Winter: ’tis the season for feeding birds all across North America, especially in those regions where it gets mighty cold and snowy. If you are a veteran bird feeder, you’ve probably gained lots of insight into the foods your backyard birds prefer. Perhaps you’ve learned through trial and error, or perhaps you did your homework and read up on the subject.
If you are just getting started in bird feeding, or if you are frustrated by a lack of success in attracting winter birds to your feeders, the first thing you need to determine is whether you are feeding the right foods. If you are not giving the birds what they want, you might not have many birds.
The following 10 foods are extremely popular with backyard birds all across North America.
If your favorite bird food is not on this list, please let me know. After all, I am not omniscient. I’m just a guy living in Ohio who likes to feed birds.
10. Black-oil sunflower seed. This seed is the hamburger of the bird world. Almost any bird that will visit a bird feeder will eat black-oil sunflower. Birds that can’t crack the seeds themselves will scour the ground under the feeders, picking up bits and pieces. Bird feeding in North America took a major leap forward when black-oil sunflower became widely available in the early 1980s. Why do birds prefer it? The outer shell of a black-oil sunflower seed is thinner and easier to crack. The kernel inside the shell is larger than the kernel inside a white-or gray-striped sunflower seed, so birds get more food per seed from black-oil. This last fact also makes black-oil a better value for you, the seed buyer. Striped sunflower is still fine (evening grosbeaks may even prefer it slightly), but black-oil is better.
9. Peanuts. Peanuts—de-shelled, dry-roasted, and unsalted—are a fairly recent trend in bird feeding, at least in North America. In Europe, feeding peanuts has been popular for a long time. Peanut manufacturers and processors have now identified the bird-feeding market as a good place to get rid of the peanuts that are broken or otherwise unfit for human consumption. Ask your feed/seed retailer about peanut bits or rejects. Several major feeder manufacturers now produce sturdy, efficient tube-shaped peanut feeders. Woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice will readily visit a feeder for this high-protein, high-energy food. Even cardinals and finches will eat peanuts.
8. Suet. Most humans don’t want a lot of fat in their diet, but for birds in winter, fat is an excellent source of energy. Ask at your grocery store butcher counter if you don’t see packages of suet on display. No suet feeder? No problem—just use an old mesh onion bag. If you want to get fancy with your suet, you can render it. That is, melt it down to liquid, remove the unmeltable bits, and then allow it to harden; this is best accomplished in a microwave oven. Rendered suet lasts longer in hot weather, and while it’s melted, you can add other ingredients to it (see “bird treats,” #1, below).
7. Good mixed seed. Is there such a thing as BAD mixed seed? You bet! Bad mixed seed has lots of filler in it—junk seeds that most birds won’t eat. Bad mixed seed can include dyed seed meant for pet birds, wheat, and some forms of red milo that only birds in the Desert Southwest seem to eat. Good mixed seed has a large amount of sunflower seed, cracked corn, white proso millet, and perhaps some peanut hearts. The really cheap bags of mixed seed sold at grocery stores can contain the least useful seeds. Smart feeder operators buy mixed seed from a specialty bird store or a hardware/feed store operation. You can even buy the ingredients separately and create your own specialty mix.
6. Nyjer/thistle seed. Although it can be expensive, Nyjer, or thistle, seed is eagerly consumed by all the small finches—goldfinches, house, purple, and Cassin’s finches, pine siskins, and redpolls. You need to feed thistle in a thistle feeder of some kind—the two most commonly used types of thistle feeder are a tube feeder with small thistle-seed-sized holes, and a thistle sock. A thistle sock is a sock-shaped, fine-mesh, synthetic bag that is filled with thistle seed. Small finches can cling to this bag and pull seeds out through the bag’s mesh. Two potential problems with thistle: it can go rancid or moldy quickly in wet weather and uneaten seeds can germinate in your yard, creating a patch of thistle (Guizotia abyssinica) plants that you may not want. Fortunately, this problem does not seem to be widespread. All thistle seed is imported to North America, and it is all supposed to be sterilized prior to entry into the United States and Canada.
5. Safflower. This white, thin-shelled, conical seed is eaten by many birds and has the reputation for being the favorite food of the northern cardinal. Some feeder operators claim that safflower seed is not as readily eaten by squirrels and blackbirds (caveat: your results may vary). Feed safflower in any feeder that can accommodate sunflower seed. Avoid feeding safflower on the ground in wet weather; it can quickly become soggy and inedible. You can buy safflower in bulk at seed and feed stores.
4. Cracked corn. Sparrows, blackbirds, jays, doves, quail, and squirrels are just a few of the creatures you can expect at your feeders if you feed cracked corn. Depending on where you live you may also get turkeys, deer, elk, moose, and caribou. Fed in moderation, cracked corn will attract almost any feeder species. Some feeder operators only use this food to lure the squirrels away from the bird feeders. Squirrels love corn—cracked or otherwise—best of all. Whole corn that is still on the cob is not a good bird food because the kernels are too big and hard for most small birds to digest. Cracked corn is broken up into smaller, more manageable bits.
3. Mealworms. We fed mealworms to a pair of nesting bluebirds all this past summer. They rewarded us with four healthy broods of young bluebirds. Eighteen fledglings in one summer should land our bluebirds in the Guinness Book of World Records. Most feeder birds, except goldfinches, will eat mealworms if you offer them. Mealworms are available in bait stores, or by mail order. Don’t worry, they aren’t slimy and gross. In fact, they aren’t even worms; they are larval stage of a beetle (Tenebrio molitor), if that makes you feel better. We keep 1,000 mealworms in a tub of old-fashioned rolled oats and feed them to the birds in a shallow ceramic dish. The dish has slippery sides so the worms can’t crawl out.
2. Fruit. Humans are supposed to eat at least three servings of fruit every day. Fruit is also an important dietary element for birds, but it can be hard to find in many areas in midwinter. Set out grapes, slices of citrus fruits, apple or banana slices, and even melon rinds, and watch your birds chow down. If you want to feed raisins, chop them up and soak them in warm water first to soften them up a bit. Offering fruit to tanagers and orioles is a traditional spring and summer feeding strategy, but many winter feeder birds will eat fruit, too.
1. Homemade bird treats. You can come up with your own recipes for winter bird treats. Smear peanut butter on a tree trunk, and poke some peanut bits into it. Melt suet in your microwave, and pour it into an ice-cube tray to harden. Before it solidifies, add peanut bits, raisins, apple bits, or other bird foods. Put the tray in your freezer to harden. Once it does, you’ve got cubed bird treats—easy to make and easy to use!