Should you feed birds in winter? Yes!
Birds don't need much help from us in the warmer seasons, but it winter is a different story. It can be a season of incredible beauty but it’s also a time when natural sources of food and water can be unpredictable.
It’s also a time when just keeping warm is hard for little bodies, and high quality, calorie-rich food can make a real difference.
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In case you’re worried, there’s no evidence that feeding birds in winter alters migration patterns, so you can go ahead and feed birds in winter without feeling guilty. The American Bird Association encourages winter feeding, saying “It is important to feed birds continually during harsh weather.” So does Audubon.
With a few small adjustments to food and feeders, winter can be a season of joy for your and your backyard birds.
Related: All your smart bird feeder questions answered
Fall and winter bring hail, snow, rain and howling wind – all of which can, ahem, dampen your outdoor birdie buffet.
Water + birdseed = trouble, so keep your bird feed dry. Soggy food promotes the growth of mold and bacteria, which can cause fatal disease in birds.
Adding wider roofs to trays, perches and feeding ports will help keep the feed dry and shield the birds from stormy weather while they eat. The roof or cover should extend well beyond the edge of the tray or platform for good protection during storms.
If you have any feeders made of cloth mesh, put them away for the season as the cloth fibers will hold moisture that can spoil the food. Likewise, make sure all your winter feeders are designed to keep water from getting in or pooling in the feeding trays.
If you can, move your feeders to locations that provide some shelter from the wind and offer brush or other cover where birds can hide from predators.
Keep yourself warm and dry too by using extra-large capacity feeders – you’ll get less exposure to bad weather and feed more birds at the same time.
Keep bird feeders clean
Check your feeders regularly and get rid of any wet, soggy or iced-over feed. Each feeder should be cleaned at least once a month: scrub the hopper, perches and all other parts with clean soapy water and rinse in a mild bleach solution (a couple of tablespoons of bleach to a gallon or so of water.) Wait until the feeder is completely dry before refilling and rehanging it.
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What to feed birds in winter
To feed birds in winter choose high-calorie and high-protein foods to keep their fast metabolisms going in winter, so now is the time to splurge on the good stuff:
- Hulled peanuts, peanut hearts or peanuts in the shell. (But no peanut M&M’s…)
- Nyjer (thistle) seed. Be especially sure to keep this dry as it goes bad quickly
- Black oil sunflower seed, which has twice as many calories as striped sunflower seeds.
- Suet mixed with seeds or fruit. It’s easy to make your own if you want.
- Peanut butter (Contrary to what you may have heard, it doesn’t stick to the roofs of their beaks and birds won’t choke on it.)
- A high quality seed mix with black sunflower, peanut chips, white millet and maybe some dried fruit.
- Mealworms, live or dried. (Yes, you can grow your own if you’re not squeamish.) Don’t use any mealworm product intended for humans to eat as it may contain spices or other additives that are unhealthy for birds.
- Don’t feed bread or breadcrumbs, which breed a lethal disease-causing mold when damp.
- Consider adding a little grit (such as budgie gravel) to the feed, as natural grit may be covered in snow or bogged down in mud. (All birds need some kind of grit to help digest their food.)
- Crushed eggshells can serve as grit, with the added bonuses of recycling your kitchen waste and providing extra calcium in nesting season. (All birds need grit.)
For more tips on how to feed birds in winter, check out this article from the National Wildlife Federation.
Home grown goodness
If you already have trees or shrubs that fruit, such as viburnum, dogwood or crabapple, just leave the produce in place to feed birds in winter and fall. They’ll love you for it.
You can also leave whole ripe sunflower heads on the ground for birds to pick clean.
If you don’t have trees or shrubs that bear fruit, consider planting some. You can also plant sunflowers, coneflowers, thistles and other seed-bearing plants for birds to enjoy.
Feeding on the ground floor
Some birds, like sparrows, juncos, towhees, buntings, cardinals and thrashers and many more, prefer to feed on the ground. Make them welcome with a ground-level feeding area sheltered by a large table, covered deck or other outdoor structure to keep rain, snow and ice away. If cats and raccoons are a problem in your area, covering ground feeders with a temporary wire cage will keep predators at bay so your birds can eat in peace
A ground feeder can be as simple as an open patch of grass or concrete or you can use an old plant saucer, cookie pan or a special wooden tray feeder with short legs.
Whatever you decide on, be sure to keep the food dry and avoid letting leftovers build up as they will attract rats, mice and other pests.
Don’t forget the water
All birds need fresh water for drinking and bathing all year round, so if you’ve got room for a bird bath you may even get some visitors that don’t normally come to feeders!
A few tips for winter bird baths:
- Freezing temperatures can crack ceramic and concrete birdbaths, so switch to metal, plastic or fiberglass ones for winter.
- To avoid frozen water try some or all of these tricks: place the bath in a sunny area; float a tennis ball in it; line it with dark plastic and/or rocks to absorb heat from the sun. (DO NOT add poisonous chemicals, antifreeze or salt.)
- Bird bath heaters are available – if you get one, be sure to use a heavy, outdoor extension cord plugged into a properly grounded GFCI socket.
- Keep it full of fresh water and clean it as needed with a water and vinegar solution (about 10% vinegar).
Winter is a great time for birding – did you know there are more than 40 common species of backyard birds that winter in the US and Canada? Warm up the welcome mat, grab yourself a hot cocoa and watch them brighten up those dreary days. By all means, go ahead and feed birds in winter.
What’s your favorite winter bird? Do you have a winter birdbath and if so, how do you take care of it? Please share your comments below.