Welcoming Winter Birds

Scouting for a snack, a chickadee perches on a snow-covered branch.

I couldn't survive Vermont winters without my daily dose of watching birds. When the garden is quiet and snow-covered, birds provide life and color. And attracting birds can be almost effortless. Just provide a few seed-filled feeders, and even on the coldest days you can enjoy the antics of the chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, and cardinals.

No matter where you live, you can attract birds to your winter garden with one or two well-placed feeders. Many types are available: tube feeders, platform feeders, finch feeders, hopper feeders, suet feeders, and other specialized feeders. Tube feeders, finch feeders, and platform feeders are probably the most common. Using one or several types in combination will attract many birds.

Just as we do, birds have food preferences. Studies show that each bird species prefers some type of seed over others. The feathers-down favorite among most species is black oil sunflower, so if you're using one feeder, that would be the seed of choice. Or to attract ground-feeding birds, choose white proso millet. But if you want to attract a particular species, use the seed that the species most prefers. I've listed several common birds found at feeders in winter in the United States and the seeds most attractive to each species. Consider these bird-welcoming tips when developing your community or school garden too. Whatever your goal is to attract a variety of birds or only your favorite species - winter bird-feeding will breathe life into your garden.

Setting Up Your Feeders

Because bird-watching is your goal, be sure to place bird feeders where you can view them easily from inside your house. It's best if feeders are sheltered from wind near low-growing shrubs and ground covers-many birds like to flit from these protected areas to the feeder. If you live in areas with deep snow, consider the convenience of filling feeders every few days, and buy one large enough to make that possible. Some window feeders can be filled without leaving the house.

If you want to see lots of birds, offer a varied menu at different types of feeders positioned at various heights. For example, an effective backyard combination might include a finch feeder with niger seed (4 feet high), several tube or mesh feeders (5 feet high) with black oil sunflower seed, and an elevated platform feeder (1 to 3 feet high) with a mix of proso millet and cracked corn. Space the feeders 3 to 5 feet apart so that larger birds can coexist with the smaller species.

Which Type of Food?

Seeds. Stores that sell bird-feeding supplies usually stock several different kinds of seed and seed mixes. I don't recommend commercial seed mixes because they include ingredients that many birds find unappetizing (corn, milo, red millet, wheat, and canary seed, for example) and seeds (white proso millet) that only ground-feeding birds prefer. Sure, seed mixes look good to us wingless folk, but you only have to observe a finicky blue jay tossing unwanted seeds to the ground to learn otherwise. Use one seed type per feeder, especially black oil sunflower to attract several species.

Peanut Products. Peanut hearts -- the embryo from the center of peanuts -- shouldn't be confused with peanut kernels, the meat of the peanut. You'll find kernels as either small bits or whole unprocessed peanuts. Most peanut-eating birds prefer kernels.

Suet. Many birds enjoy suet in the winter. If you want to attract woodpeckers, hang a suet cage from the trunk of a nearby tree. Chickadees, nuthatches, and blue jays will happily join them. Suet quality varies. Your best bet is to buy peanut or almond suet.

Habitat

The most important influence on the number and varieties of birds you attract is your garden's landscape. Large and small trees, bushes, fallen branches and trees, tall grass, brush piles, and water add up to an inviting habitat. Generally, locate your feeders near a mix of vegetation. Ground-feeding birds like thickets, brush piles, rock piles, fallen trees and branches, and tall grasses. Birds who feed above 4 feet will inhabit areas with small trees and shrubs.

Water, Squirrels, and Cleaning

During the winter, especially in the North, a fresh water supply will attract birds -- even some birds that aren't ordinarily attracted to feeders. If temperatures in your area dip below freezing, provide a heated water station filled with clean water. You can find heated birdbaths or immersion heaters at your local hardware or wildlife-supply store.

Hungry squirrels can jump straight up about 5 feet. They'll wreak havoc at your feeders. Not only will squirrels deter birds, they may permanently damage your feeders. If squirrels live around your house, use a baffle. I hang feeders from a post surrounded by 4-inch-diameter PVC piping, an effective and economical baffle.

To keep feeders working properly, clean them periodically. If you place feeders in a sheltered, dry location, you won't have to clean them very often. Wet feeders, however, tend to clog up. Remember: A well-maintained feeder is more attractive to birds.

Winter Birds to Attract with Feeders

Chickadee (several species)

  • Winter range: Pacific Northwest, Northeast, Southeast
  • Food preference: Black oil sunflower and black-striped sunflower seeds, peanut kernels
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Deciduous, mixed forest; suburban areas

White-breasted Nuthatch

  • Winter range: All but some Plains states
  • Food preference: Black-striped sunflower and black oil sunflower seeds
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Deciduous, mixed forests

Blue Jay

  • Winter range: Northeast, Midwest
  • Food preference: Raw peanuts, sunflower seeds
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Oak trees, city parks, suburban yards

Scrub Jay

  • Winter range: Pacific Northwest, Southwest
  • Food preference: Peanut kernels, black-striped sunflower seeds
  • Feeder position: Elevated, ground
  • Preferred habitat: Scrub oak, woodland, suburban gardens

White-crowned Sparrow

  • Winter range: Southeast, Northeast, Pacific Northwest
  • Food preference: Black oil and hulled sunflower seed, white and red proso millet, peanut kernels, and niger seed
  • Feeder position: Ground
  • Preferred habitat: Brush thickets, open woods and gardens.

Pyrrhuloxia

  • Winter range: Southwest
  • Food preference: Most sunflower seeds
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Desert brush and streambeds

Pine Siskin

  • Winter range: All regions
  • Food preference: Niger, hulled sunflower and black oil sunflower seeds
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Coniferous forests, woodlands, brushy pastures

Common Redpoll

  • Winter range: Northeast, Midwest, Pacific Northwest
  • Food preference: Niger and black oil sunflower seeds
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Brushy pasture, open thickets; weed fields

House Finch

  • Winter range: Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, Midwest
  • Food preference: Black oil sunflower and black-striped sunflower seeds
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Residential areas, deserts, orchards, coastal valleys

Clark's Nutcracker

  • Winter range: Pacific Northwest
  • Food preference: Sunflower seeds and suet
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Pine stands, higher elevations

Carolina Wren

  • Winter range: Northeast, Midwest
  • Food preference: Hulled sunflower seeds, suet, and peanut kernels
  • Feeder position: Elevated, ground
  • Preferred habitat: Woodland thickets, ravines, brushy slopes

Hummingbird

  • Winter range: Deepest Southeast and Southwest
  • Food preference: Nectar (sugar and water in 1:4 ratio)
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Forest edges, brush, gardens

Song Sparrow

  • Winter range: All regions
  • Food preference: White proso millet
  • Feeder position: Elevated, ground
  • Preferred habitat: Forest edges, clearings, thickets

Northern Cardinal

  • Winter range: Southwest, Northeast, Southeast, Midwest
  • Food preference: Most sunflower seeds
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Woodland edg brushy swamps, and suburban gardens

White-throated Sparrow

  • Winter range: Northeast, Southeast
  • Food preference: Black oil and black-striped sunflower seeds, white proso millet, and peanut kernels
  • Feeder position: Ground
  • Preferred habitat: Thickets; suburban areas

Red-breasted Nuthatch

  • Winter range: All regions
  • Food preference: Black-striped and black oil sunflower seeds
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Coniferous forests

Steller's Jay

  • Winter range: Pacific Northwest, Southwest
  • Food preference: Peanut kernels and sunflower seeds
  • Feeder position: Elevated, ground
  • Preferred habitat: Coniferous forests, pine and oak trees, mixed oak

Downy Woodpecker

  • Winter range: All regions
  • Food preference: Suet
  • Feeder position: Elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Deciduous forests

Quail

  • Winter range: South
  • Food preference: Sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and other small grains
  • Feeder position: Ground
  • Preferred habitat: Chaparral foothills, desert, suburban areas

Spotted or Eastern (formerly called rufous-sided) and other Towhees

  • Winter range: Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Southeast
  • Food preference: Proso millet, sunflower seeds
  • Feeder position: Ground
  • Preferred habitat: Forest edges, thickets, woodlands, shrubby areas

Mourning Dove

  • Winter range: All regions
  • Food preference: Black oil sunflower seeds, white and red proso millet
  • Feeder position: Ground, elevated
  • Preferred habitat: Open fields, parks, lawns with trees and shrubs

Dark-eyed Junco

  • Winter range: All regions
  • Food preference: White proso and red proso millet, cracked corn
  • Feeder position: Ground
  • Preferred habitat: Fields, road sides, parks, gardens

Dan Hickey is a former managing editor at National Gardening.

Photography by Michael MacCaskey

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