Should I Feed Birds in Winter?

Kim Eierman

Kim Eierman

Founder of EcoBeneficial!

Available for virtual and in-person landscape consulting, talks and classes.

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Titmouse at Feeder_Flickr_Jim Robinson

Should I Feed Birds in Winter?

Question: Should I feed birds in winter, and if so, what should I feed them?

Answer:

I think you should feed birds all year round! But perhaps, not exactly in the way you might be thinking. This is a more complex topic that most people realize.

Water for Birds

Before you contemplate bird food, make sure to have a clean, unfrozen source of water for overwintering birds.  Clean, accessible water is very difficult for birds to find – especially in cold weather.  If you live in an area which falls below freezing, buy a well-constructed, heated bird bath.  There are not a lot of models to choose from but the best one I have found is the Farm Innovators Heated Bird Bath. Not a very convincing name, but a good option, just the same.

Natural Food Sources

With regard to food for birds, the more natural sources of food you make available – the less you will have to think about providing supplemental food.  Survey your landscape to see what plants you have that offer natural bird food in winter – native grasses with seeds that you have left standing?  How about native perennials with seeds?  Do you have trees and shrubs that are still holding fruit, such as bayberry, juniper, winterberry, etc.?  Plan to add more of these kind of plants to your landscape in the spring by selecting plants that are regionally native and suitable for your landscape.  These natural food sources may have nutrition profiles that are more appropriate for birds than what you might supply.

What Birds Eat

It’s hard to use non-natural foods to feed all birds all that they need.  Not all birds eat the same type of food.  Some birds are gramnivores (seed-eaters), some are frugivores (fruit-eaters), others are insectivores (insect-eaters), or carnivores (flesh-eaters) and the lucky ones are omnivores that eat many different things.  Try to  grow as many native plants as you can to satisfy many different bird species, at different times of year.

Pros and Cons of Supplemental Feeding

With regard to supplemental feeding, many studies have found that bird food provided in winter can significantly increase birds’ survival rates.  Birds that otherwise may not have been hardy enough, might make it through a severe winter with your help.  This could be a mixed blessing – two studies in the UK found that birds which ate human-provided bird seed in winter had lower reproduction rates.  Scientists speculate that perhaps the seed had the wrong nutritional profile (too high in fat) or potentially that weaker birds, with lower reproductive ability, survived.  You can read more about this subject in a article written by ecologist, Joe Smith on nature.org.

What to Feed

So, what should you do?  I think it’s a personal decision, but I will admit that I do provide supplemental food to birds in winter – choosing varied food, including:  hulled black oil sunflower seed, safflower seed, Nyjer seed, suet laden with insects/berries/nuts/peanut butter, and the occasional fresh piece of cut fruit.  I avoid low quality mixed bird seed, especially those foods laden with millet.  As scientific research provides us with more information, I will tweak my winter feeding regimen accordingly.

I hope that helps!

From Kim Eierman at EcoBeneficial!

Photo: Titmouse at feeder
Photo credit:  Flickr_Jim Robinson

 

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