Backyard bird watching is a popular pastime. Over 300,000 bird lovers and participants from 190 countries took part in the 2021 Great Backyard Bird Count! Besides proving to be a relaxing (and adorable) sight, backyard bird watching is a great way to reconnect with nature when you’re limited to going out into nature yourself, such as the winter months.
Should You Feed Your Backyard Birds During Winter?
What better way to lure birds into your backyard than with a bird feeder stuffed with their favorite fruits and seeds? But is it really beneficial to feed wild birds? The great divide boils down to two main arguments:
- You’re either helping your feathered friends in a world where so much of their natural resources have been depleted or
- You’re indirectly harming them by making them dependent on humans for food and thus weakening their natural foraging abilities.
Keep reading for a breakdown on whether feeding backyard birds is a good idea. We’ll also discuss a few of the best-proven bird feeder ideas and fillers.
Feeding birds is usually helpful, especially if it’s limited to periods of the year where a variety of birds need more energy, such as during temperature extremes or migratory seasons or when natural food sources are low during late winter or early spring. A study in Wisconsin found that leaving food out for wild birds during winter significantly increased their survival rate (69%) compared to those left to fend for themselves (37%).
Most birds don’t need additional feeding during the late spring and summer months. As temperatures get warmer, birds shift their diet towards insects while nesting and rearing their young. Leaving food out in your feeder can damage bird populations as young birds can become dependent on humans, lacking natural foraging instincts.
This all depends on the bird species in question. For example, hummingbirds benefit from some nectar during the hot months to fuel their metabolism. Species like goldfinches have different nesting patterns, so they benefit from some nyjer (Thistle) seeds during the summer.
Feed in Moderation
If you’re still undecided on whether feeding birds in the winter is a good idea, the National Audobon Society suggests asking the three following questions:
1. Is the species at risk?
Although it might seem like a good idea to help endangered birds, feeding them can cause more harm than good. Feeding “endangered,” “threatened,” or “special concern” birds can manipulate significant food webs, such was the case with the Florida Scrub-Jays.
2. Will feeding the bird negatively change its behavior?
If feeding puts the bird in any danger, such as close to busy roads or at risk of predators, then this should be avoided. Bird feeding can sometimes change migratory patterns or cause behavior changes. Birds can begin to associate humans with food and become pesky, becoming a long-term issue for conservation efforts.
3. Is the food safely provided and of good quality?
The quality of food left for birds is extremely important to ensure that the birds survive the harsh weather. While it usually varies depending on the species, high-fat options such as lard, nuts, seeds, and suet are good choices. We’ve listed a few of the best winter bird seed ideas below.
Best things to feed backyard birds in winter:
- Black sunflower seeds are popular options renowned for being the best winter bird seed.
- Black oil sunflower seeds are slightly larger and more calorie-dense, making them an excellent option for cold months.
- White proso millet can be bought as seeds or sprays, offering birds more variety. They’re high in protein and loved by sparrows.
- Peanuts are high in calories but require a unique mesh feeder. Unsalted peanut butter is a good alternative (unless it has additional ingredients). Some options exist on the market for bird-safe peanut butter – a perfect treat for wild birds!
- Cracked corn is versatile and easy to come across! It’s usually found in most bird seed mixes.
Feed with Caution
Feeders should be placed where birds are safe from predators, including domestic cats. Keep the feeders safe (around 12 feet) away from shrubs and bushes. This way, birds will safely fly for cover, but predators aren’t close enough to strike from hiding. Ground-feeding isn’t recommended due to predators.
Also, place feeders within safe distances of windows. Their reflection can sometimes confuse birds, causing them to collide and injure themselves. The Humane Society suggests keeping feeders either further than 30 feet from a window or closer than 3 feet.
Best Bird Feeder for Winter
If you’re ready to set up the best bird feeder to help your feathered friends, you can make one out of items lying around your house. With so many simple DIY winter bird feeder ideas, we’ve listed our favorite (and quickest) below!
Bird feeding is a great hobby connecting us to nature from the comfort of our home, and when done correctly, it’s beneficial for our feathered friends during the cold and dark months. So, after a bit of care and patience in choosing the correct bird seed, feeders, and spot in your backyard, you’ll be seeing beautiful birds throughout the season.