The last thing we needed was extremely cold weather during the second weekend in March. It would not have been so bad if one of the coldest days of the winter had not followed days upon days of temperatures hovering in the 70s and 80s. However, when I awoke on the morning of Sunday, March 13 the thermometer at my house read 24º F. Not only did the late winter freeze threaten plants that had already begun blooming and/or sprouting leaves, it also endangered the lives of many birds.
When the nighttime temperature drops this low untold numbers of birds face a life and death struggle to survive. A factor that often determines whether a bird survives to see the light of dawn is whether it is able to spend the night in a site that offers insulation from cold winds and low temperatures. The warmer the site, the less energy it needs to burn simply to stay warm.
For example, one of our common winter residents is the American goldfinch. This gregarious bird roosts in dense vegetation. If they are fortunate enough to roost is a location where the foliage and branches form a thick barrier against the wind and cold, they will burn about a third less energy than they would have expended had they been forced to roost in a more open site.
All to frequently during extremely cold, windy weather birds roosting in unsuitable roost sites will literally starve to death during the night. For this reason, when you are trying to transform your yard into a haven for wildlife, do not overlook supplying your feathered backyard neighbors an abundance of suitable winter cover.
Cavity nesting birds such as woodpeckers, nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and eastern bluebirds roost in natural cavities, nesting boxes, and roosting boxes. The problem is, in most locales, the demand for these precious sites far outstrips their availability.
The situation is often more dire for birds that roost in dense vegetation and brush piles. The roster of these birds includes mockingbirds, yellow-rumped, and pine warblers, kinglets, sparrows, cardinals, dark-eyed juncos, blue jays and many others. These birds roost in places such as evergreen shrubs and trees, as well as dense thickets and even brush piles. Such sites are either woefully missing or in short supply in many neighborhoods. Just a handful of these plants serve as safe havens for dozens of roosting birds.
Facing a paucity of places to escape the cold, birds will often attempt to find refuge in some odd places. For example, when my daughter took the dog out a few hours after midnight on the 13th, she flushed a yellow-rumped warbler that had found refuge in the welcome wreath hanging on her front door. Birds have been found roosting in other places such as inside open garages, barns and other buildings, above security lights, and on the limbs of Christmas trees.
A few of the native plants that address this need are red cedar, viburnums, wax myrtle, American holly and pines.
With that in mind, if your yard lacks enough roosting cavities and/or evergreen trees and shrubs, make a point to add them to your landscape before our next cold front sweeps down from the north bringing with it freezing temperatures. Hopefully, that will not happen until next winter.
If you are looking for plans for a roost or nesting box, contact Melissa Hayes at the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Section (firstname.lastname@example.org).