Nov 18, 2020 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, October 2019

10 Steps to Get Your Backyard Ready for Winter

Is your backyard ready for winter? Check out ten helpful steps to help you get ready for the changing of the season.

When summer's last blossom is a memory, and the music of bird song has been replaced by the drone of tired autumn insects, your thoughts may turn to the long winter ahead. Now is the time to improve, enhance, and expand the attractiveness of your property for birds and other wildlife. Here are 10 easy steps to help you get ready for winter.

An ample backyard feeding station. Photo by L.R. Poole.

1. Do a feeder check and inventory. Do you have all the feeders you need to attract the largest variety of bird species? You may wish to replace existing feeders that are damaged, too grungy to get clean, or that no longer fit your needs, such as a small feeder that holds a limited amount of seed.

2. Clean all your feeders. For us, here in Ohio, late October or early November is the transition time. We take down our hummer feeders and give them a good cleaning before we put them into storage for the winter. At the same time, we're cleaning our larger-capacity winter seed feeders. Even though they were clean when we put them away late last spring, they've still managed to collect some dust. Soak feeders in a light bleach-water solution (nine parts water to one part bleach). Scrub hard-to-clean spots with a bottle brush or old toothbrush. Rinse thoroughly and let the feeder air dry. Some feeder operators even put their feeders through the dishwasher. Just be sure that your washer's water temperature setting is not so hot that it will melt plastic feeder parts.

Brush piles serve as both shelter and foraging habitat for birds. Photo by B. Thompson, III.

3. Brush pile brush-up. If the best place for your bird-feeding station is in the middle of a large expanse of lawn, consider constructing a brush pile. Brush piles serve as both shelter and foraging habitat for birds. Placing a brush pile halfway between your feeders and the nearest natural habitat will give the birds a convenient rest stop, and will make them feel safer about visiting your feeders.

4. Prepare for bulk seed storage. Do you buy your sunflower seed in 50-pound bags? Ever wonder how and where to keep it? We use a heavy-duty plastic garbage can that features wheels on the bottom and handles on top that secure the lid. The wheels allow us to move the seedfilled can when necessary, and the handles flip up to hold the lid tightly in place. This prevents marauding mammals, from mice to raccoons, from getting to our seed. More importantly, the lid keeps seed dry, so it does not spoil, even though we keep the can on our back deck, which is handy for filling feeders. To ensure good storage hygiene, clean out your storage unit with bleach-water at least once a year.

Cardinal at a winter birdbath. Photo by Adobe stock.

5. Birdbath winterizing. Open, clean drinking and bathing water is a major bird magnet in winter, but most ceramic birdbaths will crack during freezing weather. Cement basins work a little better, but metal garbage can lids can also work well. The solution? A temperature-sensitive water heater. These small electrical units sit in the bottom of your birdbath and keep the water just above the freezing point.

6. Vista check. A few winters ago we moved our main bird-feeding station to a hill alongside our house. It was close to good habitat for the birds, but hard for us to see from anywhere inside the house. So we missed seeing a lot of the activity at our feeders. We soon moved our feeders to the front yard, where we can keep a better eye on them while working in the kitchen. Make sure you can easily see your feeding station from your house. Go to each of the windows you naturally gaze out of each day and look for a good spot for a feeder or two. Place your feeders where you and the birds can see them, and can easily get to them.

Coneflowers in a birdy backyard garden. Photo by J. Zickefoose.

7. Don't clean up your garden. Resist the temptation to tidy up your garden. That is, don't bother removing all the old dead plant material. One of the birdiest places in your yard could be last summer's garden, provided you leave the tangle of dead plants in place. Insects, seeds, and other food material that is left behind will attract birds.

8. Yard inventory. Use the time you would have spent cleaning out your garden and flower beds to take an inventory of your backyard habitat. Does a bird get the four basics it needs to survive (food, water, shelter, and a place to nest) from your property? Are there things you could do to make your property more appealing? Visit a local greenhouse or nursery and ask about native plant species that will thrive in your area. Do you need a few more shrubs? Trees? Berry-producing vines or plants? Now is the time to take stock and make plans.

9. Fall is for planting. After your inventory you should have an idea about what your property needs in the way of additional plantings and features. Fall is a great time to plant your new offerings. It's also not too early to start thinking about the annuals you wish to plant and the other habitat changes you are planning for next spring. Because fall coincides with the start of the primary bird-feeding season for much of the continent, it's a natural time to enhance your property.

A bluebird enjoys a helping of suet dough. Photo by J. Zickefoose.

10. Make bird treats. If you've never done it, making your own suet or bird mix can be a real treat. There are many recipes, but the one below is wildly popular with both birds and bird watchers. This treat can be made in advance for use throughout the winter. If you make a large quantity, it can be frozen, although refrigeration is not necessary for short-term use. We offer Zick Dough crumbled in small pieces on our platform feeder, where non-clinging birds, such as sparrows, can eat them.

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson, III, was the team captain for Watching Backyard Birds from its inception 23 years ago through his death on March 25, 2019. So much of what he wrote is timeless and remains informative, helpful, and inspiring.

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The Latest Comments

  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021