How To Build Winter Bird Shelters (Questions Answered)

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Question: Would Birdhouse Feeder Plans Work?

I would like to build a gazebo-type wild bird shelter (4-sided) to house both the birds and the bird food.

I especially want it in the winter during the really cold and wet, snowy weather (we live in northern Virginia).

My question is this: is there a downside to this idea?

The feeders would be mounted under the overhang of the roof (which would be shingled) with roosting areas up under the roof above (but not overhanging) the feeders.

The posts holding up the roof would be “baffled” to keep intruders from climbing up to the feeders and roosting areas.

There would be no walls or floor.

The heated water source could also be under the shelter.

Any thoughts or ideas would be appreciated!

Marcy from Northern Virginia

Answer: Creative Idea, But It Would Create Problems for the Wild Birds

Hi Marcy!

To provide a “one-stop shop” for the needs of wild birds is an idea that is often posed. It certainly does have its appeal.

Your plan provides wild birds with 3 of their basic needs for survival; food, water, and shelter.

Also, your idea also proposes an element to provide for the fourth basic survival need; protection from predators by mounting baffles on the pole.

There are feeders and bird watering combo systems available for purchase, but not with birdhouses attached.

The problem with this plan is that it’s like inviting the neighbors to dine in our kitchen when we’re still in bed sleeping upstairs.

It would become a situation that would only be used for dining, as most birds wouldn’t choose to nest or roost so close to a source of food. It would invite the opportunity for larger, more aggressive birds to harass the smaller ones.

Rather, it’s better to provide wild bird shelters for roosting or homes for cavity-nesting birds 5 to 10 feet from food and/or water sources.

They will also require a place to flee when exiting their shelter, such as a bush or tree.

This distance allows the wild birds a chance to flee if a predator arrives on the scene from above or below. The same is required for feeders, as the birds will need a place to go quickly if they need to escape.

By locating your housing unit, food source, or water close to a tree or bush, you’re also providing a place for the songbirds you want to attract to survey the area for any predators before they go to their destination.

Providing for Winter Birds

When it comes to providing for birds over the coldest part of the year, we should remember that the best way is to work with nature to provide our feathered friends with what they need.

Indeed, we can provide birds with the fundamentals of shelter, food, and water, while also keeping them safe.

Man-made structures can sometimes be helpful. However, the plants we choose, and the ways we decide to lay out our gardens and maintain them will make the most difference.

Here are some key things to remember when it comes to designing and managing your garden to make sure the winter birds where you live get what they need:

Plant for Winter Bird Shelter & Food

The plants we choose will often play a major role in determining the birds that are present in our gardens and how they fare over the winter months.

Evergreen Trees & Shrubs

Including evergreen trees, shrubs, and ground cover is a great thing to consider. Evergreen plants keep their leaves or needles year-round, so they naturally provide shelter for winter birds through the coldest season.

(We often have wild birds spend days in our cedar tree at the corner of our deck during stormy winter weather.)

The feeder is only about 4 feet from the outer branches of the tree, so it’s only a short hop over for them to refuel.

One year we had 2 male Cardinals spend nearly a week together sheltering among the branches of the tree. They only ventured out to have a snack now and again, as the winter winds tore through our area dumping piles of snow.

Dense Layered Planting

Thick and rich vegetation will support a wide range of creatures over the winter months – birds included. Both evergreen and deciduous species can be beneficial – not only in providing shelter but also in providing birds with other essentials.

Your planting scheme can include plants that provide berries, seeds, and more – often long into the winter months and through spring, summer, and fall. This also attracts insects and other wildlife on which different bird species will prey.

Think about how you can combine plants in effective ways to create functional ecosystems – living systems that will endure over the years and just become richer and more biodiverse over time.

Native plants are often the best choices. So, to get started with a garden design for a bird-friendly garden that can support your feathered friends year-round, find out more about the species native to your area.

Windbreaks and Shelter Belts

Trees and shrubs aren’t only crucial in giving birds places to perch and roost in winter. Indeed, they can also help to create more sheltered conditions in general in your garden.

They can shield key foraging zones for birds and protect the positions of feeders from chill winds.

By placing the right combinations of trees and shrubs in the right places, you can create windbreak hedgerows or shelter belts, from which both you and your avian visitors will benefit.

Tidy up Less to Ensure there Is Shelter for Backyard Birds

Winter Bird Shelter

Sometimes, we have a tendency to be overly neat and tidy in our gardens. But often, leaving wilder and less managed corners will be far better for the birds and other wildlife with whom we share our space.

Brush Piles/ Log Piles/ Dead Wood

Beyond thinking about the plants we choose, we should also consider other elements of a natural ecosystem.

In nature, dead wood, brush piles, and other organic materials aren’t tidied away. They remain in the environment where they will slowly break down and return nutrients to the system.

As it breaks down, this material also becomes a vital shelter for a range of wildlife. This includes birds and many of the insects and other creatures that birds will eat.

Standing, Dead Perennial Vegetation

If we have a herbaceous border, a wildflower meadow, or a prairie scheme with grasses and native flowering perennials, we may be tempted to tidy things up and cut these back at the end of the growing period.

However, if we instead leave the dead/dying foliage in place, this becomes an excellent winter shelter for different kinds of birds and other creatures. Also, the remaining seed can be a food source.

Provide Supplemental Food Sources

The right planting scheme will typically help you to provide food for birds year-round. Of course, in colder winter climates, natural food sources can be in short supply over the coldest months.

Therefore, it can be a wonderful idea to place feeders and provide a supplement to the diets of wild birds in your backyard.

Understanding which birds are present in your area in winter will help you determine precisely which foods will be best. But in general, it’s good to remember that birds will need more fats and proteins at this time of the year.

Whichever feeds and bird feeders you choose, positioning these correctly is a paramount concern. Make sure these are in a sheltered but sunny position, where birds are relatively safe from predation.

Provide Water in Winter

Something that is often overlooked when people seek to provide birds with winter shelter and food is that they require reliable water sources for drinking – even during the coldest part of the year.

A well-designed wildlife pond system with marginal and aquatic plants can help to ensure that there is water available that remains unfrozen throughout the year.

Running water features will help agitate the water and keep it from icing over, and the sound of the water will also attract birds.

Add Additional Roosting Boxes, Etc.

Adding additional man-made boxes where birds can roost can also be beneficial for several winter birds.

But these should be considered holistically, as an element of a complete garden design and not simply placed without regard for other garden elements.

You can purchase ready-made roosting boxes, or make your own from scratch using DIY techniques and natural or reclaimed materials.

As mentioned above, these should ideally be placed 5-10 ft from food and water sources. They should be within a natural habitat area, which is sheltered and somewhat removed from areas of human activity.

Remember, however, that man-made structures can only go so far in providing birds with what they need over the winter months.

One thing to consider about man-made shelters is that they won’t attract and be used by all birds.

Many wild birds will simply perch on a branch that provides some protection from the elements.

Some wild birds are solitary in their roosting habits and would only consider “buddying up” for the night under severe conditions.

The cavity nesters such as chickadees, house sparrows, and nuthatches will likely be frequent visitors.

They may also decide to use your shelter, not only as a roosting spot but as a welcome place to build their nest to raise their young the next spring.

It’s always best to plan and design holistically for a bird-friendly space that different birds can enjoy year-round, including over the coldest part of the year.

Marcy, you have an excellent idea in your concept to build wild bird shelters and have obviously given it a lot of thought. I would love to hear how your experience turns out whatever you decide to do!

Thank you for asking this most interesting question.

Happy birding!

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Elizabeth Waddington

Elizabeth Waddington is a conservation, rewilding, organic gardening and sustainability specialist who loves everything nature-related. She loves helping others around the world connect with the wildlife and wonders around them. When not creating wildlife-wise, eco-friendly designs, or writing about the topics that inspire her, she loves spending time watching the birds on and around her own rural property, or heading out on camping or hiking adventures to spot birds and other wildlife in a range of habitats.