Picture this: you’re looking through the kitchen window when you see the flutter of a cardinal’s wings. He’s landing on a feeder stocked with sunflower seeds, and he stops for a snack while you watch. The next day, a woodpecker swoops down for a peanut. It’s fun and satisfying to feed wild birds, knowing you’re helping them survive during the winter, when natural foods like seeds and insects are in short supply. (Image: Shutterstock: Tony Campbell)
Black oil sunflower seeds are a great choice for bird feeders. The shells are easy for most birds to crack, and the kernel inside is high in fat, which provides much-needed energy during the cold weather months. Even birds that can’t open the seeds can feast on the pieces that fall to the ground, so you’ll attract a wide variety of feathered friends. Sunflower seeds are also available in white or gray-striped varieties, although the kernels aren’t usually as big as in the black oil kind.
Many different types of feeders will dispense sunflower seeds. A tray or platform feeder invites birds to fly in and fill up. Look for one that drainage holes in the bottom, or with a fine mesh or wire screen at the bottom, so rain can drain away. If your seeds get wet and become spoiled, dump them into the trash and replace them with fresh ones, so birds won’t eat them and possibly become ill.
For better protection from rain, ice, and snow, choose a feeder with a dome top. Birds can pick seeds from the ports around the feeder, while the dome discourages squirrels from raiding your seed-stash. To further raid-proof your feeder, add a squirrel baffle, and hang the feeder high above the ground. Avoid placing your feeder too close to trees, shrubs, or other objects that squirrels can jump from. (If you’re concerned about climbing predators like cats, use a metal pole for your feeder.)
Hopper feeders also offer protection from the elements. These covered feeders open to release seeds when a bird lands on the perch, and close when the bird flies away. You may want to offer mixed seeds in the feeder, a less expensive choice than providing only sunflower seeds. Mixes can include safflower seeds, flax, Milo, millet, cracked corn, and some sunflower seeds, among others. Not all birds will eat all the seeds in a mix, so experiment to see what the visitors to your yard prefer.
Suet cages are specially designed feeders that hold cakes of suet, a mixture of rendered fat, nuts, berries, and seeds. Because it’s high in calories, suet is beneficial for birds in cold climates. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees and titmice love suet and often hang upside down to reach it. If you have a lot of woodpeckers, you might want to choose a feeder with a “tail prop,” which is a small piece of wood that extends underneath the feeder to help support birds with long tails.
Tube feeders are popular for attracting small birds like pine siskins, goldfinches, and titmice. They usually come with multiple perches, so several birds can dine at once. They also keep your seed dry and fresh, as rain doesn’t usually get in through the small openings on the sides. Try filling them with tiny nyjer seeds, a favorite of finches and other birds with small, slender beaks. These feeders help prevent the little seeds from falling out while the birds pluck at the ones they want.
Fruit feeders are feeding stations that let you offer slices of oranges and apples, grapes, cherries, raisins, berries, and plums for birds like Baltimore Orioles, blue jays, robins, and some chickadees and grosbeaks. If you’re not certain which birds eat fruits, think about the birds you’ve seen eating fruits that drop naturally from trees and bushes. Those same birds will enjoy dining on the fresh, ripe fruits you supply. You can also attract some fruit-loving birds with specially made nectar feeders.
Once your feeders are in place, be sure to keep them full, so the birds will return to your yard often. Be sure to provide a clean, fresh supply of drinking water in a bird bath, too. Check the water often during the winter, to make sure it doesn’t freeze.
Keeping a “life-list” of all the birds you see, whether around your home or on your travels, can be a fun hobby. You can adapt our garden journal project to record your sightings.
While you’re working on your birding list and stocking up on seed, here are some birds to watch for in various parts of the country. Remember that many species are migratory, so you may see uncommon birds passing through your area, particularly in winter and spring. In early May, you can start looking for hummingbirds in most parts of the country. They’d love to zip in for a visit at a hummingbird feeder filled with a mixture of one part sugar to four parts water.
A sampler of birds in northern gardens:
American redstart, Baltimore oriole, blue jay, brown creeper
Cedar waxwing, downy woodpecker, Eastern bluebird
Evening grosbeak, fox sparrow, goldfinch, purple martin
Song sparrow, scarlet tanager, Western tanager, Winter wren
In southern gardens:
Baltimore oriole, brown thrasher, cardinal, Carolina wren
Carolina chickadee, Eastern phoebe, goldfinch, hairy woodpecker
Indigo bunting, pine warbler, red-winged blackbird, summer tanager
tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch
In eastern gardens:
Common yellowthroat, downy woodpecker
Eastern meadowlark, ovenbird, mourning dove
Rose-breasted grosbeak, Veery
American robin, tufted titmouse, blue jay
Image of rose-breasted grosbeak: Shutterstock/Brian Lasenby
In mid-western gardens:
Berwick’s wren, Bell’s vireo, golden-shafted flicker
Grasshopper sparrow, Kentucky warbler, lark bunting
Northern bobwhite, Western meadowlark, Western tanager
In western gardens:
Acorn woodpecker, cactus wren, common yellowthroat
Gambel’s quail, gray catbird, hermit thrush
Lazuli bunting, magpie, Pinyon jay
Sage thrasher, scaled quail, scrub jay
Image of Gambel’s quail: Shutterstock/Stubblefield Photography