Planning Your Wild Birds’ Winter Menu

Feeding wild birds in winter is an enjoyable past time, makes our feathered friends happy, and keeps them coming back to our feeders. So what should be on their menu to help them through the cold days of winter?

Before we answer that, let’s get something out of the way. By attracting birds to our feeders, are we making them too dependent on a free source of food, and weakening their ability to find food on their own? Do we actually put birds at greater risk because of cats and flying into windows?

Studies have shown that feeding wild birds does not affect their ability to find food on their own. When feeders are removed – or they become empty – birds will simply move on to another set of feeders and/or forage on their own. They are remarkably resourceful that way.

Locate your feeders well off the ground and near cover to prevent predation from cats. If flying into windows is a problem, there are stick-on window decals that are almost invisible to humans, but birds can see them easily. Since birds can eat more at your feeder in a shorter period of time than they can foraging, they are actually at reduced risk of predation.

The next item you want in place is a water source. Birds need water all year long. The water supply should be kept clean and fresh, and should not be over 1/2 to 1 inch deep. In winter, freezing is a problem in most parts of the country, but heaters or devices that keep the water moving are available from most wild bird supply stores and Web sites. What ever you do, do not add anything to the water to keep it from freezing, such as antifreeze. Would you drink it? That stuff is poisonous to all animals.

Now for food. Like pizza is for teenagers, black oil sunflower seed is for birds. They love it, and most varieties of wild birds will stuff it down. The list of black oil sunflower seed connoisseurs includes finches, chickadees, titmice, cardinals, woodpeckers, blue jays, nuthatches, and others. Don’t get the gray and white-striped sunflower seed because the shells are harder, and it doesn’t have as much of the needed fat as does the black oil variety.

A real delicacy for finches is niger seed. Niger is seed is a tiny, black seed, but it is expensive, so you want to avoid waste. While many tube feeders will work with niger seed, you want one made specifically for niger seed. Such feeders will have tiny holes that help reduce waste.

Another good wild bird food is safflower seed. This is a small, white seed that is a favorite of cardinals, downy woodpeckers, titmice and chickadees. The best part is blue jays, grackles and squirrels won’t eat it. Since squirrels won’t eat it, you can use it in platform feeders without a lot of loss. It is available by itself as well as mixed with black oil sunflower seeds.

While planning your wild birds’ menu, you will want to consider white millet. You can throw it on the ground to attract sparrows, juncos, and mourning doves. And it’s cheaper than sunflower seed.

Don’t forget suet. Suet has a lot of fat, which birds love during periods of cold and high activity. It is readily available as is the special wire feeder. It is somewhat messy, however. So you might want to consider the new pelletized suets. They come in several varieties, with each pellet being about the size of a pencil eraser, so it won’t work in tube feeders with small holes. But it is excellent for platform feeders and to throw on the ground or deck.

At first, most birds ignore the pellets, but after an hour or so, they really get into them. Squirrels seem to avoid it. The pellets are available in some bird supply stores and online.

Avoid mixed bird seed. While such seed appears inexpensive, it often consists of mostly filler, such as red millet that birds won’t eat. Birds are no dummies. Like a six-year old picking through his food, birds will discard the filler, eating only what they like. The waste falls to the ground, making a mess on your yard, patio or deck. So any saving will be more than offset by the waste.

Do you want the convenience of mixed seed without the waste? Make you own mix. It’s easy. Try about 2 to 2 1/2 pounds of black oil sunflower seed for every 1 pound of white millet and 1 pound of cracked corn. The exact ratio is not critical. Put it all in a clean trash can and stir. Dinner’s ready.

Finally, place your feeders where you see them easily, load them with your special of the day, and enjoy the show.

There you have it. Hopefully this information will help you with your wild bird menu so that they will flock to your restaurant all winter!

Janet Winter loves her wild birds and delights in providing helpful resources and unique products for feathered friends at She is a web designer, travel agent and writer on many topics including wild birds, babies and pampered dogs.

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