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How to Feed Birds in Winter: Bird Feeders, Shelter and Drinking Water

Anthony enjoys spending time in the workshop, kitchen, garden, and out fishing. Many of his DIY projects are featured in his yard.

Feeding Birds in Winter

Feeding Birds in Winter

Essential Food Source

Feeding birds in winter provides an important food supplement during the time of year when natural foods are scarce and harder to find. When the temperature drops, birds burn a lot calories every day just staying to keep warm. Offering a steady supply of bird seed, a consistent source of water, and areas for shelter against the elements will encourage birds to visit your garden throughout the fall and winter months.

Depending on where you live, a variety of different birds might visit your feeders in search of an easy meal. Watching the birds flock around the feeders brings color and movement to the winter landscape, and their cheery chirps add their own special music to the scene.

In our area of the Northeast, year-round residents including chickadees and nuthatches are daily visitors to our feeders. Wrens, finches, titmice, downy woodpeckers, flickers and other hungry birds routinely stop by for a free meal and an energy boost.

Offering a steady source of bird seed and drinking water helps sustain the birds when their natural food supply becomes scarce. Here are a few winter bird feeding tips to keep the birds in your yard happy and healthy until the warm weather arrives.

A Bird-Friendly Garden

You can make your garden a welcome place and your bird friends happy if you provide the following:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Shelter
  • Nesting sites
Feeding Birds in Winter

Feeding Birds in Winter

Winter Bird-Feeding Tips

Hang different types of bird feeders to meet the needs of different types of birds. Providing a variety of feeders filled with a variety of bird seed attracts different species of wild birds. Hang multiple bird feeders in different locations and at different heights to reduce competition between the birds.

Perching birds such as sparrows, chickadee and finches will visit hanging bird feeders filled with thistle and sunflowers seeds, while cardinals and mourning doves prefer tray feeders and woodpeckers cling to the wire mesh of suet feeders.

Hang the feeders in areas where the birds will feel secure. Choose protected locations near the safety of trees and shrubs where birds can seek cover while watching for predators.

Droll Yankee Easy Clean Bird Feeder

Droll Yankee Easy Clean Bird Feeder

A Variety of Wild Bird Seed

During the cold weather, birds burn extra calories to keep warm and they need high energy foods for fueling their increased body metabolism. Most of the winter resident birds are seed eaters, and using a variety of bird seed will attract a variety of different birds. We hang feeders filled with black oil sunflower seeds, thistle (nyjer) seeds, and safflower seeds to attract nuthatches, chickadees, cardinals, finches, titmice, sparrows and more. We also hang a suet feeder for the woodpeckers, and other birds including blue jays seem to like pecking at the seeds and other bits embedded in the suet. A feeding tray and a deer feeder filled with cracked corn attracts wild turkeys and mourning doves, not to mention the deer, squirrels and chipmunks.

Country Store Platform Feeder

Country Store Platform Feeder

Keep Bird Seed Fresh and Dry

Bird seed that gets wet from snow and rain will clump together, and begin to get moldy very quickly. Replace any bird seed that gets wet from the weather frequently to prevent fungus and mold from growing in the feeders.

Store your bird seed in a cool, dry location and out of direct sunlight. Setting up a filling station in a garage, garden shed or other protected area provides a work space for filling feeders and making minor repairs. Add a few shelves for storing smaller containers of bird seed. A small feed scoop makes it easier to fill the bird feeders with fresh seed, and helps to reduce spilling seeds.

Keep the bird seed storage area clean to discourage mice and other little visitors.

What Type of Seed Do Birds Eat?

Here's a short list of the common birds in North America, and the type of wild bird seed that attracts them. Fill up the feeders and ring the dinner bell!

Sunflower seeds: The black oil sunflower seeds have a thinner shell than the gray striped variety, making it easier for the birds to open. Attracts: nuthatches, chickadees, cardinals, jays, woodpeckers, titmice, finches, sparrows, and grosbeaks.

Safflower seeds: Birds like safflower seeds, but squirrels tend to leave them alone. Attracts: nuthatches, cardinals, titmice, finches, sparrows, and grosbeaks.

Thistle (nyjer seed): This small seed requires a specialized feeder. Attracts: nuthatches, chickadees, cardinals, jays, woodpeckers, titmice, finches, sparrows, and grosbeaks. Flocks of goldfinches will crowd around a thistle-filled feeder.

Suet: Sold in square cakes, a commercially prepared suet cake often includes nuts, berries and other little tasty bits. Attracts: nuthatches, chickadees, jays, woodpeckers and titmice.

Cracked corn: Spread cracked corn on the ground or offer in tray feeders. Attracts: sparrows, jay and mourning doves. Wild turkeys, quail, deer, chipmunks and squirrels (including flying squirrels) will also visit a wildlife feeder filled with cracked corn.

Nectar: Hummingbirds and orioles will drink liquid nectar from specially designed feeders. Orioles also like jelly.

Mealworms: Bluebirds love mealworms. Available live or freeze-dried, offer mealworms on a tray feeder or in specially designed bluebird feeders. Ring a bell when filling the feeder, and bluebirds will learn quickly that dinner is served.

Tray Feeder with Seed Hopper

Tray Feeder with Seed Hopper

Keep the Bird Feeders Clean

Feeders can attract lots of different birds together into small areas where diseases can spread. Keeping your feeders clean and filled with fresh seed is important for keeping the visiting birds healthy.

Take down the birder feeder, open the top and dump out the old bird seed. If the seed looks moldy or clumped together, throw it away. If the bird seed still looks fresh, reuse it in a tray feeder or scattered the old seed on the ground for doves, squirrels and other ground-feeding birds and animals.

Wash all of the parts of the bird feeder using a soft brush intended for dishwashing or a specialty brush made for cleaning feeders. The manufacturer recommends washing the bird feeder in a 50/50 solution of water and white vinegar. A weak solution of 5% bleach mixed with 95% water with a few drops of dish detergent also works well for cleaning and disinfecting wild bird feeders. Fill the bird feeders with fresh, quality bird seed.

Keep the bird bath filled with clean drinking water

Keep the bird bath filled with clean drinking water

Fresh, Clean Water

Birds need fresh water daily and can dehydrate easily during the extended cold spells that freeze over many of the available water sources.

A small bird bath is an oasis in winter, as long as it is filled daily with fresh, clean water and kept free from ice. Garden centers and online retailers offer several types of heaters and bubblers to keep the water moving in bird baths and to prevent freezing.

The moving water of a small garden pond provides a steady drinking supply, and a permanent water feature will attract frogs and damselflies during the summer months.

Shelter from the Snow

Shelter from the Snow

Give Them Shelter

In the wild, birds need protection from the wind, rain and snow. Dense bushes and shrubs offer natural protection, and birds readily take refuge in birdhouses and roosting boxes from the cold. Different species are even known to huddle together in a birdhouse for warmth and protection against winter's biting cold.

Plant native berry producing shrubs and trees and leave the fruit for the birds. Allow native plants to go to seed after flowering, adding another natural food source for wild birds to find during the winter months.

Put up birdhouses and nesting boxes. Wooden birdhouses are standard fixtures in many gardens, and avid birders put out birdhouses and bird feeders with the hope of attracting their favorite feathered visitors into their back yard. Birdhouses can be decorative, functional or both.

Birdhouse designs can mimic different types of buildings from whimsical cottages to colonial mansions, from post offices to log cabins. Some birdhouses are designed to hang from hooks or branches, others mount to posts or trees, and some sit atop poles.

Most of the traditional nesting boxes available are typically made from simple designs that are proven to attract birds, and watching a pair of birds make their nest and raise their brood of babies is a very rewarding experience. Many birdhouses are single-unit dwellings, and multi-tenant birdhouses are effective at attracting birds like the purple martin that likes to nest with a small colony of neighbors.

Winter Bird Feeding Tips

DIY Suet Feeder

DIY Suet Feeder

Make a Hanging Suet Feeder

Suet feeders attract woodpeckers, nuthatches and other clinging birds, and this simple design adds functionality to the basic wire cages used to hold suet cakes. Attach a wire suet feeder cage to one side or to both sides of the feeder plank. The extension below the wire cage acts a tail prop for larger woodpeckers while feeding, and the top plate makes it easy to hang the suet feeder from a short cable. Refilling the feeder with fresh suet cakes is easy and takes just a few moments.

Here's how to make a feeder plank for hanging suet feeders.

Cut pieces of pine, cedar or redwood into the following dimensions:

  1. Top plate: 2" W x 7" L
  2. Feeder plank: 5" W x 12" L

Drill two holes, 3/16" in diameter, approximately 1" from each end of the top plate. The cables ends thread through these holes to hang the suet feeder.

Sand all of the edges to break the hard corners and remove any tear outs from the cutting process. Mill a decorative edge along the top plate with a router bit. Use the same bit to mill decorative edges down both sides of the feeder plank, and along the bottom edge. Do not mill the top edge of the feeder plank.

Attach the top plate to the top edge of the feeder plank, using weather resistant nails or screws. Position a wire suet feeder cage to the feeder plank, leaving enough space at the top to open the cage for filling with suet cakes. Use two short screws and over-sized washers to secure the suet cage to the feeder plank.

Thread the ends of a short length of cable through both holes in the top plate. Tie each end with a simple overhand knot, and the suet feeder is ready to hang in the garden.

Our yard is a NWF Certified Backyard Habitat

Our yard is a NWF Certified Backyard Habitat

The National Wildlife Federation Certification Program

For over 35 years, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has encouraged homeowners, schools, corporations and municipalities to incorporate the needs of the local wildlife into their landscape design.

So far, the NWF has recognized the efforts of nearly 140,000 individuals and organizations who plant native shrubs and plants for food, cover and places for raising their young, provide a source of drinking water, and add nesting boxes for cavity nesting birds.

Every wildlife habitat includes four essential ingredients: food, water, nesting sites and protection from weather and predators. If your yard already contains a few trees and shrubs, then you are well on your way towards creating a backyard habitat. Adding a bird bath or small pond, a few birdhouses and a couple of bird feeders will encourage more wildlife to visit and perhaps take up permanent residence.

Transforming a sterile suburban lawn or a city plot into a miniature wildlife oasis does not need to be difficult or expensive, and can become a life-long passion. As you modify your surrounding environment to invite the local wildlife, share the joy and knowledge gained with your neighbors. Who knows... maybe they will create their own adjacent wild habitat, and in turn inspire their neighbors. Every little bit helps.

Use Window Decals to Keep Flying Birds Safe

Nothing is sadder to birdwatchers than to hear the "thump" of a bird flying into a window or sliding glass door. We have several large windows which were an unseen danger to the birds that we attract to our feeders and nest boxes. Applying a few inexpensive ultraviolet window decals to our sliding doors and picture windows has significantly reduced collisions, saving injuries and death to our flying feathered friends.

These specially designed window decals reflect ultraviolet sunlight, which birds can see but is invisible to us. The decals look like little frosted images, but the birds see the reflected ultraviolet image as a bright warning sign!

Gone south for the winter. See you next spring!

Gone south for the winter. See you next spring!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Anthony Altorenna

Share Your Winter Bird Feeding Tips

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on September 29, 2014:

Add Your Comment…Very nicely done with good tips for novice birders.

Elsie Hagley from New Zealand on September 20, 2014:

Awesome hub. You have provide some important information for the survival of birds in the winter.Without our help they will not survive.

You get a lot of satisfaction watching those birds feeding knowing that they will have a peaceful nights rest with their little stomachs full. Thanks for a very helpful hub for caring for those tiny winged creatures on the earth.

I have voted it up.