How to attract winter birds to your feeder

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winter bird

Feeding birds is a great way to add color, song and entertainment to your backyard. I bought my first bird feeder over the summer so my daughter could enjoy watching the cardinals nesting in our backyard. Our feeder got even more traffic through the fall months as other food sources became scarcer. And then it got cold and snowy, and our winged friends visited less often.

To attract birds to your feeder, you have to create an inviting habitat. You can start by considering the type of seed or feed you’re using, the kind of bird feeder you have, where you place your bird feeder and what type of water sources are available. By optimizing the resources that are available in your backyard, you can attract a greater number of birds with more diversity.

Seed and feed

Over 20 types of seeds are sold as birdseed. With so many choices, it can be hard to determine which will work best for you. No one type of seed is preferred by all birds. Different species of birds prefer different types of seeds, so the type of seed you choose will influence how many birds come to your feeder.

Small black-oil sunflower seed. This is probably the best all-around choice. It’s a little more expensive, but it attracts many smaller species of birds, such as chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. These seeds also have a high oil content and a thin seed coat, providing important nutritional value for birds and making them easy to crack open. If you’re only planning to provide one seed, this is a good choice.

Striped sunflower seed. This variety is lightly largest than the black-oil sunflower seed and can be difficult for smaller pieces to crack open. However, it is a favorite of blue jays and cardinals. These also tend to create a mess under hanging feeders as birds crack them open to eat the hearts and then drop the hulls on the ground. To make them more attractive to smaller birds and eliminate the mess they create, you can spend a little extra to get hulled sunflower seeds.

Other popular seeds. Providing a variety of foods will bring more species of birds into your yard. Other popular seed types include white proso millet, niger and peanuts.

  • White promo millet. This seed type is cheaper and attracts a lot of different species. However, it may also attract some less desirable birds, such as house sparrows and brown-headed cowbirds.
  • Niger or thistle seed. This seed is very popular because it attracts goldfinches, house finches and purple finches. It is very small and usually offered in a special feeder with small holes for dispensing the seeds.
  • Peanuts. Blue jays, chickadees, titmice and woodpeckers prefer peanuts. They can be offered as shelled kernels, in the shell or as peanut hearts.

Birdseed mixes. Many feed stores, pet stores and grocery stores sell birdseed mix that allows you to provide a variety of seeds. However, you have to be careful. Not all seed mixes are created equally and birds can tell the difference. Some inexpensive commercial mixes contain fillers that are not attractive to birds. These include wheat, milo, hulled oats, rice and rye seed.

Feed other than seed. You can offer more than just seed to increase the attractiveness of your feeding area. Two alternative options are suet and “Marvel meal.” Suet is a high-quality animal fat that birds seek out, especially, in winter. Woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and titmice find it particularly attractive. You can purchase it in the meat section of your local grocery store. It can either be hung in the mesh bag provided when you bought it or you can buy a suet feeder. “Marvel meal” is a mixture of peanut butter and other goodies that you can make at home yourself. It is preferred by chickadees, titmice, wrens and even bluebirds. You can press it into the holes of a log feeder, smear it directly onto the bark of trees or freeze it into blocks to put into a suet feeder.

Recipe for Marvel Meal

  • 1 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup vegetable shortening
  • 4 cups cornmeal
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 handful of sunflower seeds

Feeders

Like different birds prefer different types of seed, different birds also prefer different types of feeders. To increase the diversity in your yard, it’s best to provide a variety of feeders. Three main types of feeders to consider are hopper or house feeders, tube feeders and tray or platform feeders.

No matter which type you choose, you want to make sure your feeder is sturdy and tight so that it stays put and does not allow water in.

Hopper feeder. A hopper feeder looks like a house with Plexiglas sides on a platform where the seed is dispensed as birds eat it. Pros: the sides protect the seed from weather and make it easy to tell when more seed needs to be added. Cons: the seed is not protected from squirrels.

Tube feeder. Tube feeders are hollow Plexiglas cylinders with multiple feeding ports and perches. These feeders attract species that typically feed off the ground. However, perch size can sometimes limit which species will use them. Larger birds need bigger perches. If perches are not large enough for them, your tube feeder will only attract smaller birds. These feeders provide protection from squirrels, as well as, weather.

Tray or platform feeder. Tray feeders are one of the most popular feeders. They are easy to make, consisting only of a flat raised surface on which you spread seed. Ground-feeding birds are particularly attracted to this type of feeder. The downfall of this feeder is that is not squirrel-proof or weather resistant. Tray feeders also need to be cleaned frequently to remove bird droppings and you can only put a day’s worth of food in at a time.

Specialty feeders. There are various specialty feeders you can make available in your yard, including those designed specifically for suet, thistle, peanuts, mealworms and fruit.

Feeder location

You probably want to put your feeder near a window, so you can watch your visitors as they come and go, but you also need to consider the birds’ needs before settling on a location. Make sure you place your feeder within 10 feet of protective cover. Most birds want to be near cover that provides protection from the elements, a safe retreat and a place to perch while opening seeds or resting between feeder visits.

Water

In addition to food, a water source will make your yard attractive to backyard birds. By providing a place for them to drink and bath, you may even attract species that don’t normally visit your feeder. When selecting a birdbath, all you need is a non-slippery surface and a depth of no more than three inches.

Birdbaths are highly sought after in the winter when cold temperatures mean a time of drought for birds. Because it is scarce, water is particularly attractive to birds. You can make sure your water source remains available in colder temperatures by using a heater to keep the water from freezing.

When choosing a location for your birdbath, look for a spot near a tree with overhanging branches so that the birds have a place to sit and preen after bathing. Different species will be attracted to your birdbath depending on its height and location. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

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Sara is Farm and Dairy’s online content producer. Raised in Portage County, she earned a magazine journalism degree from Kent State University. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, traveling, writing, reading and outdoor recreation.

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