We’re in the depth of winter. Extreme cold challenges people and animals. Discarded holiday trees are collecting on the roadsides. The piles of snow make pickup difficult for road crews but most towns have programs to collect the trees and turn them into mulch.
If you live in a house and have a yard you have an alternative to putting the tree on the curb, and you can provide a little respite to some very cold birds by doing so.
Birds in winter
Birds are remarkable creatures with features that help them survive. Their feathers have an oily coating that helps with waterproofing and insulation; fluffing them creates air pockets. Birds have independent temperature controls for their extremities and core, to limit heat loss. Their behaviors such as roosting in clusters and gorging in fall to build fat layers all make survival possible. Many birds die in winter however, and others suffer.
As with mammals, winter survival depends upon taking in enough calories and maintaining body temperature (about 105 degrees) – difficult when outside temperature is 10 degrees, especially if the wind is blowing. If the bird finds nearby food, that helps. If he must fly for five hours to find the food – not good.
Marilyn O’Connell of Wild Birds Unlimited once told me about research showing that chickadees often lose 10 percent of their weight on a cold night; those that had access to high calorie food had a survival rate 50 percent higher than those that had to forage. No doubt: Feeding birds and providing water is helpful, especially if the supplies are provided in a safe and sheltered place.
How trees can help
The trees and shrubs in your yard form part of the protective habitat that helps birds – more or less, depending on how they are arranged. A hedge or layered planting blocks wind and provides safety and shelter, a place to hide and roost at night.
Ideally a bird feeding station should be blocked by a windbreak – preferably far enough away so that it doesn’t hide predators.
Discarded trees can also form windbreaks and provide shelter. Place them between trunks of deciduous trees or tall conifers that have lost lower branches. Pile them along a fence, even if it is temporary. On a garden they act like mulch, keep the soil evenly frozen and preventing the plants from heaving. In the country it’s good to put a discarded tree on the edge of the woods, where nature does the job of decomposition, eventually turning it back into the soil.
A brush pile is also valuable for birds and other wildlife. “Brush” in this case means sticks, twigs, leaves, garden debris, and Christmas trees. The best brush pile (most useful for animals) has logs or large branches crisscrossed at the base, with finer material on top, so that smaller animals can scoot underneath to flee predators or find warmth. If you live in a place where this is possible, make a brush pile, or a series of them, at the back or side or your yard.
A brush pile has many values including a place to shelter large birds as well as small mammals. Where deer are present – also struggling for nutrition at this time of year – a brush pile provides browsing material as well, and it’s the right kind of food for their digestive systems during this season. People who don’t want the deer eating their landscape shrubs may get a break, even temporarily, if the deer have brush piles for nibbling. And even people who say they hate the animals may prefer not to see them suffering.
Tree as feeding station
If you live where bird feeding is permitted but haven’t set up feeders, this is your opportunity. Experts say that feeding birds is helpful even if you can’t be entirely consistent. (Birds establish patterns, moving from feeder to feeder. Even if it takes them a while to discover yours, it will soon become an appreciated stopover.) Just set that Christmas tree outside and start hanging the bird treats.
You have some decisions to make, starting with location. For many years I put the large Christmas tree, upright in its stand, on the west side of the bird feeders (and feeding tray for ground feeders) on my deck. This is rather hard on the tree stand and may lead to frequent purchases in future years, but it worked well for me unless the snow was deep enough to hold the tree upright. Perhaps your tree can lean against the side of the house or fence to accomplish the wind-blocking, feeder-protection job. Either way, it helped to block the worst wind blasts on the feeder as well as a door.
Then choose your bird treats and food. I’m not your recipe provider, but many websites tell you how to make suet treats, peanut butter and seed balls, and other good things. Or just buy the feed and treats at Wild Birds Unlimited, Reboy, Clyde’s, Masterson’s, or other farm/feed stores and garden centers. Advice: If you are going to continue to feed birds after the immediate deep freeze, purchase high quality squirrel-proof feeders—or you’ll be buying the cheap ones repeatedly.
Whatever treats you buy or make, hang them on the old tree. It’s fun to watch the birds discover them. Squirrels or chipmunks may also arrive – and let them catch a break. Winter is tough for them too. It’s also gratifying to see little chickadees fluffed up to twice their size, nestled where ornaments used to hang.
Don’t forget the water, since it’s at least as important as food and often harder to find. You can purchase heated water dishes or keep a water garden open with a floating heater (available wherever water garden supplies are sold) or just provide fresh water at the same time every day.
I wish you pleasure and comfort as you assist some creatures through the darkest days. Your used Christmas tree can help in the process – and recycling is always good.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.