Feeding birds in winter makes for excellent birdwatching

Winter Birdwatching

by E. E. Kane

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Feeding the Birds: A Family Project

Making Feathered Friends

Natural food sources for birds gradually dwindle in winter, and ice and snow hide most of what is left. It's a great time to set up a birdwatching station in your backyard, and it can be done inexpensively.

The Staples

The most popular seeds are black oil sunflower seed (BOSS) and white proso millet, in that order. Buy them in bulk for the most cost-effective option. When buying seed blends, note that the ingredients are listed in order of greatest to least quantity. A good blend will begin with BOSS or millet. Steer clear of blends that include wheat or milo, as these are fillers, and the birds will toss them out in search of their favorites.

Alternative Seed

Birdseed prices rise in winter, so it helps to supplement with cheaper or free alternatives. Mix in some untreated grass seed with the more expensive Nyjer; goldfinches love them both. Don't toss your pumpkin, squash, or melon seeds! Clean and lightly toast them in a 200-degree oven and then add them to a sunflower blend. Safflower has a higher price tag, but pretty birds like cardinals and grosbeaks love it, whereas troublesome starlings and squirrels don't. Introduce alternative seeds in small amounts to allow birds to get used to them.


In the beginning, it's better to start cheaply while you learn how to attract the birds you like and which commercial feeders will best meet those needs. A tray style is a good first feeder, because it accommodates all types of birds and is more quickly "discovered." Make your own with an old cookie sheet or cake pan. Engineer a lean-to roof for weather protection, or drill holes in the pan to allow water to drain.


Birds love fat. Suet cakes are convenient, last a long time, and cost about a dollar. They are hugely popular in winter when birds need the excess fat for warmth. Offer other fats from your home to offset the cost:

  • Beef trimmings from the butcher are cheaper, but are best offered in cold weather. Offer chunks of fat in mesh onion bags hung at eye level from a tree branch.
  • Save fat drippings (like bacon grease) in a tuna can and secure it to a scrap piece of wood with a nail.
  • Birds love peanut butter. Mix it with cornmeal (a 2:1 ratio) and spread it on a pinecone.


It's okay to offer birds "people food." Plus, you can recycle food that would otherwise be wasted. The last few nuts in a can, fruit peels and melon rinds, dry raisins, stale donuts, pancakes, and even cooked rice, peas, corn, and carrots are perfect examples. Cut out bread products if house sparrows and blackbirds are pushing out the birds you really want.

Free Food

Gathering food in the wild nicely supplements your bird food supply. State parks usually permit visitors to gather acorns, hickory nuts, pecans, and walnuts. With a property owner's permission, you can find all sorts of goodies. For instance, glean field corn from harvested fields. Pick wild berries of all sorts. Gather wild grasses like foxtail and smartweed, and seed heads from annuals like zinnias.


In every season, clean water attracts a greater variety of birds than any other feature. If you live in a cold region, where unfrozen water is even more precious, a bird bath water heater provides a good return on the investment. Save on the purchase of a birdbath by using what you have on hand. Use a metal upturned trashcan lid or a clay plant saucer. Water depth should be no more than two inches.

Offer What Your Neighbors Don't

If you do, you'll get the greatest variety of birds in the neighborhood. A salt block is a prize find for some birds. To avoid killing the grass, put the block in a shallow container. Coarse sand is also valued as a source of grit that helps birds grind up seed in their gizzards. Incorporate both of these valuable (but inexpensive) features in a salt-sand-seed circle in your yard. Install a heavy-duty plastic barrier and then spread a layer of coarse sand on top. Use plastic edging around the circle to further define the area. Add the salt block and a platform tray feeder. With a water feature nearby, it's a full-course dinner for birds.

Set up a bird feeding station in a protected, quiet area (under or near trees if possible), but viewable from indoors. Birdwatching is a peaceful way to pass the time while enduring winter.

E. E. Kane is the pen name for a husband-wife writing team. In addition to working from home for their freelance writing business, Emma works at a wild bird specialty store for which she writes and edits a newsletter.

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