Winter Bird Feeding Tips

Plus Field Guide to Common Feeder Birds

Winter Bird Feeding Tips

Winter bird feeding is a fun activity for the whole family to enjoy at a time of year when outdoor chores are at a minimum. It’s a great way to help nature and stay connected to the wild world around us.

Top 3 Winter Bird Foods

Black Oil Sunflower Seed — If you feed only one thing to your birds this winter, black oil sunflower seed should be it. Black oil sunflower seed attracts more birds than any other type of seed. The kernels are high in fat so they provide fuel for cold days. If you don’t like all those messy shells littering the ground around your feeder, there are shell-free options.

Suet — Fat equals energy and suet is, by definition, fat. Suet is easily digested and metabolized by birds. You can buy pre-made suet blocks in the store, or you can look in your grocery store meat aisle for suet. It’s inexpensive and easy to prepare. Just grab a metal suet feeder or a bag with mesh holes, like an onion bag, and cut the suet to fit inside. Hang the suet from a branch or metal hook and watch the birds, especially the woodpeckers, come to visit. Raw suet does become rancid in temperatures above freezing. Rancid suet is bad for birds, so only set out as much as the birds will eat in a day or two. If temperatures increase, remove the suet.

Niger (Nyjer)/Thistle Seed — If you want to attract finches, this is your ticket. House finches, goldfinches and pine siskins all love this treat. Niger has a high oil and protein content making it a great source of warmth for winter. You can buy a thistle sock already filled and then hang it out for your birds and refill as needed. The only caution with Niger seed is that it does have a tendency to mold and go rancid. Check your thistle feeder often for signs of a problem. If your birds aren’t visiting your feeder, then get rid of your Niger and replace with fresh seed.

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Downy and hairy woodpeckers look similar. Note the white back and small bill on this downy woodpecker. It is six to six and a half inches long vs. the hairy woodpecker at nine to nine and a half inches long with a longer bill. Photo by Pam Freeman.
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A tufted titmouse at the feeder. Photo by Pam Freeman.

Note: When listing what birds will eat, it’s important to understand this is just a guideline. Many birders find different species at all different types of feeders eating different types of food.

Black Oil Sunflower Seed Suet Thistle
Cardinal X
Black-Capped Chickadee X X
Carolina Chickadee X X
House Finch X X
Purple Finch X X
Northern Flicker X
American Goldfinch X  X
Blue Jay X X
Dark-Eyed Junco X
Nuthatch X X
Pine Siskin X X
White-Crowned Sparrow X
House Sparrow X
Tufted Titmouse X X
Towhee X
Downy Woodpecker X X
Hairy Woodpecker X X
Red-Bellied Woodpecker X X
Carolina Wren X X
House Wren X X
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A blue jay with a black oiled sunflower seed.
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A male cardinal is easy to spot with his bright red coloring. Photo by Pam Freeman.

Fun Feed Additions

Seeds and Nuts — As you’re using pumpkins and squash up from the fall harvest, why not keep the seeds for the birds? You can spread them on a baking sheet and bake them or let them air dry. You can also chop the dried seeds and nuts into pieces. That will help the smaller birds.

Nuts, like dry roasted, unsalted peanuts, can be a great energy source for hungry birds during the winter. There are feeders made specifically for peanuts that you can purchase or improvise and make something unique to your backyard.

Commercial Seed Mixes — Not all seed mixes are created equal. Cheap seed mixes from the grocery store contain lots of fillers that the birds won’t eat and you’ll find littering the ground around your feeder. Some feed mixes are formulated for the specific types of birds they attract, others are general. A good quality mix is usually more expensive but contains things like shelled sunflower seeds, corn, and millet. Yes, it costs more, but you’ll save money in the long run with less wasted. There are lots of options with commercial seed mixes, so try a few and see what works best for you.

Fruits — You can set out slices of apples, melons, grapes, and oranges for your birds to enjoy.

Mealworms — If you’ve got chickens and poultry and you’re feeding them mealworm treats, why not set some out for your wild feathered friends. They’ll appreciate the protein.

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White-Throated Sparrow. Photo by Pam Freeman.
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A house finch with a chickadee in the background. Photo by Pam Freeman.

Water Sources

Water in winter is crucial, maybe more so than at other time because the usual sources aren’t available.

If we don’t give water to the birds, will they survive? Yes. But the gift of water as you are winter bird feeding will be greatly appreciated. Birds can eat bits ice and snow, but it takes a lot of energy. If water is near your feeders, they can conserve energy.

In warm climates where it doesn’t freeze, the same birdbath set up can be used year round.

In cold climates where it freezes, you’ll need to add a heat source so the water stays above freezing.

Tips

  • Keep your birdbath clean. Even in winter, feathers and droppings can get in the water. Replace with fresh water every few days and clean it while you’re replacing.
  • Do not use harsh chemicals to clean your birdbath. Simply use a damp rag or scrub brush. If needed, a mild detergent or white vinegar will do the trick.
  • Add different depths to your birdbath by adding flat stones around the edge and other areas. Small birds need only about a half inch of water. The stones also ensure that the birdbath is not too slippery.
  • Place your birdbath near your feeders, but not so close that it gets clogged with shells and debris from the feeders.
  • Place your birdbath near plantings where birds can seek cover.
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A male eastern towhee. Photo by Pam Freeman.
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A female eastern towhee with a white-throated sparrow in the background. Photo by Pam Freeman.

Equipment for Humans

If we’re feeding the birds, we want to be able to see them well and know what we’re seeing. Consider investing in some equipment to bring the experience full circle.

  • Get a field guide. The big names in the field guide business are Peterson, Audubon, National Geographic, and Stokes to name a few. Look through the field guides before you purchase and get one that feels useful and good in your hands. There are field guides for all of North America and then there are region specific guides, like Eastern and Western. It’s recommended you start with your regional guide. Also, know that most birders have a variety of field guides they routinely use for better identification.
  • Get binoculars. The binocular category is huge and there is something for every budget. The best advice for picking binoculars is to go to your local retailer and have them guide you through their selection. Hold the binoculars to your eyes and use them. What feels comfortable? What allows you to see best? Those questions are different for every person.
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A red-bellied-woodpecker on the trees just outside of the feeder area. Photo by Pam Freeman.
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A black-capped chickadee in the snow. Photo by Pam Freeman.

Participate!

Once you get the hang of winter bird feeding and knowing what you’re seeing, why not participate in some citizen science. There are lots of options and you’ll be contributing to valuable data that allows scientists to track the health of our native bird populations.

  • The Christmas Bird Count — audubon.org/conservation/join-christmas-bird-count
  • The Great Backyard Bird Count -— http://gbbc.birdcount.org/
  • Project FeederWatch — feederwatch.org

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