Since the early 2000s, the emerald ash borer has been a thorn in homeowners’ sides—or anyone with trees in their yard. These invasive insect pests cause oft-catastrophic damage to ash trees, and plenty of people have been forced to replace trees the borers killed. Here’s how to tell if the ash trees in your yard have emerald ash borer damage, and what types of trees you might consider replacing them with.
Psst—If you find a spotted lanternfly in your yard, this is what to do.
Emerald Ash Borer Damage
“Is this tree damage the work of a woodpecker?” asks Birds & Blooms reader Christine Atkins.
Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly respond, “Unfortunately, the marks displayed on your tree were not caused by a woodpecker or other bird. The tree appears to be an ash, and the damage is a good match for the “blonding” that results from emerald ash borers. (If you do have trouble with woodpecker damage, here’s how to stop them from pecking.)
“These beetles are native to Asia and have caused the destruction of millions of ash trees in North America. The bad news is that once the damage reaches this level, the tree will likely die. We suggest contacting your local extension office to confirm the presence of emerald ash borers and for information on removal,” the Kaufmans say.
The Arbor Day Foundation recommends monitoring your ash trees for these symptoms: thinning or dying crowns, suckers, splitting bark, tunneling under the bark and D-shaped exit holes.
Learn what you should do about 10 common tree diseases.
Replacing Damaged Ash Trees
“I lost a hedgerow of ash trees to Emerald ash borer damage. I was going to replace them with osage orange trees, but do you have any other hardwood recommendations? asks Birds & Blooms reader Lynn Taylor.
Garden expert Melinda Myers says, “Consider using a mix of trees. Creating diverse plantings reduces the risk of an insect or disease destroying all of the plants. Osage orange trees are durable beauties, but they do produce grapefruit-size fruit when mature. Hackberry grows 40 to 60 feet tall, has a vaselike habit and yellow fall color.
A variety of maples, including Miyabe and trident, have interesting bark and fall color. Turkish filbert tolerates drought, has an attractive pyramidal shape and produces edible fruit once it’s mature. Male clones (branch cuttings) of Amur cork tree, such as His Majesty, Macho and Shademaster, are adaptable, have corky bark and yellow-bronze fall color, and do not produce messy fruit.”
Next, learn how to control a Japanese beetle infestation.
Ornamental grasses are always an excellent selection for winter and fall interest. And if they offer benefits for your favorite feathered friends, even better! Purple fountain grass is one such plant—with its lovely coloring it’s a great choice for your garden, and birds love it, too. Here’s why this grass is an ideal addition to your backyard.
Purple Fountain Grass Care and Growing Tips
In warmer zones, drought-tolerant purple fountain grass keeps its eye-catching maroon color through winter. But in areas where it’s not hardy, leave it standing to lend structure, movement and texture to your landscape.
Psst—learn when you should cut back ornamental grasses.
Warmer climates may grow it as a perennial, but in cooler zones, this grass is considered an annual. It bursts with burgundy flower stalks from July to October. It also tolerates air pollution and grows near black walnut trees. The plant is not native but also rarely reseeds, so it’s safe for most backyards, forming a dense but contained clump.
- Botanical name: Pennisetum sataceum ‘Rubrum’
- Zones: 9 to 10
- Light needs: Full to part sun
- Size: Up to 4 feet tall and wide
These are the best perennial ornamental grasses to add to your yard.
Purple Fountain Grass Benefits
It’s simple to embrace easy gardening with this gorgeous plant, and best of all, the birds will thank you for it. If you leave the flower spikes alone through winter, you’ll soon find that backyard birds enjoy eating the seeds.
Unlike your feathered friends, deer tend to ignore it. That makes it ideal for those looking to add deer-resistant plants to their landscapes.
Where to Buy Purple Fountain Grass
In-season, check for fountain grass at your local plant nursery. For those wanting to order online, Home Depot also offers the plant in 2.5-quart containers.
Next, check out the top 10 purple flowers to grow in your garden.
All About Holly Berries and Trees
Whether you’re looking for a cultivar to stun year-round, a berry-producing powerhouse to beckon berry-loving birds, or a natural hedge to create some privacy between you and your neighbors, hollies feel at home in any landscape. Additionally, of all the decorations we hang in the winter months, holly has one of the longest and most interesting histories. Find out which holly trees are best for attracting birds. Plus, learn a few fascinating facts about holly berries and trees, too.
Discover 7 fun facts about Christmas trees.
Holly’s Festive Past
From ancient winter solstice celebrations to modern-day holiday decor, holly has been a part of our festivities for thousands of years. Long before Christians used holly to decorate their homes and churches at Christmastime, other cultures brought holly branches in to brighten things up in the winter.
Druids used holly as part of their winter solstice celebrations at least two thousand years ago. Reportedly, they believe that the Holly King, having defeated the Oak King, rules over the darker winter months. (In the summer, the Oak king rules triumphant once again.) Romans associated holly with Saturnalia, celebrated around the same time. As Christmas became more popularly celebrated in the winter, holly naturally became a part of the festivities, as well.
With its glossy green leaves that promise evergreen beauty and its bright red berries—technically drupes—English holly (Ilex aquifolium) is the plant best known for decking our halls and brightening up winter’s dark days. It is native to Europe, Asia and northern Africa and invasive in some parts of the United States. But, with so many wonderful native hollies, you have no need to plant English holly.
Did you know: A Christmas carol, “The Holly and the Ivy” tells the story of Christ. Although most of us only know the song’s first verse (“The holly and the ivy / When they are both full-grown” / Of all the trees in the wood / The holly bears the crown”) the later verses draw parallels between the thorny leaves and the crown of thorns Christ was said to wear, the bitter bark and his suffering, and so on. The holly referred to in the song, by the way, was English holly.
Psst—we love this Scandinavian Christmas tradition for the birds.
There Are Heaps of Holly Tree Varieties
Holly varieties grow across the globe. With more than 400 species belonging to the genus Ilex, hollies thrive in tropical, subtropical and temperate zones. They share a few traits. “All hollies attract beneficial insects and pollinators in the spring when they bloom,” says Sue Hunter, who serves as president of the Holly Society of America. “The flowers on both male and female hollies have a strong, pleasant fragrance.”
In the U.S., you’ll generally find them growing in zones 6 to 10, with many native species available in most areas. (For those who think they live too far north to grow holly, look into the so-called “Blue Hollies,” a hybridized group said to be hardy to zone 4.)
Check out the top 10 easy-care holiday houseplants.
Expert Tips on How to Grow a Holly Tree
Sue says that most evergreen species of hollies are drought resistant, though American holly (I. opaca) in particular is tough. “Once established, hollies require little care,” she says. “Fertilizer can be applied in the spring or fall once plants are dormant, and pruning is done during the winter months.”
Fruit-producing hollies are usually female plants that must be pollinated by a nearby male for berries. Be sure to include one or more males for every five females, depending on the type. If you need a male plant to pollinate a female, consider Jim Dandy for early blooming and Southern Gentleman for late blooming plants.
Garden expert Melinda Myers says, “Make sure you have the right growing conditions. Hollies prefer moist, acidic soil, and evergreen hollies need shelter from winter’s cold winds and bright sun, which can both have a drying effect.”
Benefits of Growing American Holly
American holly is a native evergreen tree that naturally grows in deciduous forests in the central and southeastern U.S. It reaches 40 to 60 feet tall and grows in a conical shape that’s pleasing in larger landscapes from Zones 5 (with protection) to 9. American holly is also known for being resistant to wind, salt spray and deer. It is rather low maintenance, growing in either part shade or full sun. While it prefers acidic, moist yet well draining soil, it tolerates a range of growing conditions.
Recommended American holly cultivars include the heavy-fruiting Miss Helen; Dan Fenton with its large leaves and bright red fruit; Goldie, which offers eye-popping yellow fruit; and Jersey Princess with its dark, glossy leaves.
Beyond being a host plant for Henry’s elfin caterpillars, American holly also attracts butterflies and bees that swarm its greenish white flowers. Birds flock to the female plant’s bright red or orange fruits that persist through winter. Even its gray-white bark, spotted with striking red or tan lichens, garners attention. American holly’s matte leaves distinguish it from its English cousin.
Learn how to care for a Christmas cactus and help it bloom.
More Top Native Holly Picks
Though options at nurseries and garden centers vary widely from region to region, keep a lookout for these tried-and-true hollies.
- Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine), Zones 7 to 11. Naturally found in swampy areas, these trees are suited for wetter locations. Foster’s Holly No. 2, a dahoon-American holly hybrid, does not require a male pollinator to produce fruit.
- Winterberry holly (I. verticillata), Zones 3 to 9. This shrub loses its leaves in winter to reveal a showy display of scarlet berries on bare stems, making it perfect for bird-friendly gardens. Winter Red and Maryland Beauty are prolific fruit producers.
- Yaupon holly (I. vomitoria), Zones 7 to 9. Yaupon’s small evergreen leaves can be sheared into a privacy screen or even shaped into a topiary. It grows quickly and generally reaches heights of 10 to 20 feet, but in some cases can tower to 30 feet.
- Inkberry holly (I. glabra), Zones 4 to 9. A rounded shrub boasting small black berries that appeal to songbirds and small mammals. Watch for some leaf browning in colder areas.
- Possumhaw holly (I. decidua), Zones 5 to 9. This deciduous holly grows anywhere from 7 to 15 feet high. Sue suggests pruning Warren’s Red into a small tree and underplanting it with perennials such as Virginia bluebells and aromatic aster.
Check out 10 small evergreen shrubs to grow for year-round curb appeal.
Which Holly Tree Is Best for Birds and Wildlife?
Melinda says, “American holly (Ilex opaca) is native and may be a good choice. It’s a large tree that serves as a host plant for several caterpillars, and birds adore the berries. Or consider the deciduous winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a shrub that grows between 3 and 12 feet tall. It’s hardy in Zones 3 to 9 and loses its leaves in winter, revealing berry-covered branches.
Birds That Eat Holly Berries
Look for these birds that love to feast on holly fruits throughout fall and winter.
- American robins
- Blue jays
- Cedar waxwings
- Eastern bluebirds
- Gray catbirds
- Hermit thrushes
- Northern cardinals
- Northern mockingbirds
Grow a black chokeberry shrub for berry-loving birds.
Are Holly Berries Poisonous to People or Pets?
Birders and gardeners know their feathered friends love to feast on holly bushes’ berries. But it’s also worth noting that holly berries, leaves, and bark are all mildly poisonous because they contain theobromine, a substance similar to caffeine. In small amounts this won’t really affect humans, but large amounts can bring on stomach issues and more. In fact, one species of holly native to the southeastern U.S., known as Yaupon holly, has the terrific botanical name Ilex vomitoria. Native Americans even used some of these species in traditional medicines to induce vomiting.
While birds can handle the toxicity of the berries, pets like dogs and cats cannot. It’s best to keep live holly decorations out of your pets’ reach (psst—also hide the mistletoe). If you have curious pets or young children at home, try these pet-friendly indoor plants instead.
Also be cautious when planting holly in your yard if your pets like to snack on your plants. And if you like to snack on your plants, consider planting these edible flowers instead.
Are poinsettias poisonous to cats and dogs?
Bonus Fact: Holly May Protect You From Lightning Strikes
While older cultures happily trimmed holly branches to bring indoors, they felt it was very bad luck to cut down a holly entirely. One popular belief was that the thorns on holly bushes drew lightning, keeping it away from homes and barns. Interestingly, there seems to be some scientific basis to this!
According to the Holly Society, “We now know that the spines on the distinctively-shaped holly leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and other nearby objects.” So feel free to prune your holly and cut branches for the holidays, but you might be tempting fate to cut it down entirely!
Next, check out 8 types of Christmas trees you can grow.
Water Indoor Plants With Ice Cubes
Proper watering is an essential step in knowing how to grow indoor plants. “When my inside potted plants are dry, I put ice cubes on top of the soil to slowly melt and water the plant without flooding the pot,” says Lisa Sherman of Carlsbad, California. “It’s easy, there’s no mess, and I’m less likely to overwater this way.” Check out these easy plant waterer products we love.
Use The “10-10-10” Rule
Most houseplants do fine with a balanced fertilizer (10-10-10). Limit or stop fertilizing your indoor houseplants in winter and start feeding them again in spring. As always, follow the directions on your specific package.
Check out the top 10 best houseplants for beginners to grow.
Choose Small Houseplants for Small Spaces
If you’re tight on space, most 3-inch pots ﬁt on even the narrowest window sills. Peperomia and small cactuses and succulents can both happily grow in containers that size.
Find out how often to water succulents.
Sharon Woodworth of Georgetown, Kentucky, says, “Collect rainwater and use it on your houseplants. I’ve been doing it for years!”
We asked the experts: Why does my plant have brown tips on the leaves?
Check Soil Before Watering
Sometimes it’s tricky to gauge when a plant needs moisture. Louis McVay of Waleska, Georgia suggests gardeners “always check with a moisture meter before watering.”
Follow these tips for watering container gardens.
Give Indoor Plants Extra Sun
“Move houseplants outside in summer. They love rain, heat and humidity. Bring them in before the first frost and spray any insects with an organic insecticide to prevent the bugs from moving into your home,” says Lynn Jones of Salem, Indiana.
Use Lights Right
When using artiﬁcial lights, the tips of the plants should be 6 to 12 inches from the light source to ensure the plant is receiving maximum beneﬁts.
Check out the best houseplants for low light.
Boost Humidity (as Necessary) for Houseplant Care
Ideal humidity for tropical houseplants is around 50%. If your home is drier, set your plants on a gravel tray ﬁlled with water.
Be Precise With Transplants
When transplanting a houseplant to a larger pot, an increase of 2 inches in container size is ideal, unless your plant is very large.
Provide Extra Nutrients
Sandy Lewis of Akron, Ohio, waters her houseplants with water she has boiled eggs in. She says, “It works better for me than any commercial plant food!”
Here’s why your indoor plant has yellow leaves.
To help maintain a symmetrical shape, give houseplants a quarter-turn occasionally, maybe even every time you water if it helps you to remember.
No green thumb? Try the top 10 hard to kill houseplants.
Kick Mildew to the Curb
“I read that sprinkling the dirt with cinnamon prevents powdery mildew, so I gave it a shot—it worked!” says Jeanine Buettner of Kalispell, Montana. She adds, “I no longer have a problem with the disease!”
Now that you know how to grow indoor plants, learn how to prevent and cure mold on houseplant soil.
Shopping for plant fertilizer and applying it may seem perplexing at first. Follow these simple tips and you’ll be fertilizing like a pro in no time.
Read the Label
The front of every bag contains three numbers, such as 10-10-10 or 10-15-10 or 6-3-0. In order, these represent the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus in the form of phosphate, and potassium in the form of potash. The rest of the material is filler that dilutes the fertilizer so it’s easier to apply. A balanced fertilizer (formulation 10-10-10 or 12-12-12) may seem suitable for most gardens, but this can lead to excessive levels of phosphorus and potassium, so it’s important to conduct a soil test before choosing a fertilizer.
Many are also labeled as fast- or slow-release, indicating how quickly the nutrients are available to the plant. Fast-release types dissolve in water and are readily available. They are fast-acting and less expensive but pose a greater risk of fertilizer burn and groundwater pollution if misapplied.
Slow-release types deliver small amounts of nutrients for plants to use over time. They have a lower burn potential and require fewer applications, but usually cost more.
Avoid these common mistakes you’re making with your tomato garden.
How to Apply Plant Fertilizer
Drop and broadcast spreaders apply granular fertilizer to large spaces, such as established grassy areas or unplanted large lawns, beds and gardens. In existing gardens, apply when the plants are dry. Brush off any granules that land on leaves. Lightly cultivate and then water, so the fertilizer soaks into the soil.
Use hand-held spreaders for applying granular fertilizer to small or medium-sized gardens. With this technique, fertilize only the plants that need it. Sprinkle on the ground around the base of plants and lightly scratch into the soil with a rake or trowel. Unless steady rain is predicted, water right away.
Psst—discover 19 secrets your landscaper won’t tell you.
How Often to Fertilize Plants
Annual plants should be given a low-nitrogen formula. Use 2 to 3 pounds per 100 square feet every season. Use a slow-release fertilizer once, or make three 1-pound applications throughout the growing season. In areas with a long season, a midseason application may be needed.
Most ground covers need only one spring application of nitrogen-rich fertilizer, but those with flowers and fall color typically don’t.
For potted plants, add a slow-release type to the soil mix before planting. Every time you water, a little fertilizer is released, providing a steady flow of nutrients. But depending on the growing conditions and number of plants in the container, a midseason boost may be needed. Can you reuse potting soil in planters?
Trees and Shrubs
Avoid over fertilizing trees and shrubs, which often get nutrients from nearby fertilized plantings and lawns.
Learn the 7 things you need to know before planting a tree.
Gardening expert Melinda Myers says: Only fertilize houseplants when they’re actively growing, which is in spring and summer for most plants. Limit fertilization from September or October through March, based on your plant’s needs. A monthly application of diluted liquid fertilizer or one application of a slow-release fertilizer in spring is sufficient for most houseplants.
Here’s why your houseplant has brown tips on its leaves.
Northern gardeners should apply a low-nitrogen, slow release fertilizer to the lawn before the ground freezes. Southerners growing warm season grasses should apply it four weeks before the first fall frost. Grass puts down roots until the ground freezes, so fertilizing now encourages root growth and reduces the risk of disease.
Signs of Nutrient Deficiencies
- Nitrogen: Pale green or yellowish lower leaves; slow growth.
- Potassium: Yellow or brown along older leaf edges. May have yellowing between veins, curling or spotting.
- Calcium: Deformed or failed terminal buds and root tips. Results in blossom end rot in peppers and tomatoes.
- Phosphorus: A burned look on leaf tips; dark green or reddish purple older leaves.
- Sulfur: Light green over the entire plant; yellowing of younger leaves.
- Iron: Yellowing between veins of upper leaves leading to an eventual bleached look. Possibility of new leaves being yellowish white.
- Manganese: Paling or yellowing of leaf tissue between veins, followed by spots that occur on middle leaves first
Keep a Record
Stay on top of your plant fertilizer applications by making notes on a calendar.
Next, find out if you should use coffee grounds in the garden.
Do Birds Become Dependent on Bird Feeders?
Question: Do birds become dependent on backyard feeders? I would like to hang a bird feeder, but haven’t because I will likely move in a few years. —Ariana Martin of Mountain Home, Idaho
Kenn and Kimberly: Your concern is admirable, but feeding isn’t likely to make birds dependent if you do it in moderation. Studies indicate birds that visit feeders also circulate through the surrounding area, on the hunt for natural foods in addition to backyard offerings. They quickly adapt to changes in the supply. We suggest you go ahead and feed the birds for now. When you get ready to move, reduce the amount of feed gradually: Fill the feeders less often, and put out less at a time. By the time you leave, the local birds will have learned to look elsewhere.
Check out the 10 types of bird feeders you need in your backyard.
Question: Does it harm birds to take down a feeder suddenly? —William Toth of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania
Kenn and Kimberly: In general, wild birds adjust quickly if a food source disappears. After all, in nature their food supply can vary from day to day—whether they’re eating insects, fruits, seeds or something else. They have to stay ready to seek new supplies. The birds that visit your feeder are undoubtedly getting food elsewhere too. The only time it’s dangerous to take down feeders abruptly is during extremely cold weather, especially after a storm has coated everything with a layer of ice. In those times, the food you provide may save the lives of many birds.
What Do Robins Eat?
American robins are commonly spotted (and heard) in backyards throughout most of North America. Watch for robins in your yard, no matter what the weather is like. Find out what foods robins eat and how to attract these birds throughout the year.
Enjoy 15 cheerful robin bird pictures to welcome spring.
Do Robins Eat Bird Seed?
Robins are not seed eaters, so you won’t attract them with seed bird feeders. Instead, look for them on the ground. Every child knows that robins eat worms. But they also eat lots of other things, too like insects, grubs, and even snails. We tend to notice them around our gardens because they hunt for these things on the ground.
The next time you observe an American robin in your yard, notice how they curiously tilt their heads. They do this to listen for juicy worms. Robins use both visual and auditory clues to hunt down their favorite slimy snack.
Robins also eat fruit, which they search for in trees and shrubs—not where we’re used to seeing them. When winter comes, the worms and insects aren’t as available to them, so during the cold months their diet consists mostly of fruit.
What’s the difference: European robin vs American robin.
How to Feed and Attract Robins in Winter
As the ground thaws and worms break through the surface, robins, members of the thrush family, become more active and visible again. But you can attract robins to your yard even when it’s snowing. In winter, flocks of robins gobble up berries from shrubs and trees. You can attract robins to your yard with trees that bear fruit in winter such as chokecherry, hawthorn and dogwood.
You can also create small piles of leaf litter around your yard to attract robins. According to the National Wildlife Federation, “Leaf litter is a natural habitat for many insects and gives grub and insect-eating birds such as robins, towhees and thrashers, hours of quality snack time.”
How to Attract Robins to Feeders
Question: A flock of robins stayed with us last winter and ate all the berries growing in our area. How can we attract them to feeders? —Susan Petrch of Millbrook, Ontario
Kenn and Kimberly: Robins aren’t typical feeder guests, but there are some things you can try. It’s best to place an open tray feeder near one of the berry-producing trees frequented by the robins and stock it with raisins, apple slices or other fruit. You can also offer mealworms or suet. But it’s normal for flocks of robins to be nomadic in winter, wandering long distances and stopping when they find a natural food source. Once they’ve depleted the local berry supply, most likely they’ll be off in search of the next berry crop instead of sticking around at feeders.
Robins also visit bird baths for fresh water. You can offer a heated bird bath in the winter to bring these birds to your yard.
Next, learn all about robin nests and eggs.
Do birds get cold? When it comes to winter birds, it seems there are even more myths than usual. Here are a few of the common winter bird myths I’ve heard. Hopefully, I can help debunk these winter birds myths once and for all with the correct facts. And don’t miss our best winter bird photos.
Winter Birds Myth: Birds will freeze to death when temperatures drop far below zero
Winter Birds Fact: Birds are well equipped to survive the coldest of temperatures. They store fat during the short days of winter to keep themselves warm during the long nights. During those freezing nights, they fluff their feathers to trap heat and slow their metabolism to conserve energy. A bird’s body temperature remains approximately 105 degrees, even in winter.
They also look for good places to roost, whether it’s a birdhouse, natural tree cavity, grass thicket, evergreen or shrub. Pygmy nuthatches communally roost to stay warm. Researchers have documented 100-plus birds roosting in a single tree cavity. Additionally, they drop into a hypothermic state to save energy.
Birds & Blooms reader Holly Harnly asks, “Do birds’ feathers get thicker in winter as animals’ fur does?”
Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly explain. “Yes, birds living in cooler climates actually do have thicker plumage in winter. It’s typical for them to molt in fall, replacing all or most of their feathers so their outer coating of feathers is in good, fresh condition during the coldest time of year. Under that outer layer, many birds grow hundreds of small downy feathers that are close to the skin for the season. They may increase the total number of feathers by 25% or more—in effect, putting on a natural down vest to help them survive the winter chill.”
Learn how to create winter shelter for birds.
Myth: Robins always fly south for winter
Winter Birds Fact: If there is sufficient food on their breeding grounds, American robins, bluebirds, and a host of finches and owls remain in the area where they spent the summer. As these birds often eat insects, they will instead forage among tree bark for overwintering bugs rather than on the frozen ground, where you’re more likely to see them in spring and summer.
Learn more about what foods robins eat.
Myth: You should take birdhouses down in winter because birds don’t use them and other creatures will move in
Winter Birds Fact: On the contrary! A birdhouse makes a great roosting house in winter. Eastern bluebirds will pile into houses to spend cold nights. One photographer once even snapped a picture of 13 male bluebirds in a single house! Learn how to make a DIY bluebird house.
Myth: If you leave town, the birds that rely on your feeders will die
Winter Birds Fact: Research has proven this one wrong. Scientists have shown that chickadees, for example, will eat only 25% of their daily winter food from feeders. They find the other 75% in the wild. In addition, with so many people feeding them nowadays, birds will simply fly to a nearby neighbor’s yard to get their food until you return home.
Check out the 10 types of bird feeders you need in your backyard.
Myth: Birds’ feet will stick to metal bird feeders and suet cages
Winter Birds Fact: Most suet cages have a laminated covering, so you don’t have to worry about birds’ feet sticking to it. But in general, birds and their feet can endure cold weather. Birds have a protective scale-like covering on their feet, and special veins and arteries that keep their feet warm.
Learn more about bird anatomy.
Myth: All hummingbirds migrate south for winter
Myth: Birds always migrate in flocks
Winter Birds Fact: Though many birds migrate in flocks—common nighthawks, American robins, swallows and European starlings, for example—other species migrate alone. The most amazing example of this is a juvenile hummingbird that has never migrated before, yet knows when to fly, where to fly, how far to fly and when to stop. And it does this all alone.
Myth: Migration means north in the spring and south in the winter
Fact: Some bird species migrate to higher elevations in the spring and down to lower elevations in the winter. Examples include rosy finches and ptarmigans in the West. Learn where migrating birds spend the winter.
Myth: Peanut butter will get stuck in birds’ throats, and they will choke
Fact: Peanut butter is a very nourishing food for birds, especially in winter when the production of fat is important to their survival. The winter birds myth that peanut butter will stick in their throats simply isn’t true.
Check out the top tips for winter bird feeding.
Myth: American goldfinches are bright yellow year-round
Fact: As fall approaches, American goldfinches lose their bright-yellow plumages, replacing them with feathers that are a dull, brownish-green. Many people don’t recognize these birds in winter, even though duller-colored birds are still at the feeders. They assume that their “wild canaries” have migrated south for winter.
Learn how to attract goldfinches to your backyard.
Myth: Woodpeckers peck on house siding in winter for food or to create nesting cavities
Fact: Why do woodpeckers peck? Although there are cases where woodpeckers find food in wood siding (and may even nest inside the boards), nearly all the pecking in late winter is done to make a noise to court mates. This is their way of singing a song to declare territory.
Check out the best foods for attracting woodpeckers.
Myth: If you have water in a birdbath when the temperature is below freezing, birds will freeze to death from wet feathers
Fact: Birds will drink from a heated bird bath, but if the temperature is well below freezing, they will not bathe in it and get their feathers wet. If you’re still worried, offer warm water to drink, but make it too deep or inaccessible for the birds to bathe in.
Here’s how to attract birds to use a bird bath.
More Fascinating Winter Bird Facts
- In 2013 Project Snowstorm began collecting data on snowy owl movements. To date, the project has monitored nearly 100 individual owls.
- Clark’s nutcrackers cache food. They carry 100 or more pine nuts at a time in specialized pouches under their tongues.
- Feeding on salmon from rivers kept open by percolating groundwater, 700 to 900 bald eagles congregate annually in early winter along southeast Alaska’s Chilkat Valley.
- Ruffed grouse dive into snow to stay warm. Their snow caves maintain temperatures of 20-plus degrees, no matter how cold the air temperature drops.
- During the 2022 Great Backyard Bird Count, 359,479 eBird reports documented 7,099 species.
What Does a Male and Female House Sparrow Look Like?
The male house sparrow has a gray and rusty crown with pale cheeks and a black bib; the female is rather plain with dusty brown overall coloring, strong stripes on her back and patches of pale feathers behind her eyes.
Learn all about sparrows: What birders should know.
Are House Sparrows Invasive?
Yes, house sparrows are an invasive bird species. A nonnative to North America, they were introduced from Europe to New York in 1852. Birders tend to dislike them because they often kill native birds in order to take over their nesting sites (i.e. bluebird boxes or purple martin houses).
If you notice that house sparrows are having a negative impact on native birds nesting in your yard, there are methods you can employ to discourage them. Since they are invasive, it is legal to remove their nests. You might also try plugging the birdhouse hole until the sparrows move on.
What Do House Sparrows Eat?
These birds have a plant-based diet and tend to focus on seeds; they especially enjoy cracked corn and millet. They also might munch on flower petals or leaves. House sparrows aren’t particularly picky about what they eat, though — you may find them everywhere from at your feeders to munching on crumbs on the grounds of an outdoor restaurant.
To get rid of them, put your feeders away until they move on. House sparrows won’t stick around where there isn’t an easy food source.
Here’s how to get rid of blackbirds and grackles.
House Sparrow Call
This species is not known as a particularly musical songbird. House sparrows give a short, simple chirp call.
Plus, learn how to identify wrens vs sparrows.
House Sparrow Nest Habits
Nests tend to be loosely built and messy, incorporating typical nesting materials like twigs as well as scraps of general debris. They typically nest in cavities in trees or other structures, but they’ll occasionally build their nests in more open, unusual spaces like streetlights or gas station roofs.
House sparrows build nests year-round. They display fierce aggression during nesting season and compete with other birds for nesting sites, especially bluebirds.
Birds & Blooms reader Juli Seyfried asks, “The sparrows nesting under our roof overhang left during fall. Where did they go?”
Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman say, “House sparrows, which were introduced to North America, often nest in the crannies and holes around the eaves of houses, unlike native sparrows. Although house sparrows are not migratory, they do move around with the seasons. After they finish nesting and raising young, they usually gather in small flocks and roam the neighborhood or countryside. Throughout the winter, the flocks concentrate wherever they find a good supply of food.”