When I visited my parents’ home in rural Berks County last month, all I wanted to do was look out the windows. I was plugging away at various writing projects in the upstairs bedroom that doubled as my office, but a cheerful flutter outside the picture windows kept attracting my notice. It was so peaceful to stare for a moment at all the activity and socializing going on among the winter birds.

If you live in southeastern Pennsylvania, too, and are not yet seeing a flurry of avian activity outside, here’s how you can get started. It’s well worth the effort! One yard in our area attracted 25 different species during the winter, notes the Penn State Extension.

During the winter, you and the feathered friends both benefit. The birds need food, and, as Edie Parnum noted on the Valley Forge Audubon Society website, birds are easier for you to see when the foliage is less dense! 

1. Choose the right food.

My mother has found the seeds that attract many beautiful birds. For house finches and gold finches, she puts out Nyjer seed (also called “thistle seed”) in a special feeder designed for the tiny seeds. For ground feeders like mourning doves, she sprinkles seeds on top of snow or frozen ground. Woodpeckers love suet blocks. Other birds like cardinals, nuthatches and chickadees love black-oiled sunflower seeds. (Wolff’s has all these in stock this February, so stop by if you need some!)

Black-oiled sunflower seeds have “a high oil content that is nutritionally important for birds, and a thin seed coat that is easy for them to crack open,” says the Penn State Extension’s web site. “If you are going to provide one seed, this is the one to choose.” If you want to provide more food and attract more birds, the Extension has a chart showing what types of food the common Pennsylvania birds enjoy.

For some birds, like bluebirds, no seeds will do. But it’s not that bluebirds are picky eaters! Their bills aren’t hard enough to pick the hulls off the seeds, and they can’t digest the shells.

Edie Parnum of the Valley Forge Audubon society notes that bluebirds are primarily insect eaters, though they do eat fruit in the winter. “Some people have success attracting bluebirds to a backyard feeding station by offering mealworms,” she told me via email.  “Usually this happens during the breeding season when bluebirds are nesting nearby.”

Some birders have seen bluebirds flock to homemade mixes like these. Bluebirds will also “gladly accept raisins or other dried fruits, wild berries, chopped unsalted nuts, peanut hearts and suet,” says the New York State Bluebird Society

2. Place the feeders in a good spot and clean them regularly.

My mother’s feeders are in an ideal spot – close to her window so she can watch them, but also close to some trees and shrubs where the birds can hide if they notice any predators. The Penn State Extension’s website points out that, if cats are present, backyard birders also want to think about moving the feeders away from places where cats could hide and plan a surprise attack.

Bird feeders have to be cleaned regularly to prevent disease. The Audubon Society recommends cleaning feeders with a 10 percent solution of nonchlorinated bleach, then rinsing away all the bleach solution and setting them in the sun to dry. Also be sure to rake up the discarded seeds, shells and droppings and bury them far away. 

This is an important step because the old seeds can produce mold that is toxic to the birds, and the droppings can carry disease. Cornell’s Project FeederWatch has information about how to spot diseases and what to do if you notice a diseased bird (hint: do NOT try to care for it yourself!).

3. Provide water.

Birds need water during the winter. Backyard birding sites recommend buying a heated bird bath to keep the water de-iced.

4. Start dreaming about your garden.

A yard that attracts birds during the winter actually starts with your spring gardening. Choosing what to plant can seem like a matter of aesthetics, but for wildlife, it can be a matter of life and death! Planting native trees, shrubs and vines that bear fruit throughout the winter can help fruit-eaters like the bluebird survive the winter, says the New York State Bluebird Society.

Native plants attract and support native birds. The Valley Forge Audubon Society has compiled an extensive list of their recommended native plants. They also have an article that explains how to create a backyard Eden for birds by providing the right food, water and shelter.

Read these over, and start dreaming! At Wolff’s Apple House, we love native plants and always carry as many as we possibly can! In the spring, swing by the Plant Information house and talk with us about bird-friendly gardens.

As you map out your garden space (which you can always do in February, in the comfort of your living room!), plan to have a “songbird border” that will feature plants they like and will shelter your yard from the wind.

The Audubon Society also recommends keeping at least part of your yard wild with grass and weeds, creating a “mini-meadow.” Birds that migrate from further north, like the Dark-eyed Junco, appreciate wild spaces like this.

Then, when fall rolls around, don’t go too crazy with the cleanup. Be sure to leave a brush pile where birds can shelter (and feast on all the creepy crawly insects that will also love the brush pile). Here’s how to build one.

One final note: As you attract more birds, the last thing you want is for them to go crashing into your windows. To increase the chance that birds will see your windows, you can make window decorations or purchase a product like Window Alert that makes windows more visible to them. And then you can enjoy the sight of your backyard birds with total serenity, knowing that you are caring for this cheerful,chattering crew.