With most of us working from home, more of us are watching birds. Last spring, a biannual Global Big Day of birdwatching hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology saw a 45% increase over 2019—with 50,000 people reporting bird sightings in their area. In October, a global team of more than 32,000 birders from 168 countries found 7,097 species in one day, breaking the world record for the most reported in a single day.
In snow and cold, how do we invite more fliers to our yards and parks? Plenty of them live or spend time nearby: Around Great Salt Lake and the mountains to its east, 200 bird species have been identified. We talked with Barbara Brown, a professor in the Department of Family & Consumer Studies and a member of the Cancer Control and Population Sciences program at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, about creating safe winter environments for birds near home.
An environmental psychologist, Brown focuses on how humans relate to their physical environments. Her research has included the health of dog owners and individuals in walkable areas, and she began looking in 2017 at how we design bird ecosystems.
8 tips for attracting birds to our yards in winter
1. If you have a feeder, place it where birds don’t feel exposed to overhead predators. For instance, we have a Cooper’s hawk—a predator that eats smaller birds—that shows up around 3:30 p.m. most days. To get cover, birds like to hop from thick brush to a feeder and back. So, give them a chance to do that.
2. Place the feeder in an area where birds moving to and from it won’t crash into a window at high speed. Either put it close to a window so a bird taking off won’t have enough speed to hit a window hard—or have the feeder far from windows, so none are in the path of travel.
3. Try to make windows very visible to birds. At home, we use Acopian birdsavers, parachute silk strings you hang in front of your window. They sway in the breeze and birds see them. At the U, my building has little white stickers marking windows every 2 by 2 inches. Those reduce death by 71%, according to a study we conducted in 2019.
4. Try to make your yard’s feeder area feel natural to birds. For instance, keep leaves on the ground or put out dead logs. We placed a dead tall stump in our yard, salvaged from neighbors taking down a tree. The birds love it and we hung our suet feeder there. When birds are finished eating suet, they crawl up and down the stump, looking under the bark for insects to eat.
5. Put out a variety of food in feeders. We have suet, black-oiled sunflower seeds, nyjer seeds—the seed of the African yellow daisy which are loved by finches—and sunflower kernels. Certain seeds, like millet, attract very specific birds. I used to dislike the messiness of millet, but then I learned lazuli buntings love it. When you put it in a hanging platform feeder, you can see eight or ten gorgeous bluebirds, lazuli buntings, all at once in late fall. They were here for several weeks in the fall.
7. Try adding something extra to make the yard more inviting. We have a heated birdbath and enjoy watching birds use it. Flickers, members of the woodpecker family, eat suet and get their bills messy. Then they use the birdbath to clean up a bit.
6. If you install birdhouses, try to use an official one. Some of those at hardware stores or other shops might have a hole the wrong size, which could allow predators to get inside or target the bird. You want to make sure you have the correct house for the bird you want to live in it.
7. If you put in dead trees or prop up logs, sometimes a bird will carve its own nest hole. A red-breasted nuthatch nested one year in our snag trunk that way.
8. Winter is a great time to plan your spring plantings. Check the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder to learn how many insects, butterflies, creatures are drawn to any native plant. One mistake bird lovers make is to have invasive plants in their yard. The federation’s site can provide inspiration for plants that attract a wide range of insects—then you’ll help chicks and adult birds find protein.