Feed the Birds in the Bleak Midwinter

December 18, 2009


by Joanna Pritchard

[Ed. note: this article is part of our series of weekly family activities called Family Fun, published on Fridays.]

Feed backyard birds in winter and enjoy them up close

Feed backyard birds in winter and enjoy them up close

Seeds, berries and insects are scarce in winter. Birds flock to feeders for a welcome meal, especially in urban areas. Putting up a backyard feeder is a great way for you and your kids to see stunning wildlife up close, develop your powers of observation, and learn about local ecology. It can also transform a neglected winter yard into a vibrant scene filled with life, color and drama, without planting a single thing.

Why not add one or more of these feeders to your yard while the children are off school this Christmas? Just remember that different birds like different types of feeders and different types of seed. What you offer influences what you’ll see.

After you install your feeders, it will take a week or two for word to get out. But once a few birds find them they’ll post it on Facebook and start tweeting about it, and before you know it their entire social networks will show up in your backyard.

Basic Feeder Types and What to Fill Them With

Suet Feeder

Downy woodpeckers at suet feeder

Downy woodpeckers on a suet feeder

  • Great for winter, lots of calories to keep birds warm. Consists of a wire cage to hold a block of suet.
  • Attracts insectivores like chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, bluebirds, warblers, wrens and kinglets.
  • Double-mesh cages or top baffles (like an upside-down pie pan) help keep the bigger “bully” birds (e.g. starlings) and the squirrels out.
  • Hang it from a tree limb or attach to dead tree trunk.
  • Use purchased suet blocks or make your own (hint: birds prefer the latter).
  • A must-have for winter birdfeeding.

American goldfinches at finch feeder

American goldfinches at finch feeder

Finch Feeder

  • Tall tubular feeder with tiny openings, metal perches best.
  • Use Niger black thistle seed.
  • Hang from a tree or a pole at least 6′ off the ground.
  • Attracts goldfinches and housefinches. We love watching male goldfinches gradually turn bright yellow as spring becomes summer; they also have a very cute, squeaky call.

Platform Feeder

  • A tray or a table, with either a wire mesh or solid wood surface. Can be on legs or a pole.
  • Use birdseed mix including millet, sunflower, corn and peanut pieces.
  • Attracts cardinals, red-wing blackbirds, doves, juncos, towhees, various sparrows and many others.
  • Raise 1 – 2 feet off the ground and position at least 10′ away from bushes cats could hide in and pounce from.

Tufted titmouse and northern cardinal on basic pole mounted feeder

Tufted titmouse and northern cardinal on basic pole mounted feeder

Pole Mounted or Suspended Basic Feeder

  • Accommodates a wide variety of birds, including cardinals, bluejays, woodpeckers, finches nuthatches, chickadees, titmice, grosbeaks.
  • Place at least 6′ off the ground.
  • Use black sunflower seed to attract a diversity of birds. This is an all-around favorite seed with lots of energy to combat winter temps.
  • Keep squirrels and larger birds away with a baffle or by using one with a spring in the perch which closes access to seed when a greater weight sits on it.

Hummingbird Feeder

  • Hummers migrate to the tropics in the fall so you don’t need to put one out until spring.
  • Many plastic or glass variations exist, some very ornamental. Red or yellow flower-shaped openings for sipping nectar.
  • Fill with home-made nectar using no food coloring. Boil a 4:1 mixture of water:sugar for 1 minute. Let it cool. Hey presto! Nectar.
  • Hang from a tree or a pole near enough to see the tiny birds. Best if perches in trees are available nearby. Get ready for duelling hummingbird guys in late summer.

General Points to Remember

  • Include your children in purchasing/making the birdfeeder and seed, setting it up, and filling it.
  • Place the feeder where you can see it from inside your house. Caution: you may become addicted to monitoring the bird action.
  • Turning off indoor lights makes it harder for birds outside to see you inside, and less likely they’ll fly off in fright when you reach for your binoculars.
  • Put feeders (except low platform feeders) near a tree or shrub if possible. Most birds like to perch in a bush for protection near a feeder while they wait their turn. Some need a tree trunk to crack open a seed against. However, remember squirrels can jump about 6′.
  • Filling the feeders regularly is fun for children of any age, from toddlers (with extra help!) on up.
  • Make sure you keep the seed supply in a place squirrels etc. can’t get to it.
  • Some sort of scoop/funnel is very helpful.

Make or buy a bird bath to keep a year-round supply of clean water for the birds to drink and bathe in. Keep it clean and filled up, another task children can do. (In summer, keep mosquito larvae out by replacing water daily or using BT dunks if no young children can access them).

Some yards look stunning in winter.  Many look a little sad when the flowers and foliage are gone. But what makes our garden always beautiful, despite the less than perfect winter landscaping, is the amazing variety of birds who love our yard passionately because of our feeders and the habitat we’ve created to welcome them. We’ve planted shrubs and perennials over the years that attract birds, but adding feeders and a bird bath are very quick and effective by themselves. If you live in an apartment, there are feeders that attach to windows so you can observe your little customers closely while they dine.


Cornell Lab of Ornithology has extensive information on birdfeeding.

In Part 2 of this topic, on January 8, 2010, we’ll give some basic tips on identifying and recording what you see.

Joanna Pritchard is a mother of three, a community advocate, and a Georgia Master Naturalist.

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