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Feeding Birds in Fall and Winter
By Mike Pratt, Director of Wildlife Services
Winter weather is hard on birds. Their calorie requirements increase, food becomes hard to find, snow covers up the seeds and ice storms seal away the tree buds and wild fruits. Tiny birds must eat a third to three quarters of their weight each day. Your feeders and yard can be a great part of a bird's winter diet.
Fall is a great season to start feeding the birds. Even though natural foods are still available, birds spend the fall scouting for winter-feeding areas. Fall is also a good time to attract migrating birds that will use your feeder as a way station before continuing their journey. If you wait until the harsh winter weather arrives to begin feeding, birds may not find your feeder, so start offering provisions early.
Don't worry if you can't maintain a rigid feeding schedule or guarantee a continuous food supply. Birds are used to having food sources disappear and they never rely entirely on one food source. Their natural curiosity and mobility helps them discover multiple food sources. During winter periods of extended ice and snow or a harsh storm, your feeder may be a temporary lifesaving feeding source and a valuable contribution to their survival. But don't worry that the birds in your yard will become dependent on your feeder. No research indicates that during normal weather, birds will starve if feeding is stopped for a time.
Natural foods and cover
Nothing provides an easier or more dependable food supply and shelter than native trees, shrubs, vines and flowers. Evergreens are only one example of a plant that provides year-round cover from the weather (plus seeds that animals can eat). Habitat loss is a major cause of population declines in many bird species, and planting native vegetation is a great way you can help. Start landscaping your yard by choosing what birds you would like to attract by learning what plants they prefer. A variety of plants attracts the greatest diversity of bird species. Choosing plants that bloom at different times will provide food throughout the year. Nest boxes can also provide winter shelter but should be cleaned out each fall. Making a brush pile out of cut branches can also provide cover for the birds in the winter.
Other bird foods
Try popped popcorn, raisins, pieces of fruit, fruit seeds, grapes, grape jelly, cooked potatoes, leftover oatmeal or mealworms. Do not feed birds any foods that contain chocolate because it is toxic to birds.
Suet can be handmade or purchased and include seeds, berries, and other ingredients. Use caution when offering suet in hot weather; it may become rancid if it has not been specially processed. Avoid some peanut butter mixes and bacon fat in that these might stick to the feathers. Natural peanut butter and corn meal (mixed in equal portions) is less greasy and is less likely to stick to feathers and beaks.
Nectar is great for attracting hummingbirds. To make nectar, add one part sugar to four parts boiling water (boil the water before measuring, because some water will be lost in the process.) Allow the mixture to cool before using. You can store extra sugar water in your refrigerator for up to one week, but left longer it may become moldy. Adding red food coloring to nectar is possibly harmful to birds. Red feeding holes or a red base on the feeder will attract the birds. To prevent mold and deadly fermentation do not leave the sugar water in the feeder longer than five days before changing. NEVER use honey because it grows a fungus that is harmful to hummingbirds. If bees or wasps become a problem, try commercially made bee guards. Putting oil around the feeding holes is not recommended in that it might contaminate the nectar. Commercial “nectar” products are also great to use, have safe red coloring and are easy to prepare.
Grit is used by birds to aid in the grinding of food. During prolonged periods of ice or snow cover, you can provide grit (coarse sand, oyster shells or ground eggshells) in a separate pan from your seed feeders. If you provide eggshells you must kill Salmonella bacteria by warming them for 20 minutes at 250 degrees. When the eggshells cool, crush them into pieces about the size of sunflower seeds.
See our list of fun bird-feeding crafts that the whole family can take part in.
Seed choices and bird preferences
The variety and prices of birdseeds and mixtures on the market can be overwhelming. In most locations the black-oil sunflower seed is a good first choice because it has a high meat-to-shell ratio, is high in fat and it is small with a thin shell for easy carrying and cracking. Striped sunflower seeds are larger and have thicker seed coats. It is recommended to start with sunflower seeds, then experiment with other seeds or mixtures to see what the birds in your area prefer
Birds need water year around, for bathing and drinking. You can purchase a birdbath or use shallow pans. Sand in the bottom of the bath provides birds’ better footing. Change the water every couple of days to keep it fresh and minimize bacteria and insects. Providing branches or stones in the water allows birds to stand on them and drink without getting wet and will allow bugs a surface to climb onto and escape. In freezing climates, a birdbath-heating element will keep ice from forming. Never add anti-freeze, which is poisonous to all animals including birds.
Bird feeding tips
- Store seed it in a cool, dry place, in a rodent-proof, metal can. Check the seed often for mold.
- Dispose of any seed that is moldy or wet.
- Clean feeders weekly to minimize disease, even in cold months.
- Take action if you notice sick birds. Discard all seed, clean and disinfect all feeders and remove all seed from the ground under the feeders. Wait a few days before resuming your feeding.