By now, you’ve likely noticed, not all birds head south for the winter. Some hardy souls stay put, toughing out these cold, gray months of the year, while making them a bit brighter for the rest of us. Laying out a buffet for winter birds provides gardeners another form of winter interest and flags your garden as a welcome place for feathered friends.
To help make their stay a bit more pleasant, here are some feeding tips to supplement their diet.
Who’s coming to dinner?
To accommodate the broadest number of species, have several different feeding stations available. Which species you’ll entertain depends on where you live in the country. Some of the most common winter birds include black-capped chickadees, house finches, tufted titmice, downy woodpeckers, northern cardinals, American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos, robins and the ubiquitous house sparrows.
What’s on the menu?
In winter, birds need extra-high calorie seeds rich with fats to keep warm since their favorite foods of insects, fruits and native seeds are scarce. Don’t bother with the generic bargain bags of mixed birdseed. They contain a lot of red millet, split peas, beans and even green and pink lumps of dog biscuit crumbs and other fillers birds just don’t eat or are only suitable for larger birds like pheasants and pigeons. Instead, buy individual types of birdseed in bulk and mix your own custom blends. Your local bird supply store can help with this or already may have specialty blends best suited for birds in your area.
When it comes to seed, black oil sunflower seeds are very popular with cardinals, purple finches, chickadees and nuthatches (but squirrels and raccoons love them too). Nyjer is a favorite of goldfinches and siskins. It’s diminutive and light, like a poppy seed, and works best in a special feeder made with small holes to dispense the tiny seeds. White millet is probably the least expensive seed you can provide. Sparrows, juncos and mourning doves appreciate white millet.
Hulled, salt-free peanuts are rich in fat. Great spotted woodpeckers love them, but they should be crushed into smaller bits for robins, nuthatches and house sparrows. Peanuts can be high in a natural toxin called aflatoxin, so buy safe nuts from a reputable bird food dealer.
Alternatively, suet balls are a concentrated source of energy. They come ready made in wire feeders. You can make your own by melting suet into a mix of seeds and nuts, oatmeal and dried fruits. Pour the mixture into a plastic butter tub or other disposable container, allow to harden, and place at the feeding station. Or, slather peanut butter mixed with dried fruit directly onto tree bark for an easy alternative.
Avoid using cooking fats or drippings – they don’t harden and can smear on birds’ feathers, and they promote bacterial growth. Cooked brown and white rice is OK, but don’t serve cooked oats; keep them raw. The sticky oatmeal can harden around a bird’s beak.
Choose large capacity feeders; they don’t need to be refilled as frequently. Platform feeders are flat shelves that hang from cords or chains, rest on elevated poles or are attached to the sides of structures. They tend to attract the widest variety, from perching birds to ground feeders. However, hopper and fly-through models with wide, overhanging covers are better in the winter; the landing areas and dispensers won’t be buried by snow.
Shelter your feeders out of severe winds, near protective hedges or brush piles, where the birds will have a place to fly for safety from predators. Putting feeders close to the house will make them more convenient to refill and place the birds in view to indoor birdwatchers. To reduce collisions with the glass, keep feeders close to the windows – no more than 3 feet or so – and apply decorative window stickers as an added precaution.
Clean feeders are more attractive, but they also help prevent disease. Large capacity feeders are more convenient but must be protected from moisture to prevent mold and mildew from growing on the food. Exposed platform feeders should be emptied daily to prevent spoilage. Toss out seed that’s soggy or encased in ice, and allow the feeders to dry before refilling.
Joe Lamp’l is the host and executive producer of Growing a Greener World on national public television, and the founder of The joe gardener® Company, devoted to environmentally responsible gardening and sustainable outdoor living.