The dos and don'ts of feeding birds during the winter season

Ways to connect with nature and help our feathered friends

4 minute read

The dos and don'ts of feeding birds during the winter season

Does it seem like we all need (or crave) extra food during the winter months? Well the birds certainly do! Feeding birds during the winter is a win-win for all. We’re providing much-needed food for a variety of wild birds, plus we get to enjoy the activity while birdwatching while we embrace winter.

In fact, we could easily make bird feeding a months-long passion project where grown ups and kids check on the different types of feathered friends that are drawn to our bird feeders each day.

A national pastime.

Bird feeding as a hobby is growing and is now the second-most popular activity after gardening, with about 59 million Americans getting involved each year. That’s a lot of new birding enthusiasts!

According to the Wild Bird Feeding Institute, there are many advantages to the hobby. They include supporting the spread of healthy vegetation in your backyard and in the ecosystem in general and providing a natural way to control unwanted pests like spiders, ants and other insects. 

But before we go ahead, there are some dos and don’ts we’ll need to know before we provide cardinals and other wild birds with the additional food and energy they crave at this time of year.

1. Don't rush it – start off gradually

Most birding experts say you should identify what types of birds are visiting your property and then buy the necessary food and bird feeder that will keep them coming back.

As you get more comfortable with your new hobby, you can always add more bird feeders to your collection that will allow you to feed more birds at once and to attract different breeds.

2. Be selective when buying your bird feeder. 
Select a bird feeder that’s sturdy enough to withstand the elements in winter and is easy to keep clean. There are many bird feeders on the market, but we suggest that you start off with the tray or platform feeders. These types attract the widest range of seed-eating birds such as pigeons, starlings, and sparrows.

Choose feeders that have a drainage tray or a screened bottom so that they can be cleaned out frequently. The last thing you want is a bird feeder with soddy seeds, a situation that can encourage fungal or bacterial growth.

To prevent squirrels from stealing your bird seed, you might want to purchase a spring-loaded squirrel stopper pole
There are other types of bird feeders on the market, of course. They include hopper or “house” feeders, window feeders, tube feeders, Nyjer feeders, and suet feeders.

Consider purchasing from a local business in your area such as a family-run nursery or gardening center, a hardware store or a farmer’s co-op if you live in a rural area.

3. Position your bird feeder away from predators.
Birds will take food where they feel safe from predators, which is why you should never position your bird feeder in an open and noisy area or in a place that is within easy reach of squirrels and cats.

We suggest you choose a sheltered, sunny spot for hanging your bird feeder. Birds need to have a clear view over their feeding area and any predators that might sneak up on them.

Don’t position your bird feeder too close to windows as small birds can easily crash into them.

4. Choose your food wisely.
Do not feed birds processed food like bread or crackers since these kinds of snacks won’t give them the kind of nutrition they need. Black sunflower seeds and black oil sunflower seeds are suitable for a wide variety of bird feeders and are best for birds because of their high fat content.

Nuts, lard, suet, unsalted peanut butter, fruit, and cheese (primarily American and mild cheddar, but not soft cheese) are also high in fat and will provide the appropriate nutrients that birds need during the winter.

Eggshells are surprisingly good for nesting birds as they tend to be low in calcium around that time. Some people recommend rinsing the eggshells and baking them for 10 minutes, then crushing them up and adding to your bird feeder.

Bird seed mixtures that contain red millet, oats and other fillers are not the best source of nutrients for most birds. In addition, never add food scraps, heavily salted foods, or meat to your bird feeder as these foods can rot easily, attract other unwanted animals such as rats, and food waste high in salt can be toxic for birds.

5. Do include water as a nutrient for birds but be careful where you position it.
Water is just as important as food for the birds who visit your garden. Be sure to provide a clean source of water, preferably in the form of a bird bath. However, you should never position water underneath your bird feeder. There’s a real danger that dirt and debris can fall into the bird bath, creating possible mold or bacteria growth that can endanger the birds. Instead, position the bird bath a few feet away from your bird feeder in a place where birds will see it and where it gets plenty of sunshine.

If you live in a part of the country where temperatures dip below zero, you might want to install a heated bird bath.

Some Final Thoughts

As you become more comfortable with your new hobby, add more bird feeders to your collection. In fact, having multiple sets of bird feeders in your backyard is often a good idea as you can switch them out for easy cleaning.

To supplement your efforts for the next year, consider adding suitable plants to your garden, including ones containing seeds and berries that are beneficial for wintertime feeding. Beautyberry, holly, winterberry, black chokeberry, and crab apples are all good choices and will add a much-needed splash of color to the winter environment.

Enjoy photographing the birds, relaxing, and observing the beauty of nature in the winter. Happy winter, and happy birding!