Feeding Birds in the Winter

Winter is a hard time for birds, especially in north central Alberta. Grasses are covered in snow so the seeds are hard to get; the berry supply starts to dwindle and also gets snow-covered; and insects are either hidden underground, indoors in houses, or burrowed deeply into tree trunks.

Before people started feeding birds through the winter, birds survived without man-made bird feeders, but putting up feeders does give birds more of a chance in winter and it’s fun to see which species will visit your feeders.

A Common Redpoll at a nyjer feeder,

If you feed birds, you must clean your feeders regularly and thoroughly to prevent the spread of disease. Clean and disinfect feeders often, one or two times a month should be sufficient. Use nine parts warm water to one part household bleach to thoroughly disinfect your feeders.

Here are some of my suggestions if you are new to feeding birds, or you would like to try something different and fun!

I’ve given some links, for informational purposes only. I particularly like Droll Yankees feeders, which I know well because I’ve won eight of them from Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds radio show (the Mystery Bird segment). Their feeders are good quality, withstand Alberta’s extreme elements very well, and are made in the United States. But I’m not sponsored by or an affiliate of either Droll Yankees or Amazon or any other store.

Seeds:

If you want to offer only one type of seeds to birds, black-oil sunflower seeds are the way to go! Black-oil sunflower seeds are fairly inexpensive, especially when bought in bulk. Black-oil sunflower seeds are easier for birds to open than the striped sunflower seeds, and the kernel is larger too. Sunflower seeds can be put in a hopper-, tray-, or tube-feeders, or on the ground. You can also buy the sunflowers seeds hulled, it’s a little more expensive, but it reduces the waste on the ground and it’s also a big treat for the birds.

Nyjer (thistle) seed is a favorite among finches, although it can be expensive. It is a small black seed, and is best put in a nyjer feeder or a nyjer sock. You don’t have to worry about Nyjer seed sprouting because it is heat-treated, but it can go rancid or moldy quickly in wet weather, so it’s more economical to buy in small bags and keep it dry.

Some seed mixes are better than others. Talk to other birders in your area to see what they have to recommend. Cheap mixes are usually not the best quality, with lots of filler that birds don’t like, such as red millet and milo. The better mixes have sunflower seeds, peanuts, white millet, and cracked corn. There are also some specialty online stores where you can custom-make your mixed-seed blend.

Birds need a lot of energy and protein to get through an Alberta winter, and peanuts are a great source. Jays, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and chickadees will readily visit a feeder for peanuts. If you provide peanuts, make sure they are unsalted and not honey-roasted either!

Suet is a great source of energy for birds. You can provide plain suet, or you can mix it with nuts, raisins, and other fruit. You can buy the mixtures, or make your own. Suet can be provided in a variety of feeders: smeared on a branch or log, in a suet cage, in a tray, or in a mesh onion bag.

Here’s a good page from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about the different kinds of feeders with some photographs.

Water:

In the winter birds eat snow to keep their bodies hydrated. It does bring down the bird’s body temperature, but they can survive. They also will bathe in the snow to keep their feathers clean.

Heated bird baths are wonderful for cold climates. The heater doesn’t actually heat the water, it just keeps the water from freezing. I don’t have a heater so I just take warm water and thaw the ice in the bird bath every morning.

Never put any anti-freezing chemicals in the water or use any harsh chemicals, such as bleach, to clean the bird bath either. Sun is a natural disinfectant and it is good for bird bath.

A Black-capped Chickadee,

When feeding birds, be prepared for some surprises at your feeding station. Some people see Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Merlins hanging around the yard hoping to catch some of the feeder birds.

Last March this Northern Shrike visited my feeders hoping to make a meal of one of the Common Redpolls,

If you are in or around the Edmonton area, the Wild Bird General Store has a remarkable assortment of bird seed (from small brown bags to big barrels in bulk), bird feeders, bird baths, and anything you can think of relating to birds. Many hardware stores have a good selection of bird feeding items as well.

A Merlin on our TV antenna keeping a close eye on the goldfinches,

A Downy Woodpecker enjoying my grandmother’s homemade suet,

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14 thoughts on “Feeding Birds in the Winter

  1. Love this – and all the great suggestions, but instead of bleach – how about vinegar – at perhaps a stronger ratio – I worry about bleach, it is so poisonous and easy to make mistakes with vinegar is just as effective… and yes feeders need to be cleaned regularly.

    Love your photos. The last one is hilarious with the woodpecker in the suet feeder you’ve made – makes me smile… and about hawks? got both sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, merlins, no shrikes, but kestrels. Occasionally a huge red-tail moves in like a stealth bomber – low and huge… everything goes very still when that one shows up.

    Thanks for sharing so much information Prairie Birder!

  2. Wonderful, informative post about taking care of our feathered friends during the winter season! You offer some great suggestions here, Charlotte. Great photographs, too! The birds in our yard cannot get enough of the black-oil sunflower sees and suet.

  3. I will follow your suggestions closely and totally expect a Black-capped Chickadee to turn up at my feeder here in Germany – Europe’s first.
    If not, I will be bitterly disappointed!

    Nice pale-male Merlin, I’d love to see the Prairie subspecies one fine day.

  4. Hello – I want to plant some bushes/plants that will produce berries/seeds to help feed birds that winter in the Calgary area. Fast growing hardy bushes would be my preference but the names of any that will serve the purpose would be appreciated. (Birds already eat leftover fruit on our two crabapple trees). Thank you for any help you can give.

    • The Mountain Ash is a great tree to plant and is a favorite among Waxwings and Robins. For bushes: choke cherries, red elderberries, and silver buffalo berries provide a great selection for birds to choose from in the winter.

      I hope I’ve been able to answer you question.

  5. The Mtn Ash or some Sorbus type of tree grows well in the acidic soils of Whitehorse Yukon Canada. They grow to bush height here. 3 days ago a flock of about 20 Cedar Waxwings ate absolutely all the berries off our neighbour’s Sorbus. Fun to watch, even though they then “decorated” our truck with the seeds. KT

  6. Thank you for all these great ideas, but especially the mention of cleaning feeders. I see so many disgusting feeders up in people’s yards – maybe they figure birds in the wild don’t do any housekeeping, so why should we do it for them? Thought I’d also mention that learning how to squirrel proof a bird feeder, has increased my backyard sightings this winter! I couldn’t leave anything like that suet feeder out in the open where we are… :-(

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