Feeding Backyard Birds in the Winter: Should You Bring in the Bird Feeder?

Winter presents a unique set of challenges for our feathered friends.

As temperatures drop and natural food sources become scarce, birds face the daunting task of finding enough sustenance to survive.

The importance of feeding birds during these colder months cannot be overemphasized.

Not only does it provide them with the necessary nutrients, but it also offers a reliable food source when other options might be limited or nonexistent.

In this article, let us understand the what’s, why’s, and how’s of feeding backyard birds in the winter.

Don’t bring in your bird feeder during the winter

Why Feed Birds in Winter?

Birds have a higher metabolic rate, which means they burn energy at a rapid pace.

During the winter, this energy consumption increases even more due to the cold temperatures.

They need to maintain their body heat and stay active, which requires a consistent and high-energy diet.

The scarcity of natural food sources during winter, such as insects, seeds, and berries, makes it even more challenging for birds to meet their energy needs.

Furthermore, by providing birds with food during the winter, we are helping them conserve energy.

Instead of expending valuable energy searching for food, they can focus on staying warm, avoiding frostbite, and surviving the harsh conditions.

Hence, feeding birds in winter is not just about providing them with food; it’s about giving them a better chance at survival during the most challenging time of the year.

Feeding Backyard Birds in the Winter: The Do’s

Feeding birds in winter requires a focus on nutrient-rich and high-energy foods to help them maintain their body heat and energy levels. Here’s a breakdown of what you can offer:

  • High-energy foods: These are essential for birds during the cold months. Foods like suet, which is a hard, white or pinkish fat, provide a substantial amount of calories and are especially beneficial for birds in winter. Additionally, unsalted peanut pieces are another high-energy food that many birds favor.
  • Fruits: While many natural fruit sources might be scarce in winter, you can supplement with fruits like apples, grapes, cherries, and oranges. Ensure they are cut into manageable sizes for the birds. These fruits provide essential vitamins and are a favorite among many bird species.
  • Seeds: Seeds are a staple in a bird’s diet. Black sunflower seeds, in particular, are highly nutritious and loved by a variety of birds. Mixed seeds that include millet, sunflower, and thistle can cater to a broader range of bird species, ensuring that you attract a diverse group to your feeders.
\Feeding Backyard Birds in the Winter
You can add seeds to your bird feeder during winter for energy and nutrition
  • Kitchen items: Believe it or not, several items from your kitchen can be bird-friendly. Cooked pasta and rice, when offered in moderation, can be consumed by birds. Additionally, unsalted peanut butter is a hit among many bird species. However, always ensure that these items are free from additives or spices that might be harmful to birds.
  • Special treats: To give birds an extra boost, consider offering mealworms, which are a protein-rich food source. Dried fruit, like raisins and currants, can also be a treat for many birds. Remember to soak dried fruits overnight to make them easier for birds to eat.

When setting out food, it’s essential to ensure that the feeders are clean and the food is fresh.

Stale or moldy food can be harmful to birds. Regularly check and refill the feeders, especially after snowfall or rainy days.

By offering a diverse range of foods, you’ll not only support the birds in your backyard but also enjoy the spectacle of various species visiting your feeders.

Feeding Backyard Birds in the Winter: The Don’ts

While it’s beneficial to provide birds with a variety of foods during the winter, there are certain items that should be avoided as they can be harmful or offer little nutritional value:

  • Chocolate: This is toxic to many animals, including birds. It contains theobromine, which can be deadly to them.
  • Table scraps: While some leftovers can be safe for birds, many foods we consume contain salts, spices, and other additives that can be harmful to them. It’s best to avoid giving birds any processed foods.
  • Rotten or spoiled food: Offering moldy or spoiled food can lead to fungal infections in birds. Always ensure that the food you provide is fresh.
  • Bread: While birds will eat bread, it doesn’t offer the nutritional value they need, especially in winter. It can fill them up without providing the essential nutrients they require.
  • Salt: High salt content can be detrimental to birds. Avoid giving them salted nuts or seeds.
  • Meat: Raw or processed meats can attract unwanted pests and can be harmful to birds if they’re spoiled.
  • Milk: Birds cannot digest milk, and it can lead to stomach upset or other health issues.

When in doubt, stick to natural and bird-specific foods. It’s always better to be cautious and ensure that what you’re offering is safe and nutritious.

\Feeding Backyard Birds in the Winter
Do not add processed meat or salty food items to the feeder

Importance of Water

Water is as crucial as food for birds, especially during the winter.

Birds need water for drinking and for maintaining their feathers, which play a vital role in insulation and keeping them warm.

Ensure that your backyard birds have access to clean, fresh water. Regularly check the water source and refill it as needed.

Clean the water dish or birdbath frequently to prevent the growth of algae or the spread of diseases.

Secondly, in freezing temperatures, water sources for preening can ice over, making them inaccessible to birds.

Consider investing in a heated birdbath or a birdbath heater to keep the water from freezing. These are safe for birds and ensure they have a consistent water source.

Lastly, place the water source in a sheltered location, away from strong winds or heavy snowfall areas.

This not only makes it more accessible to birds but also reduces the chances of it freezing quickly.

Remember, just as with food, it’s essential to ensure that the water you provide is clean and safe for birds.

Regular maintenance and monitoring can make a significant difference in the well-being of the birds visiting your backyard.

Bird Feeder Maintenance

Maintaining bird feeders during the winter is crucial for the health and safety of the birds.

Proper maintenance ensures that birds have a consistent and clean food source, especially during the challenging winter months.

  • Regular Cleaning: Over time, bird feeders can accumulate droppings, mold, and old seeds. It’s essential to clean feeders regularly to prevent the spread of diseases. Use a mild detergent and rinse thoroughly to ensure no residue remains.
  • Placement: Position feeders in a location where birds can easily see and access them, but also where they’re safe from predators. Ideally, feeders should be placed at least 10 feet away from cover to prevent ambushes from cats or other predators.
  • Dealing with Snow and Ice: After snowfall, clear off the snow from feeders to make the seeds accessible. Ensure that the seeds haven’t become wet and frozen, as this can be harmful to birds.
  • Monitor Seed Levels: Regularly check and refill the feeders. Birds come to rely on feeders during the winter, so consistent availability is key. However, avoid overfilling, as leftover seeds can become moldy.
  • Deter Squirrels and Other Pests: Squirrels can quickly deplete a bird feeder. Consider using squirrel-proof feeders or baffles to deter them. Additionally, ensure that spilled seeds are cleaned up to avoid attracting rodents.
Feeding Backyard Birds in the Winter
Consider investing in a heated bird bath

Natural Food Sources

While bird feeders are an excellent way to support birds during the winter, natural food sources play a crucial role in their diet.

Encouraging and preserving these sources can provide birds with a variety of essential nutrients.

Here are some points that you should consider while growing plants in your gardens to help your backyard birds.

  • Berry-producing Plants: Plants like Beautyberry, Holly, and Winterberry produce berries that persist into the winter, providing a valuable food source for many bird species.
  • Seed-producing Flowers: Instead of cutting back dead flowers in the fall, leave them in your garden. Flowers like sunflowers, coneflowers, and asters produce seeds that birds can feed on during the winter.
  • Native Plants: Native plants are adapted to your local ecosystem and often provide the best sources of food for native bird species. Research plants that are native to your area and consider incorporating them into your garden.
  • Avoid Using Pesticides: Pesticides can reduce the number of insects available for birds to eat. Even during winter, some birds rely on dormant insects or larvae as a food source.
  • Provide Shelter: Dense shrubs, trees, and brush piles can offer shelter to birds and also harbor insects for them to eat. These natural habitats can be a haven for birds during the cold months.

By combining both feeders and natural food sources, you can offer a diverse and nutritious range of foods for birds during the winter, ensuring their survival and well-being.

DIY Bird Feeders

If you don’t have a bird feeder of your own, we would suggest creating your own bird feeder using these simple DIY methods during the winter.

Building a DIY feeder can be a rewarding experience, allowing you to offer a personalized touch to the birds in your backyard.

Here are some simple and effective DIY bird feeder ideas:

  • Pine Cone Feeder: Take a pine cone and tie a string around its top for hanging. Spread peanut butter over the pine cone, and then roll it in birdseed. Hang it from a tree branch and watch as birds flock to it.
  • Orange or Grapefruit Halves: After enjoying the fruit, take the empty half-shell and poke three evenly spaced holes near the cut edge. Thread twine or string through the holes to create a hanging basket. Fill the fruit shell with birdseed and hang it up.
  • Milk Carton Feeder: Clean out an old milk carton and paint it if desired. Cut out large openings on the two opposite sides, leaving enough space at the bottom to hold seeds. Attach a stick or dowel below the openings as a perch. Punch a hole at the top of the carton and thread a string through for hanging.
  • Toilet Paper Roll Feeder: Once you’ve used up a roll of toilet paper, take the cardboard roll and spread peanut butter over its surface. Roll it in birdseed until fully coated. Slide the roll onto a tree branch or hang it using a string.
Feeding Backyard Birds in the Winter
Building a DIY feeder can be a fun and enriching way to help out our feathered friends
  • Mason Jar Feeder: Attach a chicken wire or mesh to the metal ring of a mason jar lid. Fill the jar with birdseed and screw on the lid. Hang the jar upside down using wire or string, ensuring the seeds can fall through the mesh for the birds to access.
  • Teacup Feeder: Glue a teacup to its saucer, making sure the handle is facing upwards. Fill the cup with birdseed and hang it using the handle, or place it on a flat surface in your garden.
  • Bottle Feeder: Take an old plastic bottle and make small holes big enough for birdseed to fall through. Attach wooden spoons or sticks below each hole to act as perches. Fill the bottle with birdseed and hang it upside down.

Remember to place your DIY feeders in locations where birds can easily access them but are safe from predators.

Regularly check and refill the feeders, and enjoy the sight of birds visiting your handmade creations.

Addressing Common Questions and Concerns

When it comes to feeding birds in winter, several questions and concerns often arise. Below, I have tried to address some of these doubts.

When to stop feeding birds for winter?

It’s a misconception that feeding should stop as winter ends. Birds benefit from feeders year-round. However, in spring and summer, you can reduce the quantity since natural food sources become more available.

How often should you feed birds in the winter?

Consistency is key. Once you start feeding birds in winter, it’s essential to maintain a regular supply, as birds come to rely on your feeders. Check and refill your feeders every few days or as needed.

How do birds survive in the winter?

Birds have several adaptations to cope with cold temperatures. They fluff up their feathers for insulation, seek shelter in dense foliage or cavities, and some species migrate to warmer regions. Their metabolic rate also increases, requiring more food for energy.

I made a video on this topic some time back which you might want to watch:

Should you feed wild birds in the winter?

Yes, feeding wild birds in winter can be beneficial. With the scarcity of natural food sources, feeders can provide the necessary nutrients and energy they need to survive the cold months.

What if I attract unwanted animals or pests to my feeders?

Ensure that the area around the feeders is clean, regularly sweeping away spilled seeds. Using squirrel-proof feeders or baffles can deter larger pests. If rodents become a concern, consider elevating feeders or using designs less accessible to them.

Is there a risk of birds becoming dependent on feeders?

While birds appreciate the consistent food source, they do not become entirely dependent on feeders. They continue to forage and utilize natural food sources. Feeders are supplementary to their natural diet.

Can feeding disrupt migration patterns?

No, the decision for birds to migrate is primarily influenced by factors like daylight and weather conditions, not food availability from feeders.

Conclusion

Feeding birds during the winter months is more than just a kind gesture; it’s a lifeline for many species that face the challenges of cold temperatures and scarce food sources.

By providing a consistent and nutritious food supply, we play a pivotal role in ensuring the survival of these feathered visitors.

From understanding the right foods to offer to maintaining clean feeders and addressing common concerns, every effort counts.

As we’ve seen, the benefits of feeding birds in winter are manifold, both for the birds and for us, as we get to enjoy their presence in our backyards.

In conclusion, with a little effort and knowledge, we can make a significant difference in the lives of these birds, ensuring that they thrive even in the harshest conditions.

Photo of author

Team Beauty of Birds

Beautyofbirds.com's team of experts includes veterinarians, biologists, environmentalists and active bird watchers. All put together, we have over half a century of experience in the birding space.

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