How to feed birds in winter

How to feed birds in winter

John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge

Guide written by:

John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge

83 guides

Birds require a lot of energy over the winter months. However, food sources are scarce at this time of year. Putting out a little bird food can help various types of bird to live out the winter in better health which, in turn, will lower the risk of mortality. Read on to find out how and what to feed birds in winter.

Important features

  • Bird feeders
  • Where to feed birds
  • When to feed birds
  • What to feed birds
  • Providing water
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There's no need to feed birds during any season other than winter as they can fend very well for themselves for the rest of the year – in fact, some actively discourage feeding at other times! You should start offering bird food at the start of the very cold weather around the end of November or the start of December.

Stop feeding the birds at the end of winter around March time. However, once you have started to provide bird food, it's important to keep supplying it regularly all throughout the winter months. This is because the birds will become dependent on your assistance and may get into trouble if you stop feeding.

Birds tend to be less fearful in the winter and won't hesitate to get closer to houses in search of food. This makes winter a great opportunity to see some types of birds that we usually wouldn't see close up, such as spotted woodpeckers, finches or nuthatches.

Start by observing the birds that frequent your property in order to find out which species are around and to adapt your bird feed according to their preferences. Some birds will eat from the ground such as blackbirds or robins.

Others prefer food to be placed on a bird perch. Tits can be real acrobats and are often seen hanging from fat balls.

The easiest way to feed birds is to buy a wild bird mix. These mixes contain different sized seeds to cater to a range of species. Some commonly found seeds and grains include sunflower, thistle, corn, millet, barley and wheat.

Unless your bird feeder comes with a seed box, don't put out more food than can reasonably be consumed within 24 hours. It's important to ensure the food doesn't get ruined or wasted, and to make sure the bird feeder stays clean. Clean out the bird feeder regularly and replace as required as bird droppings can spread disease.

Best bird feeds

Sunflower seeds are generally considered a good basic bird feed to offer around wintertime and they usually go down a treat. Go for black seeds over striped ones as they are richer in oil and therefore better for the birds. Other options include:

  • cereal grains are high in fats and carbohydrates and will provide birds with the energy they need to fight the cold. Common cereals include oats, millet, corn and wheat.
  • seeds mixes usually include sunflower seeds, peanuts and cracked corn;
  • vegetable fats in the form of fat balls or suet blocks. These may be made entirely of fats or may also contain seeds, insects or fruit;
  • dried nuts and fruit such as almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts and raisins. The nuts mustn't be grilled or contain any added salt.
  • fruit such as pears, apples or grapes (even old or half-rotten fruit is fine);
  • remember: water is just as important to provide as food!

Water can be just as hard to find during periods of frost as it is in summer droughts. Fill up a shallow water dish twice a day and don't forget to add some warm water now and again to melt the ice, if required.

Foods to avoid feeding birds

Birds that are struggling to feed themselves over the winter will start to eat anything they can find. For this reason, it's important to be careful about what you provide and never to leave out food that is bad for birds, such as:

  • animal fats, including lard, ghee or butter; these fats are not good for birds' hearts;
  • dried legumes such as peas and lentils;
  • pet food: cat and dog food is not suited to the nutritional needs of a bird.

Foods you should never give to birds:

  • grilled, salty or sugary seeds;
  • dry bread;
  • castor seeds (toxic to birds);
  • uncooked rice;
  • dried coconut;
  • leftovers (often too salty for birds). Cooked rice or potatoes can be given to birds, provided they are not cooked in salt.
  • milk is not a suitable drink for birds; provide water only.

That said, small amounts of leftover cheese can be given.

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Bird feeders

Set up your bird feeder in a clear space. It should be positioned out of the reach of cats and sheltered from heavy winds. Seeds can also be spread over the ground. Fat balls and feeders can be hung from trees all over the garden.

Set up several feeding zones to prevent interspecies conflicts. You may notice that some feeders run down more quickly than others.

If possible, feed twice a day in the same spots at fixed times to make sure your customers keep coming back!

Never place food in a nesting box. If you want to help the birds out and enjoy them at the same time, you can place your feeders near a window so you can watch them from afar.

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If you're planning to plant ornamental trees or shrubs in the garden, go for varieties that put out berries in the winter to help feed the birds.

Viburnum, black elder, rowan, dogwood, honeysuckle, ivy, cotoneaster, pyracantha and ornamental apple trees all put out fruits in the autumn that will go down very well with tits, robins, blackbirds, greenfinches, finches, goldfinches, sparrows and many others.

What's more, deciduous shrubs and trees, such as laurel, will provide shelter from bad weather while thorny shrubs (such as pyracantha, berberis and holly) can provide a safe spot away from predators.

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Guide written by:

John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge, 83 guides

John, Passionate gardener, Cambridge

When I was young, I was already working in the family garden. Perhaps that is where my interest in plants and gardening came from. So, it was logical for me to study both plant biology and agronomy.   At the request of various publishers I have, over twenty-five years, written many books on the subject of plants and mushrooms (a subject that is close to my heart).They were mostly identification guides at first, but shortly after they were about gardening, thus renewing the first passion of my childhood.   I have also regularly collaborated with several magazines specializing in the field of gardening or more generally in nature. There is no gardener without a garden, I have cultivated mine in a small corner of Cambridge for the last thirty years and this is where I put into practice the methods of cultivation that will I advise you in as well.

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