As the temperatures turn cold and the weather gets a little more blustery, the bird populations in our area begin to change. Migratory birds head farther south while new birds from the north might be settling in, calling this a good enough and warm enough spot to winter. Meanwhile, other birds tend to stay and stick out the cold winter months. Either way, there will still be birds to feed throughout the winter.
If you take an interest in bird watching and attracting a variety of wild birds to your property, winter is just as important a time to feed birds as ever. In fact, it’s probably more important and essential to keep full feeders and good seed throughout the winter as the options for birds’ food sources see a dramatic decline.
Some might argue that feeding birds creates unwanted dependence, causing them to change their foraging habits and become more tied to the whims of a benevolent feeder of birds. The truth is that wild birds are resourceful and adaptable. They know how to find food, whether you provide it or not, but they certainly won’t turn their beaks up a free and accessible food if it’s available.
One good reason to keep your bird feeder full throughout the winter months is to continue attracting your year-round regulars. Some birds will not leave for the winter. If you stop feeding them, they will go elsewhere and it may take time to attract them again in the spring. On the other hand, if you continue feeding the birds throughout the winter, you may attract some seasonal birds. You can enjoy glimpses of birds that you would not otherwise be able to see the rest of the year. Finally, winter feeding is a good idea because it does a good turn for the birds that you enjoy watching so well. In warm months where bugs are in great supply, other food sources are readily available, and temperatures are mild, birds will use your feeder for supplemental food. In the winter, the feeder becomes much more important as bugs are in short supply, other food sources are scarce, and it becomes much more important to obtain energy-rich foods for generating body heat.
An important element to consider if you are feeding wild birds throughout the winter is the type of seed that you will be giving them. As it takes more energy to generate heat, high-fat or high-energy-yielding foods are the best option. A good example of high-protien bird feed is suet, an animal-rendered fat that is commonly seen in blocks in the bird feed section. This fat supplement is essential to bird diets during the winter. The added energy aids the bird in generating its own warmth. Suet is commonly mixed with normal bird seed, making it a great option for preventing loose seed from getting scattered by the wind or overly-excited feathered diners.
In addition to suet, other winter foods for birds include black oil sunflower seeds (as opposed to striped sunflower seeds), peanuts, and cracked corn. Black oil sunflower seeds are said to be favorites of birds because they have thinner shells, making them easier for birds to crack open and consume. The kernels are also larger and the calorie content is higher. Peanuts are always a great source of protien. Note that any peanuts that you set out for birds should be shelled already, unsalted, and it’s helpful to even crush or break them up a bit so they’re more manageable, especially for smaller birds. Cracked corn is, as the name suggests, broken up into smaller pieces as well so the birds have an easier time consuming it. Keep in mind that the corn may also be attractive to a variety of other animals, from squirrels to wild turkeys, if you have them in the area, to deer.
In addition to providing food for birds in the winter, it might also be a good idea to provide water, if you think it is needed. Here in the South the winter temperatures are cold but do not often drop below freezing. However, at the times that it does go below freezing, drinkable water becomes scarce for the birds. It’s worth it to set out clean water in a bowl on those days that everything else has frosted over. Note that if you have a bird bath it is best to winterize it rather than using it during the cold months. Low temperatures will cause the water in a full bird bath to freeze and possibly crack the bath.