This is a beginner’s guide to winter bird feeding. The ability to find food is what determines whether birds stay around in the colder winter weather or not. Food and unfrozen water are harder-to-find in winter.
With this in mind, you can help more birds survive the winter by feeding birds in your backyard. You can bring the winter-resident birds to you. There are up to 60 species of birds that stay in northern North America during winter. An average yard may see 15 to 20 species regularly.
If there are birds around, there is a good chance you can lure them to your feeders. You just have to adjust your offerings to what your local birds want.
So, in this article, I cover the basics of winter bird feeding. I keep it simple. I discuss the basic equipment you need. And the three simple commercial feeds that draw a wide variety of birds to your yard.
Designing Your Winter Bird Feeding Setup
If you are new to bird feeding, there are places you can get ideas. A good place to study bird feeding setups is local environmental centers.
My local environmental center has several feeding stations in various sites on the property. I took notice of what food is offered and how. These setups are a good chance to see different feeder types in action.
Environmental centers may also have various habitats to see winter-resident birds. My environmental center has habitats such as grasslands, shrubland, meadows, woods, and unfrozen open water. You can create a habitat based on what birds you want to attract. Or you can just hang out the feeders and see who shows up.
Arranging Your Backyard for Winter Bird Feeding
Setting up your backyard involves three key points.
- a comfortable viewing area for you
- choosing food to serve
- setting up feeding stations
First of all, let’s figure out your viewing area first.
- Where will you view the birds?
- Being winter, where will you view the birds?
- Will you watch the birds in comfort from inside your home?
- Will you sit or stand to watch your feeders? This will affect the height of your feeders.
- Is there a window that looks out toward a suitable place to place your feeders? Will you go outside to watch them?
- Will you have a sheltered spot to view the feeding stations?
- Where will you place your feeders?
- Will you place your feeders close to your house?
If your feeding station is placed near a large pane of glass the birds may have a problem flying into the glass reflection. During the day, if the sky or foliage is reflected in the window, it looks like a bird can keep on flying. At night it is the lighted windows that lure birds to their deaths. You need to break up that reflection. There are many objects and strategies to do this. This article on the Cornell Ornithology Lab website gives good advice.
Keeping Pests Out of Your Bird Seed
Once you start feeding the birds you realize how important it is to keep pests out of your feed. Squirrels, other rodents, bears, opossums, raccoons, etc. want to eat the feed as much as the birds.
If you live in bear country, placing your feeders away from your house may be a very good idea. So, is taking your feeders in at night. Just don’t store the bird food outside or other areas a bear can get into easily. Or rodents for that matter.
Large aluminum trash cans with tight-fitting lids are good storage units. I stretch bungee cords through the lid handles to keep the lid securely on the can. I place the aluminum trash can on bricks to raise the can off the floor. And since bears aren’t usually in my city neighborhood, I keep my can in a locked garage. I haven’t had a problem with this setup in the twenty-plus years I have been feeding the birds.
Setting Up a Backyard Habitat to Feed the Birds
Plants for Cover
Birds need somewhere to hide. When a bird hunting hawk flies in, the birds need somewhere to fly to, out of harm’s way. A nearby shrub, preferably evergreen is an excellent choice.
But even leafless shrubs are useful. I have a row of leafless shrubs and a small tree less than ten feet away from my feeders. The birds used these woody shrubs when a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew into my backyard.
The best shrubs are those that provide not just cover but also are indigenous and function well in the local ecosystem. These shrubs will provide both food and cover.
- Viburnums, various species
- Blueberries, various species
- Eastern Red Cedar
- Black Elderberry
- Praire Rose
- American Holly
- Mountain Laurel
- Wax Myrtle
- Black ChokeberryThese North American native plants have many various species depending on the local ecosystem.
The Audubon Society has a Native Plants Database. You can enter your zip code and receive a list of native plants for your area that benefits the birds.
Snags and Brush Piles
If you don’t have dead trees in your backyard, you can add one. Some backyard birders have taken dead trees and planted them deep in cement-filled holes.
Choose a snag with stout limbs. You can hang feeders from the limbs.
Brush piles are made of woody branches and evergreen boughs. They are great places for birds to duck into when danger or cold weather threatens.
Brush piles can be created from the trimmings from woody trees and shrubs. There should be small spaces for birds to perch in. But those shouldn’t be large spots on the ground that cats and other pesky critters can shelter or hide in. And it is a good idea to keep brush piles at a safe distance from the house. Pests such as raccoons, skunks, and rodents can make brush piles their home or base of operations.
Identifying Winter Birds at Your Feeders
Plants for Natural Food for Winter Bird Feeding
Native plants provide free food for birds throughout the winter. Trees and shrubs provide fruit. Flowers, grasses, and some trees provide seeds. Both fruit and seeds can be planted in your backyard.
Fruits for Winter Bird Feeding
The fruit from my Shadbush and Blueberry shrub are eat-in early summer. But my roses and many flowers have seeds and seed heads that linger into fall and early winter.
Here are just a few plants with winter-lingering fruit. Check with your local state agencies of natural resources, county extension offices or the Audubon native plant database for more https://www.audubon.org/native-plants.
Native Fruits for Birds (pdf)
- Mountain ash
- Hollies: winterberry, American holly, Yaupon
A variety of fruits humans eat can be used as bird food. Dried fruits, raisins, bananas, grapes, orange halves, apples, and pears are favorites.
Useful nuts include fresh coconut, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, chopped nuts, and more.
Berries and fruit can be picked during the harvest season. The fruit can be stored in the freezer. The fruits can be thawed before setting out if that works for your birds.
Native Seeds for Winter Bird Feeding
Most trees and shrubs in North America rely on birds to disperse their seeds. Bird swallow seeds whole. And seeds can’t be more than three-fifths of an inch in diameter, which is the largest size a sed-eating bird can swallow. A list of trees and shrubs for birds is here.
I leave seed-producing plants standing in the garden throughout the fall and winter. Seed-packed flowers and grasses like goldenrods and asters provide for some birds like finches and sparrows.
Here is a list of summer and autumn blooming flowers that provide seeds for birds.
• Sunflowers (Helianthus species)
• Cup Plant (Siliphium perfoliatum)
• Wild Senna (Cassia bebecarpa)
• Blazing Stars (Liatris species)
• Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
• Goldenrod (Solidago species)
• Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia species)
• Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium species)
• Ironweed (Veronica noveboracensis)
• Coreopsis (Coreopsis species)
• Asters (Asters species)
• Sedums species (esp. Autumn Joy)
• Zinnias (Zinnia species)
Bird Seeds and Feed for Winter Bird Feeding
Different birds like different seeds. Your local birds may really go for a specific seed and not like others. Experimentation and asking other birders is the way to find this out.
The birds that come to my feeders in winter really only want two things, suet and black oil sunflower seeds.
The seeds available for sale to fill your feeders include several types.
- Safflower seeds
- Red milo
- Black-oil Sunflower seeds
- Striped Sunflower seeds
Peanut Butter is great, smeared on pine cones or mixed with seeds.
Attracting Insect Eaters
Insects are for the overwintering birds that normally eat insects. During the winter the insect-eaters probe the crevices of trees, the softwood of rotting wood, and leaf litter. In those places, hibernating insects spend the winter.
To lure insect-eating birds to your feeders you can set out mealworms or suet.
Mealworms were first marketing as general bird feed in 1996. Before that, they were used as live fish, reptiles, and bluebird food. Mealworms were used by animal rehabilitators. Mealworms are now available dried.
Suet is rendered animal fat. Yes, you can make your own by rending fat. No, you don’t want to. It stinks. I buy my suet cakes in twelve-packs.
Suet cakes come in many varieties and “flavors”. There are hot, fiery flavors to repel squirrels. Other flavors include berries, seed-filled, and insect-studded.
Rotting logs with plenty of bugs and worms are welcome protein sources for winter birds. Insect eaters like bluebirds and woodpeckers can find grubs and eggs in crevices.
The birds that like insects and suet include:
Salt Licks, Grit, and Calcium
Birds like the mineral blocks that are made for deer and other animals. Grit and gravel that is sold for caged birds also works for “wild” birds.
Bird Feeders for Winter Bird Feeding
The feeders you choose should stand up to your areas coldest and worst weather. If it doesn’t you can take your feeders in at night or when extreme weather is on the way.
But taking the feeders inside doesn’t help the birds. I have watched as birds gathered and eat at my feeders during winter snowstorms. The winds have to be very strong for me to take down my feeders.
Squirrels love birdseed. Humans have created countless Rube Goldberg type contraptions to stop squirrels from eating birdseed. These inventions rarely work. Baffles. My neighborhood squirrels laugh at them.
The only feeder I have ever had that stops squirrels is the Squirrel Buster. It is my second Squirrel Buster. The first was knocked down and cracked by furious squirrels. But they still couldn’t get the seed. Point goes to Donna!
But I do set out seed in ground platform trays that the squirrels can get at. I even place peanuts and corn, their favorite treats in the trays. Squirrels need to eat too. But not my more expensive black oil sunflower seed.
Squirrel-proof suet and seed dispensers are available online and at specialty stores. Nurseries, hardware, environmental centers, and pet stores have selections of feeders.
Types of Feeders
Platform Bird Feeders – the best ones have bottoms that let water drain out. My platform feeders have a wire mesh bottom. A platform feeder can hang from a hook, rest on legs on the ground or be mounted on a post or pole.
If a platform is out in the open, the feed will get wet. A platform feeder can also have a roof.
Wire-mesh Suet Feeders
Suet feeders can be hung from a pole. The feeder itself can in the form of a wire basket or even a log with drilled holes. The suet can be placed in the holes. Squirrels like suet.
Hopper Bird Feeders
Hopper feeders hold the seed in a holder that dispenses seed a little bit of at a time. Notice the squirrel in the photo above.
Tube Bird Feeders
Tube feeders are great for protecting the seed from foul weather. The plastic tubing keeps the feed dry.
My favorite tube feeder is the Squirrel Buster Plus. I have had this squirrel-proof feeder for years. The tough plastic ring is spring weighted. A heavy squirrel will trip the weight and close the holes. Squirrel won’t be able to get at the seeds. The is available on Amazon.com (affiliate link).
Thistle Socks and Tubes
Thistle socks are nylon mesh tubes that are filled with nyger seeds. Squirrels like these.
Globe or Bubble Feeders
These feeders are clear plastic. Choose thick, tough plastic that predators have trouble chewing it. I have never used one of these. But the ones with deep bowls and domes are rumored to work very well.
These are those clear, plastic regular feeders that attach with suction cups to glass windows. I have never used them either. I would expect that
Anti-Collision wing clings are various colorful stickers to prevent window strikes by birds. You place these on the window to break up window glare.
Water and Birdbaths for Winter Bird Feeding
There are many varieties of water dispensers available. I have used plastic plant pot saucer for winter feeding. The plastic saucers are cheap, recyclable, and easily replaced.
- trash can lids
- plastic plant saucers
- used plastic containers headed for the recycling bin
Water containers can’t be too deep. A heating element to keep the water for freezing is nice but not necessary. Some birds simply put out the water when the birds are at the feed. And remove the dish before the water freezes.
What You Need to Start Right Now for Winter Bird Feeding
- Water dispenser
- Black-oil Sunflower and Nyger seeds
- platform feeder – one on the ground, one hanging on a pole
- an anti-squirrel feeder for expensive commercial seed
- Nyger seed tube feeder or sock
- bird identification guide
- binoculars (maybe)
The suet, nyger seed, and black oil sunflower seed should draw in a variety of birds.
Citizen Science Projects for Winter Bird Feeding
Winter is the time of the citizen science project, Project FeederWatch sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Project FeederWatch runs from November through April. I participated in Project FeederWatch for several years. I enjoyed contributing to science for the health and welfare of the birds.
For the project you list the species that come to your feeders, you note any abnormalities in the birds like a disease. Then you enter your observations into an online database. The data is used by scientists to monitor the health of bird populations.
Another winter citizen science project is the Christmas Bird Count.
Keeping the Costs of Winter Bird Feeding Down
My final thoughts on bird feeding are to keep it simple and low-cost. The only thing I would splurge on would be a squirrel-proof feeder. As you choose a feeder I would pay attention to reviews and recommendations of bird feeding friends.
Some feeders can be improvised from objects around the house. This works mainly with water dishes and platform feeders.
And bird feed costs can be cut down by buying in bulk. I keep the types of feed I put out to just three: suet, black-oil sunflowers seeds, and nyger. My neighborhood birds don’t eat the other seeds as well.
If you have access to the raw ingredients you can make some bird feed.
What Else You’ll Need to Enjoy Winter Bird Feeding
Finally, as you watch bird you’ll need a poster or feed guide to help you identify the birds.
My favorite guides are:
You can buy these guides on Amazon.com or another retailer. I also often see field guides at used book sales.
Certainly, a pair of decent binoculars will come in handy. If you don’t have a pair, RedstartBirding.com is a website that sells and reviews birding binoculars. https://redstartbirding.com/collections/binoculars
They sell binoculars in a wide range of prices.
And binoculars are also found at secondhand shops, pawnshops, and online retailers like Ebay.
In conclusion, I hope you find it useful. Write in the comments below any thoughts or questions.