When I got out of bed this morning the thermometer outside my window read a mere 12 degrees. Several inches of new snow fell overnight, and as soon as the sun popped up over the horizon the brightness was almost blinding.
In many parts of the country, a mercury reading barely into the double digits might seem downright balmy. After all, it was above zero.
Once I had a cup of coffee in hand, I didn’t give the temperature much thought at all until something caught my eye in the window.
Just along the edge of the window casing on our south-facing picture window, a small, grayish bird with a speckled chest and bits of yellow plumage was fluttering up and down. It hovered for a few seconds and then continued moving up and down in a deliberate fashion. It was clearly searching for food in the form of insects.
Curious about what kind of bird this might be, and noting quickly that it wasn’t a bird I recognized as a visitor to our birdfeeders, I slowly moved closer to the window hoping not to scare it away.
Upon closer inspection, I identified the small bird as a yellow-rumped warbler, an insect eating species I am used to seeing in summer rather than in winter. While not unheard of as a winter resident in my zone 6 garden, it is not seen nearly as frequently as other birds.
Watching this little guy search for food made me realize that this winter must be a particularly tough one for all birds, let alone those who need to find insects to stay alive.
A temperature of 12 degrees is one thing if you are inside a warm house sipping a mug of hot coffee. It’s an entirely different thing if you weigh less than an ounce and have to rely on your own body to generate enough heat to keep warm.
I watched the bird for a few minutes and was amazed that he was able to find several insects wedged into the window casing. After scarfing down a few morsels of breakfast, he flew into a large yew tree located in the southeast corner of our house.
I watched as this small bird positioned himself in the sun and seemed to soak up what little heat it provided. After a few minutes he started examining the tree’s flaky bark, chipping off bits here and there. Within a matter of seconds he had found what must have been insect larvae or perhaps hibernating insects waiting out the winter.
He seemed to know what he was doing, but with temperatures as cold as we have had this winter, he was probably only a meal or two away from freezing to death.
While most of us fill our bird feeders with food for seed-eating birds such as blue jays, cardinals, chickadees and tufted titmice, remembering to add a few goodies for their insect-eating friends can be a big help during tough winters.
Foods like suet and mealworms provide much needed energy in the form of fat that most insect-eating birds need. Birds such as downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches, bluebirds, wrens, brown creepers, and warblers like the yellow-rumped will all be attracted to these high-calorie foods.
One of the best ways to attract insect-eating birds to your yard is to provide plenty of habitats for insects. Meadow species of plants such as goldenrod, asters and Echinacea will attract a variety of insects while tree species such as native red cedar, native dogwoods, shagbark hickory and white pine provide cover for not only insects but for the birds as well.
Water, too, is another major attractant for all birds, and this is especially true in winter. Keeping a small water fountain that doesn’t freeze will attract an amazing number of birds to your garden.
With luck, 12 degree mornings will be a distant memory soon enough. In the mean time, keep your bird feeders filled!