Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ February 2009

Attracting Birds to Your Yard in Winter and Early Spring

By Sheila Emond

The most important resources birds will be looking for in the cold winter months are high-fat foods and unfrozen fresh water.  Shelter from severe weather and cover from birds of prey are added bonuses.  In March and April, local birds will begin looking for nesting sites.  Early spring is when you will start seeing migrating birds stopping for a rest and a meal.

Foods with high-fat content will provide extra energy for surviving winter’s cold.  Suet is an excellent winter food, especially for woodpeckers, flickers, titmice, chickadees, jays, and nuthatches.  Peanut butter — alone or mixed with corn meal or seeds, and applied directly to a tree trunk or on a specialty feeder — will attract many species.

Black oil sunflower and safflower are excellent choices and can be used in most feeder types.  Nuts, while higher priced than many seeds, are a very good supplement for winter feeding and are eaten by most birds.  They can be offered alone (in which case they need a feeder designed for them) or in mixtures with sunflower and other seeds in standard tube, platform, or hopper feeders.

Millet strewn on the ground when there is no snow, or on low platform feeders, will keep juncos, white-throated and song sparrows, carolina wrens, mourning doves, and other ground feeding species happy.  Keep nyjer feeders full for your goldfinches.  They are still here and are still hungry!  Try a nyjer/sunflower mix, formulated to work in nyjer feeders, for an extra nutritional punch.

Freeze-dried or roasted mealworms are a good source of energy for insect-eating birds.  Place near water to help robins, wrens, and others find them.  Switch to live mealworms once freezing temperatures pass.  In mid to late April, start setting out fruit, jelly, and nectar for returning hummingbirds and orioles.

When the weather drops below freezing, water for drinking and bathing becomes a scare commodity.  You will be surprised at the birds you will see at the baths in winter.  A separate heater can be used in most baths, or baths with built-in heaters are readily available.  If you are at home all day and can keep fresh water available, that is fine.  Heaters don’t actually “heat” the water, they just keep it above freezing.  Once freezing weather is passed, a device that keeps water moving helps attract more birds.  Clay, ceramic, and glass baths will normally not withstand freezing temperatures and should be put away for the winter months.

In March and April it is time to clean out any existing nest boxes and put up new ones.  Most common cavity-nesting birds for our area are wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, and bluebirds in more open areas, but there are also nest boxes available for larger birds like woodpeckers, flickers, owls, and wood ducks.  Hole size is an important determining factor in which birds will have access to the box.  Putting up two or more nest boxes improves the chance of getting chickadees to nest in one, both because they like to have a choice of locations and are less likely to be pushed out by wrens if there a spot for them, too.

A final note:  There is a common misconception that birds will become dependent on humans for food.  Although your feeders get empty fast, it is still a small percentage of the birds’ total diet, and they will find other food when feeders are not available.  Backyard feeding is helpful and may allow some individual birds make it through winter, but there is no reason to stop feeding at any particular time of year to “train” birds to find their own food.  There is something wonderful to see at your feeders all year, including migrating species in spring and fall, different resident species in winter and summer, and the joyful sight of seeing baby birds being raised by their parents.  So provide food, water, shelter, and nesting locations and enjoy this wonderful hobby all year long!

[At the time this article was written, Emond was the owner of the Wild Bird Center in Wheaton, Maryland.]    ■

   © 2009 NFCCA  [Source:]