Outdoor Life

What to feed birds in winter

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Birds enjoy suet snacks
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Know what to feed birds in winter to help wild birds survive the cold

The chilly evenings in autumn are signs that winter, and cold weather, are approaching. While you might not feel the need to feed the wild birds who come to visit your yard in the spring and summer, you may want to help them survive the hardships of winter by setting up a feeding program for late-fall through early spring.

Nature's Bounty

Forget about your late-fall yard maintenance project and leave your withered annuals and late-blooming berries where they are. Birds and small animals will eat the dried fruits, seeds and flower heads from your summer and autumn plants, and can find shelter in the brush. You'll want to supplement this forage feed with seed mixes, fruits, suet, peanut butter and meal worms, which will give the fats, protein and energy that birds need in the harsh conditions of winter.

Seeds, Cracked Corn and Nuts

Seed mixes are the basic staples for bird-feeding in the winter. Seeds are rich in fats and protein. Black-oil sunflower seeds appeal to many bird species and should be the major ingredient in your wild bird seed mix. These seeds are easily hulled by most birds, and those birds who have trouble cracking them open will often scour the ground underneath the feeders to catch the pieces dropped by other birds. Bill Thompson, editor of "Bird Watcher's Digest" and author, calls these seeds "the hamburger of the bird world". Safflower seeds and white proso millet also appeal to a wide variety of birds. Smaller birds such as finches enjoy thistle seed.

Cracked corn and peanuts are also important feeding items. Shelled peanuts are high in fat and are a good energy and protein source. Sprinkle peanut-pieces in the brush around your yard and where branches meet the trunks of evergreen trees as well as incorporating them into your seed mix.

The Cornell Ornithology Lab recommends a winter mix of 25 pounds of black-oil sunflower seed, 10 pounds of white proso millet and 10 pounds of cracked corn. Be sure to store your mixes in a waterproof, mouse-proof container. Be wary of commercial bird mixes as they are often filled with cheap filler seeds that are not eaten by wild birds.


Birds that normally avoid feeders, such as robins and thrushes, may be tempted by berries, cherries, raisins, grapes, apples and raisins. If you leave out grapes and raisins, make sure that dogs will not have access to them as they are toxic to dogs.. Make sure to remove any spoiled or moldy fruit as it can make birds sick.

Suet and Peanut Butter

Suet is beef fat. You can find suet bags in feed and grain stores or pet stores or make your own. Get fat from the butcher and put it in an onion bag. Thompson suggests melting suet in the microwave and pouring into ice-cube trays to harden. Drop in seeds, fruit and nuts to make special suet cakes. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends a homemade suet formula containing cornmeal, water, brown sugar and melted suet.

Peanut butter is a favorite wintertime treat. Spread it over pine cones or make peanut butter caches in tree holes and on the bark of branches. It provides concentrated energy for birds and is useful for feeding those birds that are wary of feeders.

Meal Worms

Meal worms make some people squeamish, but they are a good source of protein and fat. These beetle larvae are a good high-protein replacement for the worms birds enjoy in the warmer months. You can get meal worms from your local pet store Place them in a heavy flat bowl for easy feeding.


Make sure to provide fresh water for your visiting birds. Natural water sources are often frozen in the winter.

Locations for Feeders and Maintenance

Thompson recommends having extra feeders available for the winter to cut down on your refilling chores and accommodate the extra birds who may need wintertime fuel. Sprinkle seeds and nuts in out-of-the-way places on your property for winter birds who will not use a feeder. He suggests that you keep the bird food dry by using tubes and feeders that protect the seed and "dole out" the servings.

Keep the feeders clean by scrubbing them down every two weeks. Remove old shells and any moldy material as it could spread infection and illness. Manually check the feeders to make sure no sharp edges and areas develop that can injure the birds as they are feeding.


Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Bird Notes: Winter Feeding
Humane Society: Bird Feeding Tips
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: Winter Bird Feeding
Bird Watcher's Digest: Top 10 Foods for Winter Bird Feeding

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