Where we live in Canada, an orchard in late spring is a polar opposite to an orchard in midwinter. In spring the colour green predominates and bird songs tickle the ear. Life is everywhere. In contrast, a winter orchard is silent, bare, and white. Life seems to be absent.
But those barren wintertime appearances are deceiving. Hidden within the trees, wearing camouflage for protection, are insects in various stages of development. They are awaiting the return of warm weather so they can complete their life cycles.
Unlike the vast majority of their avian neighbors, kinglets, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and woodpeckers, choose to remain overwinter rather than migrate to warmer climes. This handful of hardy birds performs a valuable service to an orchard by feeding upon the hidden insects that in turn feed upon the trees/fruits. These resident birds control insect populations by preventing outbreaks and enabling the trees to recover from insect damage. In essence, these birds maintain a balance within the orchard community. Any orchardist tending a healthy, naturally-inspired orchard should happily welcome these hardy little sprites.
Interestingly, these same birds are able to live in a mutualistic relationship with one another during the winter months. While feeding upon similar fare, they each use a different method of finding food which prevents direct competition, but instead allows them to form a loose flock that enjoy the protection of multiple eyes looking out for predators. The woodpeckers (downy woodpecker, Picoides pubescens) tend to work their way up the trunk and main branches, working over the bark to find pupae or adult insects hidden within the bark or boring into the wood to retrieve a morsel from within the tree. Nuthatches (white-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis) work on the main trunk and branches too, but they avoid direct competition with the woodpecker by proceeding upside-down, head first, and finding any insects the woodpeckers missed. The black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor), and golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) forage on the smaller branches and on the buds at the end of twigs.
One can entice this group of birds into an orchard during the winter by hanging suet and setting up a feeder with sunflower seeds. The curious chickadees will soon find the offerings, and since they have a remarkable memory*, if they know an orchard is a place to find food, they will visit often, bringing their flock mates with them. Keeping the feeders well-stocked will keep the birds within the area and give them plenty of opportunities to search for hibernating insects on the fruit trees.
Chickadees are not well-traveled; these little sprites spend their entire life within roughly one square kilometer. If an orchardist provides nesting sites as well as winter suet, the chickadees could remain throughout the year and continually re-visit the orchard to hunt for insects. Leaving old snags and wooden fencing enhances an orchard’s attractiveness in the eyes of a chickadee; dead and decaying limbs are easy sites for the birds to excavate their nests. Chickadees will also use nest boxes more readily than other birds in the mixed winter flock and a properly sized boxes placed in the right location may soon be inhabited. On the checklist for property hunting chickadees is a cavity that is 4 to 15 above the ground, receives sunlight 50% of the day, and is along the edge of a forested area.
Building plans for chickadee nest boxes are easily found. I like the triangular design from the Empress of Dirt or the plans for a box from using a single 4 foot piece of 1x6 from Redberry Lake Biosphere Reserve. If you make a nest box, please use untreated wood. Red cedar is a great choice and will last the longest out in the elements. A helpful trick to attract chickadees to a nest box is to put several inches of wood shavings into the nest box so the chickadees can fulfill their urge to “excavate” a nest by removing the shavings.
* Chickadees hide seed and other food items in different places throughout the winter and are able to recall thousands of hiding places months later.
Rebecca Harrold homesteads and homeschools on a 23-acre property in rural Ontario, where she is engaged with all types of wiser living skills. She believes that restoring the land to its healthy, sustainable state will increase its resilience, and in turn, the resilience of the people who depend upon it. Connect with Rebecca at Harrold Country Home and on Instagram. Read all of Rebecca’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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