Winter is a very fragile time for wild birds, and not all of them survive. Those that winter over have acquired some adaptive behaviors, and they also rely on humans for survival when it's cold and food is scarce. If you are a human who loves birds and are looking for ways to contribute to a healthy Earth, there are a few things we can do to help.
Some birds have winter adaptations, like growing extra feathers, or practicing feather fluffing to keep warm. Other birds, especially the more social species like chickadees, stay warm at night by roosting with other birds in tree cavities or man-made nest boxes. We can help by cleaning nests and other debris out of our birdhouses so they can be used for roosting in winter.
We can also acquaint ourselves with our most common neighbor birds and migrators, and partner with our local bird retailer (we are lucky to have a Backyard Birdshop within walking distance) to offer food that appeals to them. We have bushtits, a couple of resident hummingbirds and interlopers, a few flickers and finches of many kinds. We offer regularly changed sugar-water, a suet hanger that often contains nuts or bugs, and a mix we sprinkle on the railing and deck that contains shelled and unshelled black sunflower seeds and thistle. Know that if you try these things and don't attract birds, they just haven't found you yet. Birds are planners that often have their food sources scoped out by fall.
Water is not only important for hydration, but it also helps birds preen their feathers. Without proper preening, feathers won't stay positioned and aligned. Feathers out of alignment in winter create gaps in insulation, which makes birds lose body heat faster. If we do only one thing, the biggest impact will come from offering a reliable source of fresh water.
With unusually cold temperatures in the NW, we are trying to help as many of the birds in our greenway as we know how to support, so have set the hummingbird feeder in a wire basket of holiday lights to keep it from freezing and causing the hummingbirds to miss their early morning feeding. It makes me feel giddy to love on the birds.