years, heirlooms and organic seeds are now readily available. Botanical Interest is a wonderful line of garden seeds that offers health and recipe information on the packets. They are great for the beginner and experienced gardener.

Now would be a good time to finish cleaning, sharpening and oiling your yard tools. Check the handles of all of your yard tools to make sure they are not broken, splintering or otherwise dangerous, and replace those that are.

Also, make sure that your wheelbarrow is sturdy and your lawnmower, roto-tiller and string trimmer are in good working condition and ready to start on the first pull this spring.

Another cold weather job is cleaning up any containers or planters that you have stored away. While doing this, make a list of the flowers that you are going to need for these containers in the spring.

This monthly column is written by Sandi Hillermann McDonald of Hillermann Nursery & Florist, Washington.