Dec 5, 2018 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, December 2018

These Holiday Gift Ideas Are for the Backyard Birds

Birds may not celebrate human holidays, but you can get gifts for them, too: give them food, shelter, and safety in your yard.

Birds might not celebrate human holidays, but they are well aware of shorter days, longer nights, and dropping temperatures. Since most of us celebrate winter holiday by giving gifts, here are some ideas for holiday presents for backyard birds. They'll show you their gratitude by using them, and, if you've placed them properly, by coming into closer view.

#1. A Christmas tree. You've probably read it on these pages before, but if you chop down or buy a real evergreen tree to place in your house for a week or two during the holidays, rather that hauling it to the curb for trash pick-up in the early days of 2019, haul it to the backyard within sight of your favorite bird-viewing window. You can wire it to an upright post (such as a permanent clothesline post or swing set support), or just lay it on its side. Toss a cup of sunflower hearts or mixed seeds into its branches now and then. Birds appreciate a sheltered place to dine and sleep, and that's true whether you live in frigid Fargo, balmy Boca Raton, or sunny San Diego. Leave the tree out as long as you're willing to look at it, and expect to clean up the dropped needles.

#2. Heated birdbath or birdbath heater. Those who winter in areas that seldom freeze can skip this one, but for the rest of us: Birds need to drink year-round, and during prolonged frigid spells, a heated birdbath is likely to be a popular spot in your neighborhood. Shallow baths are best. Add rocks to a deep bowl to make the water shallow—as in the case of a heated dog bowl. You don't need to buy a heated birdbath—birdbath heaters are available and affordable, and can be used in a birdbath you already own. Refill as needed, and replace the water every week or so. At the same time, give the bowl a good brushing. Don't be surprised to find birds that don't eat seeds, suet, or other common feeder offerings stopping by to have a little drink.

#3. Suet feeder with tail prop. Like all healthy birds, woodpeckers have two legs. But unlike other birds, the woodpecker's tail is stiff enough to serve as a solid support for its headbanging habit. Woodpeckers prefer suet feeders that have a prop for their tail. This can be accomplished by hanging a suet cage against a tree, rather than dangling free. Some suet feeders have a wooden extension below the wire holder, and such feeders can entice even large woodpeckers, including pileated.

#4. Nest box. Songbirds that nest in cavities often spend frigid or blustery winter nights in cavities, too. Putting out a nest box at this time of year will help wrens, bluebirds, chickadees, titmice, and other overwintering cavity nesters, and they might remember the location and return to that safe shelter in the spring, and use it for its intended purpose. Put a small layer of wood shavings, dry pine needles, or dry grass in the bottom of the box for insulation.

#5. A snag. Just try this: "Plant" a tall, sturdy, broken branch 10 or so feet from a popular bird feeder, especially if your feeding stations are in a large, open yard. Birds will adopt the new perch almost immediately as they come and go from your restaurant. And it's free!

#6. An alpaca ball. It's still early for songbird nesting, but an alpaca wool ball, hung in a sheltered location, looks like a wintry ornament. Birds might start checking it out right away, just out of curiosity. When the urge to start nesting strikes, they'll know where to find ideal nesting material: short strands of water-repellent, soft allnatural material. We're fans of All Things Alpaca nesting balls.

#7. An indoor cat. The most generous thing you can do for the backyard birds that you love is to keep your cat(s) indoors, or to politely ask that your neighbors keep their cats out of your yard. Even well-fed cats hunt. Cats can learn to be perfectly happy living an indoor existence, and odds are, they will live longer, since they are safe from vehicles, dogs, foxes, coyotes, cruel people, parasites, and other threats. For the sake of the birds, keep your cat indoors.

Even if the birds themselves don't celebrate the holidays, there's nothing wrong with spreading holiday cheer with your little neighbors, and giving them a little help through the winter months.

About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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  • I live in Southeastern Massachusetts. Four "orphaned" very young poults (males) showed up in my yard about a year ago. They have been around all year. I do feed them cracked corn, and they come when I call for them. I don't want to over- domesticate them, but they do recognize me as the lady that brings food. They roost in the big oak trees at night. I have a 1 acre lot, with many acres of protected forest out back and a pond on the property.Lately, during mating season, I have had hens in the yard too. We've counted as many as 7 Toms and hens, but today, had just the one stalwart (a very robust Tom) that comes everyday. One of the Toms that has recently made an appearance is wounded, limping with an obvious predator wound. The local wildlife experts say he should make a full recovery, and that he's best left to recover with his flock.I find them to be interesting and beautiful birds.
    by Heather Cole, Mon, 06 Apr 2020
  • You have to put food in it.
    by Truckee Man, Mon, 06 Apr 2020
  • Love listeningto both songs and calls from birds in our woody neighborhood. The two types of birds I immediately recognize are the cardinals and the chickadees. Yesterday afternoon too, I heard a woodpecker. Then it’s time to check the birdfeeders and the birdbath. Then In no time at all the cardinals and chickadees arrive, as if they had been watching me. As it gets busier around the feeders, I also hear thé screeching of the blue jays. I even saw a couple of robins checking out our lawn....spring has arrived as the last pat gesofisticeerde snow and ice melt away.
    by louisabt, Sun, 08 Mar 2020
  • I am wondering about existing nests for Phoebes. I have two outdoor aisle entries to my barn and there are old Phoebe nests up. They ignore them each year and build new nests adjacent to the old, but space is running out. Should I knock down the old nests so they can rebuild?
    by [email protected], Sun, 02 Feb 2020
  • Just wondering, should we put anything in the bottom of the box...twigs, clippings, leaves....anything at all?
    by Hebb, Tue, 28 Jan 2020