Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Few Tips for Feeding the Wild Birds This Winter (And a Few Reasons You May Not Want To)

Feeding the wild birds in winter is a great way to beat the doldrums of these short, cold days. Not only do they appreciate it, but it provides opportunities to view them closer than you would get to, otherwise.

Sometimes feeders will bring in species you don't usually see in your area, especially if it snows.

Another rare sighting for us is the Fox Sparrow.

We only ever see one, and he only appears when there is snow on the ground.

While you could certainly set feeders out year-round, those calories you can provide for them are very valuable in cold weather, especially when a layer of snow conceals a lot of their wild food sources.

Like I mentioned in a previous post, the wild birds pretty much spend every waking hour during the winter loading up on calories to help them live through the night. Providing such accessible food can often mean the difference between life or death for those tiny birds, especially in areas where loss of habitat has reduced the availability of native food sources.

Helping to increase their overall fitness can carry over into the breeding season, potentially giving them a better chance to raise healthy babies.

Just like anything, however, there are certainly drawbacks for feeding the wild birds. I'll discuss these downsides thoroughly, and then I'll give you some tips for feeding them safely and successfully.


Anytime you draw a large number of animals into a small location and concentrate them there, you run the risk of having disease outbreaks. In the wild, birds are constantly rotating from area to area, not spending very long in any one spot. By providing a constant supply of food, you are encouraging birds to stay in the same location for extended periods of time.

The most common disease that will affect these birds (especially the finches) is conjunctivitis.

Several years ago, when we left feeders out all winter, I noticed several goldfinches and purple finches sitting around on the ground with their eyes swollen shut. Besides impeding them from finding food, their blindness also made them extremely vulnerable to predation.

One way to help prevent disease outbreaks is to take down your feeders weekly and disinfect them well.

The best course of action, however, is to take the feeders down altogether, every few weeks. This gives the birds a chance to disperse and the feeding area gets a chance to rest.


This could be a plus or minus, depending on how you feel about winged predators.

A large concentration of songbirds will inevitably attract bird-eating raptors, mainly Coopers and Sharp-shinned hawks, in our part of the country.

Adult with prey
A Sharp-shinned Hawk -
I find it interesting that so many bird lovers despair when a hawk swoops in and takes one of the birds visiting their feeders. Don't the predators need to eat too?

There are a couple of things you can do to help prevent losses from aerial predators, if you like.

One thing you can do is provide more cover for the birds. They will instinctively fly to low cover to escape predatory birds. If you hang your feeders in an area with plenty of low shrubs or thick grasses, it will give them a better chance to escape predation.

Another solution is to, again, take the feeders down for a week or two.

When it comes to domestic predators, namely cats, this opens up a whole other problem. I, for one, am not a fan of free-roaming cats. They have a huge negative impact on native wildlife, eating everything from birds to reptiles. A recent study also strongly suggests that free-roaming cats are responsible for helping spread toxoplasmosis to whitetail deer.

While outdoor cats may at times help with controlling rodent pests, be warned that if you feed wild birds, you are going to lose some to cats. If it's your own cat, sometimes attaching a bell to their collar can help. You could also try hanging the feeders high enough out of their reach, but there will always be birds that eat spilled seed on the ground, leaving them vulnerable to attack. (Personally, I wouldn't risk it at all, if I had outdoor cats.)


This can be a tough issue for animal lovers. The design for wild animal populations is for only the strongest to survive. Animals that aren't fit enough to find their own food and survive the winter, get weeded out before the spring breeding season. It's possible that by providing such an easy food source, you may be nurturing birds that wouldn't otherwise survive, potentially passing weaker genes on to the next generation.

Yet again, providing feeders only during the harshest of conditions, and removing them every so often, will help mimic the cycle of supply and depletion found in nature.

So what do you feed them?

If you were to select any single seed to feed the birds, it should be black oil sunflower seeds.

Those big bags of mixed seed tend to get wasted, and don't really contain a lot of nutrition.

BOSS are packed full of nutrients and healthy fats, so even though they are pricier, you get far more bang for your buck, as NONE of it will go to waste. It also tends to be a general crowd pleaser, as just about any seed-eating bird will eat them.

Suet blocks are also great to set out.

A female Red-bellied Woodpecker visiting the suet block.
They are primarily meant to provide fat and protein for insectivorious birds like woodpeckers, but you will see just about every bird species take a few bites from it. Most of the ones you find on the market are packed full of seed, which isn't entirely necessary. If you happen to have some extra rendered tallow or lard sitting around, you can put it out as is, and the birds will make use of it. Just make sure you hang it high enough so dogs will leave it alone. (Of course, if you live in an area with a lot of raccoons, they area likely to claim it for themselves. You could always try taking the suet feeders indoors at night to discourage this.)

In addition to any scratch grains left behind by the chickens, these are the only foods that we set out for the wild birds in winter.

There are other foods you can provide, however. Dried fruit may appeal to some birds, and dried (or live) mealworms will be relished by others (especially bluebirds).

Another way to encourage a variety of bird species, is to provide different types of feeders. Not all bird species will perch on a hanging feeder. Some prefer a platform. Others like to eat on the ground.

Mourning doves prefer to feed on the ground

Of course, I would not do this if you have free-roaming cats in your area (we typically do not.)

Don't forget water!

Where we live, high up on a ridgetop, there are no water sources close by, so they greatly appreciate having water readily available.

Other considerations:

BEARS. If you happen to live somewhere that has bears, you may want to re-think bird feeders. They can be a "gateway drug" of sorts that encourage wild bears to associate humans with food. I'm sure there are some other solutions to this problem, but since we don't have bears where we live, I am unaware of any.

In Summary...

Feeding the birds in winter can be a great way to observe them, and can also help them to survive the harsh conditions. 

A great way to help prevent problems, is to set the feeders out on a two-week rotation, disinfecting them often.

Be sure to hang feeders in an area with plenty of cover, to help protect them from predators.

All in all, we really enjoy feeding the birds in winter!

Purple Finches & American Goldfinches

Do you set out feeders? Why or why not?


  1. I used to feed the birds, until the day I watched out cat Willow sitting under the feeder. I though well that's harmless enough, until I watched her leap straight up in the air and snatch a Cardinal right off the perch. She did it so fast I'm sure the bird didn't even know what happened! That ended feeding the birds for me. I do however put suet out and we also put ears of whole corn out. The Blue Jays love it and I suppose since the cat is getting to be an old lady, she doesn't bother them anymore. I hope you are feeling a little better! :)

    1. Cats are mini super predators! Thanks for the well wishes. It's been so long I don't remember what was wrong with me, lol.

  2. I love this post! We feed the birds during the fall and winter, but not the rest of the year because we had trouble with mold growing in the feeders within a day of placement. I didn't know about the multiple seed bags being a poor choice though- I do have a ton of BOSS for the rabbits and I'll switch the seeds out now that I know better. :) We were worried about illness with the mold before and would end up throwing everything out, disinfecting, and starting over. This was with covers on the feeders- our storms blow the rain sideways a lot of the time though.

    We don't own any cats, but several folks around where we live have them outdoors (we HATE it!), so we have been only using hanging feeders away from any cover the cats could use. We do have several families of hawks here, but the birds have been pretty good about eating, taking cover, eating, taking cover- and I've noticed the squirrels get turned into meals much more frequently. I've never offered suet, but that's next on the list of things to try! Our favorite new additions (for us) are the tufted titmouse and purple finch. We see a lot of cardinals, chickadees, mockingbirds, etc. normally. The Eastern Towhee gets the award at our house for most annoying songbird because the male always falls in love with himself in our car mirrors come Spring and I grow tired of having to scrub the sides of the car. On a cute note though, he and his girlfriend almost always nest in our holly bushes and last year they had 3 eggs that I know of. :)

    1. I know I'm only like a year late in replying, lol! Oh gosh, the Towhee - around here it is a Cardinal. He usually targets our rear-view mirrors, especially on the patrol vehicles. The rangers had to start putting walmart bags over the mirrors because the bird was getting crap all over the front of the cars. I can't believe it's already winter again!

  3. I absolutely love watching the birds. I feed them occasionally, but try not to make it a habit. I do try to keep water sources at different locations around my house though. Water can be hard to find here sometimes.

    1. We love watching the birds too! We would love to set feeders out all winter, but we must be the only house feeding within several miles, because we get at least 200 birds at a time. The seed bill gets a little ridiculous! It's great that you provide several water sources. I'm sure you get to see all kinds of animals taking advantage of that. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Since we want to co-exist peacefully with the black bears in our area, I only put out bird feeders with suet and seeds after I'm reasonably certain all of the bears have moved into their dens for their winter naps. The rest of the year, I have augmented nature around our house by planting lots of trees, shrubs and flowers (mostly native plants) that provide food for wildlife.

    1. It's great to have your input on feeding in a bear area! Even though we are in middle TN, the black bears are expanding their range westward and may be living in our area year round in the coming years. Native plantings are great! They benefit all wildlife. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. We feed the birds every winter too. Squirrels are a huge problem with our feeders. They eat half the seed and knock the rest on the ground for the chickens! lol We use those metal hooks to hang suet baskets and they usually can't climb them so they birds get to eat those. I haven't noticed the bears bothering our bird feeders....just our garbage cans! ugh!

    This was a really great post! Thanks for sharing it with Green Thumb Thursday! I hope to see you back this week!