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Midwest Region
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Winter Bird Feeders: 
If you stock it, they will come

A cardinal pair hone in on a winter bite to eat. Photo by Chiot's Run/Creative Commons.

A cardinal pair hone in on a winter bite to eat. Photo by Chiot's Run/Creative Commons.

By Larry Dean
Regional Office – External Affairs

While some may believe maintaining a bird feeder is something done only certain times of year, winter bird feeding could leave you in awe of the number of birds who don’t make that flight south for winter, keeping you entertained as you keep them nourished through the cold weather months.

And consider more than just food. One way to see the wide variety of birds who stick around is by installing a heated bird bath. All birds need water in addition to food, so a small investment in a heated bird bath is likely to draw plenty of participants, maybe even birds that don’t normally come to your feeders like cedar waxwings. When maintaining your heated bath, birding experts recommend that you always refill it with cold water so less is lost to evaporation and to keep the thermostat from turning off and then on again.

Winter is actually one of the most important times to feed birds, who undoubtedly benefit greatly from those stocking their backyard feeders since they can’t easily forage for food when snow accumulates and temps drop.  The birds who ride out our Midwest winter need high calorie and oil rich foods to help them through. And many of the stores you picked up your summer bird feeder supplies continue stocking the shelves through the winter.

Here are some winter food recommendations:

Suet cakes are especially good in winter (but not as effective on extremely hot summer days). The high fat content is especially good for birds. You can find them in the store as bricks, doughnut shaped, nuggets, cakes, and even decorative shapes. Or, if you’re so inclined to make your own, there are many recipes on the web for making suet cakes and filling that feeder cage with some fine dining for your feathered friends.

Keep in mind that many bird experts recommend staying away from recipes with very sugary mixtures. Peanut butter is a good choice though and will attract a good number of birds, including but not limited to the variety of woodpeckers you could spot hanging from the suet feeder cages for a bite.

Nut and berry mixes, peanuts (both shelled and unshelled) and black oil sunflower seeds can offer a hearty meal to the Midwest’s birds of winter. Black oil sunflower seeds are a great choice as they contain twice as many calories as hulled sunflower seeds.

Also popular with the birds of winter are less expensive mixes with corn and millet. These will draw a lot more house sparrows and starlings, for example. And many of those seed mixes include sunflower seeds as well and the birds who are pickier about what they choose to eat from that mix will likely nudge out the corn and millet to the ground where ground feeders like mourning doves can benefit from a good meal as well.

So what are some of the birds you may spot at a winter bird feeder, depending upon your food selection for them? Black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, blue jays, pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches, woodpeckers, tufted titmice, house sparrows, gold finches, purple finches, redpolls, mourning doves, red-winged blackbirds, and even American robins and eastern bluebirds to name a few.

Using numerous feeders at varying heights and spacing can also help keep your feeders as busy as the runway at the local airport on a cold winter’s day. So, if you aren’t one of those who already has experienced the activity around winter bird feeders, now could be the time. Happy birding!


Last updated: June 8, 2020