Between the cold and the darkness, it’s no secret that winter can be a difficult time for some people. Imagine, then, how much harder it is for birds, who are smaller, more delicate, often lack shelter, and can’t rely on grocery stores to provide their food for them.
All of that is to say that, if you enjoy watching or listening to songbirds in the spring and summer, you might want to consider feeding them through the winter. While many species are migratory, heading off each winter in search of greener (and warmer) pastures, many others stay put and try to tough it out.
For those that stay behind, cold and food scarcity make survival difficult. Most insects have died off or become dormant, while any other food sources that haven’t been consumed are buried by snow. To compound matters, birds — who, like us, are warm-blooded — use up more energy trying to maintain their body heat. This means they need to get plenty of rich, high-energy foods, such as seeds and suet.
That’s where your backyard feeders come in. It’s important to have a variety of different styles of feeders to serve the needs of different kinds of birds. Feeders that are low to the ground attract sparrows, towhees, quail, pheasants, and other foraging birds, while platform feeders cater to jays, cardinals, wrens, chickadees, titmice, and other tree dwellers. Be careful of hanging feeders, which move in the wind, or under the weight of many birds. While they are fine for some species, others will find it difficult to hold onto a moving perch while feeding. The one benefit of hanging feeders is that, unlike ground or platform feeders, they are usually safe from marauding squirrels. Whether you use them or not will depend on what kinds of birds you want to attract, and how determined you are not to feed the squirrels.
Make sure that all of your different types of feeders are placed in an area that is protected from the wind, and be sure to provide some cover, such as a tarp or a piece of plywood, to keep the food from becoming buried by snow.
Note: Avoid bargain-priced commercial birdseed mixes, which include a large proportion of filler seeds that birds won’t actually eat. Instead, buy specific seeds and other foods birds enjoy. Here’s a look at some of the more popular feeder staples:
Black Sunflower Seeds: Sunflower seeds are a favorite treat for many birds, including blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, finches, and titmice. Black sunflower seeds, sometimes called oil seeds, are less expensive and higher in oil content than the black-and-white-striped seeds people eat. These fatty seeds are perfect for helping birds to get a burst of high energy during the winter.
Suet: Suet is a solid cake of fat, usually from beef. As noted above, birds need all of the fat and calories they can get at this time of year, so suet is an important part of any winter feeding program. You can put it out in a special cage-shaped feeder that will either affix to a surface, such as your home or a tree trunk, or hang from a rope or chain.
White Millet: This is a tiny, inexpensive seed that’s good for scattering. Foragers, such as mourning doves, sparrows, and juncos will enjoy it. And, because it’s so cheap, you won’t even mind when the neighborhood squirrels make off with a mouthful or two.
Peanuts: Unsalted roasted peanuts are high in both fat and protein, and make a great treat for many different kinds of birds, including blue jays, finches, cardinals, woodpeckers, magpies, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and some sparrows.
Corn: Dried corn is a popular food for attracting blue jays, juncos, mourning doves, blackbirds, and sparrows.
Nyger Seeds: A very small black seed, nyger is one of the most popular, and most expensive, seeds available commercially. It is especially good for attracting goldfinches. If you choose to add nyger seeds to your mix — and you certainly don’t have to, especially if you are including sunflower seeds — be sure to use a hanging feeder with small openings to ensure that as little seed as possible gets wasted.
Safflower Seeds: Safflower is a bitter, mid-sized white seed popular with chickadees, titmice, and some woodpeckers. Squirrels hate the stuff, but so do many kinds of birds, including blue jays, starlings, and grackles.
Even more important than food during the winter is water. When the temperatures drop below freezing, it can be hard for birds to find a fresh water supply. You can help by providing a heated birdbath, or making sure that there is always some other supply of fresh, unfrozen water available.
Jaime McLeod is a longtime journalist who has written for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including MTV.com. She enjoys the outdoors, growing and eating organic food, and is interested in all aspects of natural wellness.