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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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 managing 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 have experienced this when a house wren punctured 5 blue bird eggs last spring in our blue bird box. Then I hung out a wren box by the trees and he got busy filling it and left the bluebirds alone and they successfully raised another brood!
    by Susan, Sun, 07 Apr 2019
  • I also have several turkeys that live in the woods behind me. They visit early morning and near sundown. Living in the country with a mountain and brook behind my house, I have animals visiting 24hrs a day. My turkeys are awesome. They know me and wait for their breakfast. They hop up on my patio wall to look in my windows. I also noticed the 2 birds that are the lookouts. They come over to eat as the others march across my lawn to my neighbor who also feeds the animals. We also have coyotes that, I am sure, have eaten turkey dinner. The squirrels run around and chase them to protect their seeds and cracked corn. I feed my 3 raccoons peanut butter jelly sandwiches, which they share with a possum and 3 skunks, at the same time, by the way. No food goes into my garbage. Meat scraps go to crows and hawks. Everything else, even soup, gets eaten before the sun is completely set. That keeps bears away if no dishes are there to entice. I break up bread in tiny pieces now and turkeys 'gobble' it up. So happy to find another person that enjoys wildlife. Nothing is more satisfying than walking out side and spotting Daisy the skunk, calling her name and watching her tripping all over herself, running to meet you. Thank you for your valuable information.
    by Stella Kachur, Wed, 27 Mar 2019
  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018