Top 10 Foods for Winter Bird Feeding

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 ten foods are extremely popular with backyard birds all across North America.

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. The outer shell of a black-oil sunflower seed is thinner and easier to crack than that of striped sunflower. Black-oil sunflower kernels have a higher fat content than striped sunflower seeds, and so make a great winter diet staple. Striped sunflower is still fine, and evening grosbeaks, cardinals, jays, and other big-billed birds may even prefer it slightly, but black-oil sunflower seed is better at attracting a wide variety of birds to your winter feeder. Hulled sunflower seeds, aka sunflower hearts, provide a no-mess option.

9. Peanuts. Shelled (which means without a shell), dry-roasted, and unsalted peanuts provide protein and fat, so they’re a great fuel for birds in winter. Several major feeder manufacturers produce sturdy, efficient, tube-shaped feeders intended to serve peanuts. Woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice will readily visit a feeder for this high-energy food. Even cardinals and finches will eat peanuts. Whole peanuts—in the shell—attract jays and woodpeckers, but not smaller birds. Birds love peanut butter, too—just avoid brands that contain partially hydrogenated oil, aka trans fat. Be warned, though, that squirrels love peanuts in any form.

8. Suet. For birds in winter, fat is an excellent source of energy. Commercial suet blocks are available wherever birdseed is sold. Or look for raw suet in the meat isle of your grocery store. Ask for it at the butcher counter if you don’t see packages of it on display. It is fine to feed small chunks of raw suet to wild birds, but it does become rancid faster than commercial blocks, especially during warm weather. No suet feeder? No problem—just use an old mesh onion bag. For the adventurous, you can render raw suet to make your own longer-lasting blocks: Melt it down to liquid in a microwave or on the stovetop, monitoring it carefully. Remove and dispose of the unmeltable bits, and allow it to harden.

7. Good mixed seed. Is there such a thing as BAD seed mix? You bet! Bad mixed seed has lots of filler in it—junk ingredients that most birds won’t eat. Bad mixed seed can include dyed seed intended 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 black-oil sunflower seed, cracked corn, white proso millet, and perhaps some peanut chips, sunflower hearts, and dried fruit. You get what you pay for when it comes to seed mixes. Read the ingredients on the bag, or make your own seed blend from the seeds mentioned above.

6. Nyjer/thistle seed. Although it can be expensive, Nyjer (aka thistle) seed is eagerly consumed by all the small finches—goldfinches, house, purple, and Cassin’s finches, pine siskins, and redpolls. You need to offer this tiny seed in a specialized 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 fine-mesh, synthetic bag that is filled with Nyjer seed. Small finches can cling to this bag and pull seeds out through the mesh. Note: Nyjer can go rancid or moldy quickly in wet weather. A sure sign that it has gone off is when the birds stop visiting the feeder. Time to throw away what you’ve got and buy a fresh bag.

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 offering 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 attracted to 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 use this food to lure the squirrels away from the bird feeders. Squirrels love corn—cracked or otherwise—best of all. Whole corn still on the cob is fine for squirrels, but not a good bird food because the kernels are too big and hard for most small birds to digest. Cracked corn is broken into smaller, more manageable bits that many birds will gobble up.

3. Mealworms. Most feeder birds, except goldfinches, will eat mealworms if you offer them. Live mealworms are available in bait stores or by mail order. Don’t worry, mealworms 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 grow our own 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. Bluebirds, in particular, go crazy for mealworms and will eat as many as you provide. That can result in an unbalanced diet, so we recommend no more than twenty mealworms per bluebird per day. Bags of freeze-dried mealworms are usually available in wild bird feeding stores and big-box hardware stores.

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 the 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!

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  • Ann Bush

    I have granola of oats and fruit bits that I personally did not like. Can I feed this to the birds?. I live in east Texas.

  • AD

    I’ve been feeding birds here, in a rural area, since 1985. Every once in a while I read a reminder about how much birds like thistle seed, so I give it another try. No one ever touches it. Goldfinches have no interest. I put it out the year we had 50 to 100 Redpolls inundating the feeders. No one was interested. It’s always puzzled me.

    • Dawn Hewitt

      Hi Ad, I’ve had mixed results with thistle (aka Nyjer). At times, my feeder would be emptied daily; then no takers for months at a time. I’ve since learned that thistle spoils easily, and that the seed kernel can dry out—which the finches don’t like. It looks fine to human eyes—shiny and black, but one yucky seed, and the word spread among house finches, pine siskins, and goldfinches. So, don’t ever buy a large bag of thistle. Rather, buy smaller quantities from a store that sells lots of bird seed. Once the finches discover fresh thistle, they’ll eat you out of house and home. That has been my experience. Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

      • AD

        Since I’ve not had success in the past, I always buy a small bag when I try again. No help. (I believe the store sells enough to guarantee freshness, but I could try another.)

  • Debbie Jacobson Korotkin

    Jonathan’s bird feeder poles are totally squirrel proof if placed in the appropriate place. They are baffled and hold 4-8 feeders (not included) so you can feed a variety of birds. 4×4 treated post stands up to our buffalo winters. You can reach him at 7162202041.

  • Trudy Tincher

    The squirrels are destructive pests…trap and ship them off, or they’ll eventually destroy and take over everything..
    Experience talking.

    • Alptn Mrl730

      The gray squirrels are the worst. However, the black and white squirrels are much nicer, gentler animals. Gray squirrels are very intelligent, resourceful, cute, and lovable scamps; however, they are also very aggressive, territorial bullies to the other squirrels and birds and can kill them with vicious bites. I would trap and relocate the grays.

  • Heidi

    Any ideas on how to keep the beess away from the hummingbird feeders??? We moved into a new house last spring and put out a feeder. I made my own food with sugar and water and I also bought some from the feed store. Either way, the feeder was swarming with bees. Any suggestions??

    • Hi Heidi,
      First of all, please don’t use any pesticides on or near your hummingbird feeder; and don’t use any sort of oil on the feeder, either. Those can harm hummingbirds, and we don’t want to do that!
      Some hummingbird feeders have “bee guards,” usually a yellow, plastic mesh plug over each port. Hummingbirds can stick their bills and tongues through the mesh, but bees can’t get to the nectar. It’s not a perfect solution, since sugar-water gets splashed onto the bee guards, and that’s enough to draw bees. You can try rinsing off the bee guards throughout the day, but that’s inconvenient. Another possible solution is to offer an open bowl of sugar water beneath your hummingbird feeder for the bees, and then move it farther from the feeder every day. You might try using a higher concentration of sugar in the bowl, making it more attractive to the bees than is the nectar feeder. You’ll still get bees, but fewer, I hope. Good luck! –Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

      • Heidi

        Thanks Dawn – I will give that a try….

  • Connie

    I too am new to backyard birding, about a year, but still learning. Something I do is to play bird songs & calls off an app (either Merlin or Audubon). I’ve had a few bird’s so curious they almost landed on me! They have become more comfortable with me outside watching instead of skulking in the kitchen window. I occasionally call birds that could be in area but that I haven’t seen. Imagine my surprise when I look out the window and have a new visitor; I get so excited! I would recommend knowing the habits of what you call and not cause a fight, massacre, or anxiety for our feathered friends

    • Barbara Jacobs-Smith

      I would caution you about using birdsong to attract birds to your feeders. Birds expend so much energy in their normal daily activities -flying and foraging. It seems unfair to add to their activity by introducing birdsong. I would also worry about the unknown effects of playing birdsong, what do we not understand about the effects of playback. Here is a great article from Sibly:
      http://www.sibleyguides.com/2011/04/the-proper-use-of-playback-in-birding/
      Here is a general article about using playback: http://birding.about.com/od/birdingbasics/a/Ethics-Of-Bird-Calls.htm
      But, no matter what you decide, keep watching birds!

      • bill8127828

        I feed the birds the year round. Over the last several years, I have made my own squirrel baffles. They work great and NO squirrels get around them. The store bought baffles are a waste of time and money. I will continue to make my own baffles as the need rises. Bill

        • Dawn Hewitt

          I use store-bought baffles under my pole-mounted feeders, but I built a stovepipe baffle for under my wren box (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaS7r9ZIrU8 and yes, that’s me). Both types (store-bought and homemade) have been effective, in my experience. Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  • Hi Hamster Mommy! First of all, unless ice is coating EVERYTHING for many days in a row, wildlife doesn’t need our help to survive. They made it all these years before humans started feeding them, and even if it seems like they become dependent upon us because they’re eating us out of house and home, really, they don’t need us. Even if Buffalo, with its deep snows and frigid winters, squirrels store food, and so do some birds. Feeding them might make their lives easier, and it brings them closer to our view, and during icy periods, it can truly help them, but in general, they don’t need us. Everything you’re offering sounds great and perfectly nutritious. I recommend you try to keep your squirrels away from your bird feeders by keeping them far apart. Like, offer only corn and suet (for squirrels) where you’ve been offering it, but offer black-oil sunflower seeds in the far back yard, or somewhere far from the “squirrel station.” Also, there are some tube feeders that are really, truly squirrel proof. They’re expensive, but they really do work. I have a Brome Squirrel-Buster Plus and a Brome Peanut Feeder, and I’ve seen squirrels all over both of them, but NEVER able to get a nibble. They’ve give up on those feeders. The catch: I had to use carabiners to attach those feeders to my hooks because the squirrels would knock them to the ground, and that can break the feeder. I wrote about all of this in the March/April 2016 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest. (I encourage you to subscribe!) At least, please consider subscribing to Watching Backyard Birds, North America’s ONLY magazine dedicated to backyard birds! You can subscribe online for only $10 a year! Good luck! Dawn Hewitt, Bird Watcher’s Digest

    • Alptn Mrl730

      Yes the Squirrel Busters invented by a Genius are the only feeders that can baffle super-smart squirrels.

  • Lickety

    I just moved my feeders to my front yard since my backyard is inaccessible in the winter due to the amount of snow we get. Will the birds find the new location and is having them near our door too close? We’re not home during the day so there’d be no intrusions.

    • doug

      Although I’m no expert I added the front of my home as a feeding area , actually it was to help keep squirrels from the back yard feeding areas,, all the birds ie. sparrows,juncos,warblers and scrub jays , all work both areas now , I’m ground spreading in the front and feeder, deck and railing spreading plus suspended suet on a yard arm in the back , the distance is 45 – 50 feet, the critters seem to go where ever I spread seeds

    • Hi Lickety, You didn’t say how close the feeders are to your front door, but if you’re not going in and out a lot during daylight hours, they should be fine regardless. It might take the birds a week or two to find your relocated feeders, but they will eventually. Dawn, Bird Watcher’s Digest

    • Alptn Mrl730

      The birds will go wherever the seeds are and are quick to learn.

  • Wayne Hammond

    We are virgin bird feeders, deciding a week or two ago that it would be fun to start feeding them. We went and bought a couple of feeders, and some food. A week and a half later, and no birds. Did we decide too late, or will they eventually find our feeders and we should keep them out?

    • Hi Wayne! Welcome to the huge and growing club of backyard bird watchers! It can take a month or more before birds find a new food source. Don’t give up yet! Do keep your feeders out a while longer. You might want to shake up a tube feeder ever couple of days so the seed in side moves around. If it’s rainy or damp where you live, you might want to dump all the old seed every week or two and replace it with fresh. But be patient. Once the birds discover your feeders, you might have the reverse problem: They’ll eat too much! Might I encourage you to consider subscribing to Watching Backyard Birds? It’s aimed at people just like you. I think you’ll enjoy it very much—it’s my job to make sure you do! Please check out http://www.watchingbackyardbirds.com. Dawn, Bird Watcher’s Digest

  • Alice3406

    Thanks for the info. I need help with adding other food sources. You mention melon pieces of rind, does that include cantaloupe and the seeds or honeydew melons as well? If so, can I put out the seed and membranes as the come straight from the cantaloupe, or do I need to bake the seeds, if so, what how I do that? The birds are coming to my feeders in droves this year.sparrows and finches all eating together in my platform feeders and not fighting or being possessive, maybe because I have more than one platform and two other handing feeders, one squirrel proof.

    • Hi Alice, I’m afraid we don’t know the answer to your question about melon seeds. I’ve done some internet searches, and see that they can be offered to birds, but haven’t found whether they should be dried or roasted, or if offering fresh and raw is preferred. I would urge you to experiment, and post here with the results. I suspect that birds will find them most attractive if they are dry or roasted, as is commercial birdseed.

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