Birds in Winter

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Cardinal waiting for breakfast in Whittier – January 7, 2017

The snowfall the other week had me feeding the birds each morning, which was fun and enjoyable. Fortunately, I had listened to the forecast several days before, so I knew to buy more black sunflowers because most birds prefer this seed. I also bought suet cakes to help our feathered friends through the snow and cold for extra energy to stay warm.

The cardinal in the picture reminded me it was time to clear the snow off the board so I could prepare his breakfast. It was a sight to see his stark red in contrast with the beautiful fresh white snow. A joy of winter when things are a little gloomy and gray.

Winter is a time for repose and reflection, and many gardeners take to bird feeding to fill their need for color, texture, and interaction with their landscape. Feeding birds can really turn into a good wholesome hobby for the entire family.

There are three main choices in food: large seeds, small seeds, and suet. Large seeds include black-oil sunflower, striped sunflower, safflower, peanuts, shelled corn, ear corn, and cardinal mixes that contain sunflower, safflower, and peanuts.

Birds that love sunflower seeds include Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Black-Capped and Carolina and Black-Capped Chickadees, House and Purple Finches, American Goldfinches, Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, Gray and Steller’s Jays, Nuthatches, Crossbills, and Tufted Titmouse.

Peanuts provide a nutritious diet for birds, including Black-Capped Chickadees, Nuthatches, Woodpeckers, and Blue Jays. Even Northern Cardinals will come to a peanut feeder. However, these feeds also attract mammals including squirrels and raccoons.

Safflower seeds are not as attractive to these eating machines. Cracked corn and milo are attractive to house sparrows and starlings, which will discourage other birds from visiting your feeders, and are not recommended.

Small seeds include millet and Niger thistle. Millet sprinkled on the ground or in tray feeders will attract dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, and American tree, fox, Harris’, white-throated, white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows. Niger thistle will bring American and lesser goldfinches, common and hoary redpolls, house and purple finches, and pine siskins.

Many wintering birds also benefit from suet, suet mixes, and peanut butter, including pileated, red bellied, red headed, downy and hairy woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches.

Water is critical to overwintering birds. Including a heated birdbath in your feeder set up will be an open invitation to a variety of birds. Don’t worry about birds freezing if they bathe on a cold winter day. This water is primarily for drinking. Include a variety of feeders; open or covered platform feeders, suet feeders, and cylindrical feeders will be attractive to a broad variety of birds. Place feeders close to protective cover and convenient for viewing from a window. The best feeder sites are downwind from the shelter provided by conifers, ornamental grass plantings, brushy shrub, or buildings. To avoid giving raptors or cats an advantage in catching birds, feeders should be at least 10 feet from the nearest cover where such predators could hide, like trees and deck railing. Use several feeder clusters of three or four feeders per cluster and a ground feeding site. Each cluster should include a variety of feeder types that offer larger seeds, smaller seeds, and suet.

snowy sceneSo please remember winter is a difficult time for birds. Days are often windy and cold; nights are long and even colder. The lush, berry-laden vegetation of summer and fall has withered or been consumed, and most insects have died or become dormant. Finding food can be especially challenging for birds during days with extreme cold temperatures. Setting up a backyard bird feeder makes their lives easier and ours more enjoyable. Just remember to clean feeders regularly to avoid spread of diseases between birds.

Make sure you have a pair of binoculars and a good bird identification guide close to your viewing window, sit back, and enjoy the show like I did with the Red Cardinal.

For more information, please contact Robert J. Hawk, County Extension Director, Jackson and Swain County, 488-3848 or 586-4009,

Article material from North Carolina, Cornell and Minnesota Extension