Winter bird feeding tips

white-winged crossbill Winter is the time to change the composition of bird foods offered and perhaps the arrangement of your feeders. This will aid in the birds' survival, as well as increase your viewing enjoyment in the snowy months ahead.

Permanent residents, such as chickadees and cardinals, are dependable every year. Some winter visitors are birds of boreal regions. Their feeding patterns are unpredictable and tend to be cyclic. Numbers can peak at three to four or nine to ten year intervals, or they can be "irruptive," meaning periodic appearances of unusually high numbers.

If seeds are in short supply, some species, such as Red-breasted nuthatches, Common and Hoary redpolls, Pine siskins, Red and White-winged crossbills, and Pine grosbeaks, may wander far from their normal ranges in search of food.

Foods

It is relatively easy to plan for winter bird feeding. There are three main choices of food: large seeds, small seeds, and suet.

Large seeds include black-oil sunflower, striped sunflower, safflower, peanuts, shelled corn, ear corn and cardinal mixes that contain sunflower, safflower and peanuts.

About 80 to 90 percent of seed I use in Minnesota is comprised of black-oil sunflower seeds and cardinal mixes. These have the greatest appeal to the broadest variety of winter birds and contain a high energy content.

Northern cardinal. The list of birds that favor sunflower seeds is impressive: Northern cardinals, Blue jays, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed chickadees, House and Purple finches, American goldfinches, Evening and Pine grosbeaks, Gray and Steller's jays, nuthatches, crossbills, titmice, and many more.

If you provide sunflower seeds on your deck or patio, you may wish to try sunflower hearts to avoid the mess that occurs in spring when you discover several inches of sunflower seed hulls under your feeders.

Peanuts provide a nutritious diet for birds, including Black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and Blue jays. Even Northern cardinals will come to a peanut feeder.

Seeds and mixes

Cracked corn or milo (sorghum) is so attractive to House sparrows and starlings I recommend not using them.

Millet mixes contain 80 to 90 percent millet and a small percentage of sunflower seeds and other ingredients, such as milo, wheat, rape and canary seed.

white-throated sparrow Small amount of millet can be scattered on the ground or on tray feeders to accommodate Dark-eyed juncos, Mourning doves, and American tree, Fox, Harris', White-throated, White-crowned and Golden-crowned sparrows.

The most important change from fall feeding to winter feeding is to decrease the proportion of millet mix from 30 to 40 percent in the fall to about 10 percent in the winter as the migrant sparrows and juncos move farther south.

Niger seed—thistle—is an excellent all-winter staple for American and Lesser goldfinches, Common and Hoary redpolls, House and Purple finches, and Pine siskins.

All of these species will use commercial finch feeders. Finch mix can also be used for these species, but feeders with larger feeder ports will be necessary.

If House finches become a problem, an anti-House finch feeder is available. Goldfinches are able to perch upside down and feed, but House finches can't.

If you experience a large number of redpolls or Pine siskins trying to use your feeders, scatter a few handfuls of niger seed on top of sunflower seeds in tray feeders. Several years ago I tried this during a "redpoll invasion" and got as many as two dozen redpolls feeding at a time on a 12" x 48" deck railing feeder.

Small tray feeders can also be stocked with niger to attract Pine siskins and redpolls.

Suet

Many wintering birds benefit from the high energy nutritional benefits of suet, suet mixes, and peanut butter.

Dowel suet feeder. Suet can be fed in onion sacks, wire mesh feeders, wooden dowel (cage) feeders, or placed on open platforms that are secure from dogs and other "suet robbers."

Pileated woodpeckers seem to prefer their suet on solid platforms instead of suspended feeders.

Conventional suet feeders sometimes attract European starlings, another nuisance exotic species that drives native songbirds from your yard and from nesting cavities in the spring.

If starlings are a problem, use a "starling-proof" feeder that forces the birds to feed upside down. Chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches have no trouble feeding this way, but starlings have weaker feet and are not able to feed in such an awkward position.

Peanut butter is another good choice for filling log-style feeders and smearing on pine cones.

Feeders

Water is a critical ingredient of a winter feeding program. Obviously the water needs a heating element and a thermostat.

Several excellent birdbaths with heating elements and thermostats are available from bird-feeding supply stores. One of these would make a good Holiday present for the bird enthusiast in the family.

Don't worry about birds freezing if they bathe on a cold winter day. This is not a problem since the heated water is primarily for drinking.

Grosbeaks Native songbirds seem smart enough not to bathe when the wind chill is 40 below.

What's the best type of feeder for your yard? Try several different kinds, if possible.

There are numerous reliable designs available commercially, and many can be easily made at home.

The most popular and effective are platform or tray (covered or uncovered), hopper-style, and cylindrical (for niger or sunflower seeds).

Variations on these designs include platform feeders with screen bottoms to allow for drainage, two-liter pop bottle feeders with slits cut near the bottom for dispensing niger or sunflower seeds, and stick-on window feeder for close-up viewing.

Feeder layout

When switching from fall to winter feeding, you may want to place a group of feeders closer to the house. Tray feeders and fly-through feeders can be placed on a deck railing so they are easier to access when the snows accumulate.

As in fall feeding, use several feeder clusters of three to four feeders per cluster and a ground feeding site. Each cluster has a variety of feeder types that offer larger seeds, smaller seeds, and suet.

Corn feeders are placed toward the back of the yard to accommodate squirrels, rabbits and pheasants.

If possible, feeders should be near the protective cover of pines, spruce or juniper trees so birds can rest in the shelter of those trees between visits to the feeders.

The best feeder sites are downwind from the shelter provided by conifers, switchgrass plantings, cattail marshes or buildings. To avoid giving raptors or cats an advantage in catching birds, feeders should be at least ten feet from the nearest cover where such predators could hide.

Feeder with wire. If your feeders are within ten feet from heavy cover, encircle them with 2" x 4" welded wire fencing at least thirty inches high and about six to eight feet in diameter. This will help deter predators.

If placing feeders closer to the house increases the number of bird/window collisions, try using stick-on window feeders, or move feeders to within one or two feet of the window.

By reducing the distance between the feeder and the window, birds have less room to build up the speed that causes serious collisions.

The bird-feeding techniques discussed here are included in a book by Carrol Henderson, DNR Nongame Wildlife Program Supervisor, Wild About Birds: The DNR Bird Feeding Guide. This book is available from Minnesota's Bookstore (1-800-657-3757).