On Sunday morning as the snow began to fall the birds were out foraging for food, trying to store lots of calories before the storm. There were hundreds of starlings in the open patches of grass, scavenging for insects or seeds. Robins were in the branches of the Winterberry Holly, or Ilex verticillata, gobbling up the red berries. To survive a storm like this, the birds need to keep their body temperatures up, which means they need to expend little energy and consume lots of food.
They also need to find some type of shelter in the worst parts of the storm. Nesting boxes, thick shrubs or brush piles can give them the cover they need. I used to designate an area in my yard as wild in order to provide shelter and cover for the birds. My yard was a Certified Wildlife Habitat, through the National Wildlife Federation. I had enough space to leave some dead trees on the ground to shelter birds and small animals.
In order keep hydrated, birds will often eat snow. I used to keep my birdbath from freezing with a birdbath heater. I often saw the birds drink water from the birdbath in the throes of a blizzard. It was fun to watch them, and it felt good to know I was helping them survive the winter. Some people worry about the birds bathing in winter. One way to prevent that is to lay some small branches or sticks across the bird bath, so all the birds can do is drink the water.
I planted flowers, shrubs and trees with wildlife in mind. The main focus of my habitat was on birds, especially hummingbirds, and butterflies. One of the ways I attracted birds to the yard was planting trees and shrubs that produced berries; like Crabapples, Viburnums and Winterberry Holly. I loved the decorative value of these shrubs and the plentiful food they provided for my feathered friends.
I also did my best to eliminate non-native, berried vines and shrubs from my property. These interlopers provide food for birds, but they also choke out native plants, and the birds help spread them. Among the worst of these invasive plants are Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), and Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus multiflora). A complete list of invasive plants in Rhode Island, as well as suggestions for native replacements, can be found at Rhode Island Wild Plant Society.org.
A birdfeeder is the most commonly used option for winter-feeding. It helps to keep it brushed off during a blizzard, so hungry birds can access the food. I like using black oil sunflower seed, but there are lots of other great wild bird mixes out there. Blocks of suet, which can be hung on a post or around a tree, can give birds the extra calories they so desperately need in the extreme cold. I recommend hanging suet only in the winter, and well away from the house, since it attracts lots of woodpeckers and small animals.