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Omaha Magazine

Creating Roosts for Overwintering Birds:

Dec 23, 2020 04:38PM ● By Patrick McGee
small yellow bird in snow

Come March, songbirds will flutter from ice-covered branch to branch anticipating the warmer days to come. But don’t not let their melodious songs deceive you. Many of Nebraska’s birds suffer through harsh winter months exposed to the elements and without ample food or water. In fact, many will perish as a result, said Bob Wells, president of the Omaha Audubon Society. Wells said avian observers can follow a few simple steps to assist their feathered friends’ overwintering and help save countless lives.

Wells said many birds instinctually roost, or take rest and cover, in groups, most commonly in thickly branched trees and shrubs at least five feet above ground. Nebraska species that benefit from this type of cover include red-headed finches and goldfinches. They flock together, sleep together, and huddle together for a windbreak, which allows them to survive in the cold despite their tiny size. They sometimes huddle in numbers of 50 or more above, below, and all around one another. They rotate from outside to inside in order to spend enough time in the warmth of the huddle to survive. They cannot windbreak one another without adequate selections of branchy vegetation to brave the storm.

Some birders provide shelter for overwintering birds by building roost houses. These constructions look somewhat like birdhouses with a few minor differences: they generally provide more space for roosting birds, and they’re designed to provide the same type of windbreak shelter roosting birds would get with trees and shrubby vegetation. 

Online sources such as thespruce.com and wildbirdscoop.com provide guidance on building roosting boxes. The shelters should be made of thicker wood than a traditional nesting box to provide better insulation. Roosting boxes should be large enough to accommodate several birds huddled at one time. And they should provide multiple perches or even mesh on the interior sidewalls for birds to cling to and rest.

In addition, the hole on a roosting box should be near the bottom (rather than near the top, as in a bird house), to prevent snow from blowing in and the birds’ rising body heat from escaping. Traditional birdhouses may be converted to roosting boxes by inverting them so the hole is near the bottom. The clearances of a bird roost should be tight to maximize heat retention and minimize drafts. Like a birdhouse, there is no real right or wrong way to do it. In any case, the structure lends a hand (or wing) to help birds survive the elements.

Like a natural roost, it’s important that the roost house be positioned near a high-energy food source, such as thistle seed, cracked sunflower, or suet so the birds can easily flock back and forth from their homes to their food. A liquid (unfrozen) source of water nearby is important as well. Wells noted that liquid water sources can be scarce in the winter and an ample, visible one will draw more birds than just about anything else.

Wells said that birds have survived harsh winters for many, many years without human intervention. Still, winters can take a heavy toll on them and many will not survive. Providing food, water, and cover will help many more birds better recover in the spring and also attract more varieties for birders to observe. Helping these feathered friends overwinter is an easy way to give thanks for the entertaining and song-filled company they provide year-round.   

This article first appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Home Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.