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 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!

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  • 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

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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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