My garden feeds the birds and other wild critters throughout the winter, and I never put out feeders (to see why, please read this). Some foods are available in spring (when demand is highest and supply is actually lowest), some in summer, fall, or winter. Nature provides food for wild animals all through the year, and your garden can too. This post will focus on winter foods; check back soon for plant suggestions for the other three seasons.
Winter foods tend to be those that birds do not favor–they’re the fruits that don’t get eaten the second they ripen. From the bird’s point of view they’re an emergency cache; from our point of view, they’re winter color. Top choices include hollies (Ilex species), such as American holly, winterberry holly (I. verticillata), and inkberry holly (I. glabra) They’re lovely and colorful throughout the winter.
Most viburnums produce berries that get eaten as soon as they ripen. An exception is cranberrybush viburnum (V. trilobum). The bright-red berries remain on the plant for most of the winter.
Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) is an underused plant. It’s a low-growing, spreading shrub that does well in dry soil and shade. It produces tiny, bright-pink berries that serve as winter food all season long.
Don’t forget about the perennial garden when you think about winter food. The main reason I don’t clean up the perennial garden until spring is to provide sustenance through the winter. The most popular seeds–those of sunflowers, asters, grasses–are long gone, but plenty of plants are still full of seeds, particularly ironweed (Vernonia) and brown-eyed susan (Rudbeckia triloba). And if you let leaf litter remain on the ground among the plants, it will protect fallen seeds and overwintering insects that birds will forage for all winter whenever there’s no snow on the ground.
Many birds, especially tiny ones like kinglets, chickadees, and nuthatches, and of course woodpeckeers, eat insects throughout the year. In winter, they find them under tree bark. They’re doing a good service to your trees by eating those insects, some of which can be harmful to trees. Do don’t be in a hurry to spray pesticides on your woody plants (this is the time of year when your tree care company is trying to sell you as many treatments as possible for next season, so think carefully about what you really need). Spraying pesticides often means eliminating the food that can sustain our native bird populations throughout the year.