Feeding winter birds helps them survive in the cold climate of northern Minnesota. It is estimated that 43 percent of U.S. households provide food for wild birds.
Best types of bird food
Finding food is most challenging for birds during periods of extreme cold, especially when natural food sources are covered with heavy snow.
Black oil sunflower seeds top the list because they are high in fat, easy to crack, and provide the energy birds need to stay warm. For ground feeding birds, consider adding white millet or red milo. Safflower is a favorite of cardinals, and cracked corn is popular with blackbirds, finches and sparrows.
Nijer or thistle seed is a delicacy for goldfinches, siskins and redpolls. It is best served from special feeders with tiny ports that prevent seeds from spilling.
The Bird Notes newsletter about winter feeding suggests mixing a 25-pound bag of black-oil sunflower seeds, a 10-pound bag of white proso millet, and a 10-pound bag of cracked corn into a clean trash barrel. The seeds can be mixed with a broomstick and the container should have a tight lid that is waterproof. Metal containers work best to prevent rodents from having access to the food.
Feeders should be sturdy enough to withstand winter weather, tight enough to keep seeds dry, large enough so it doesn’t need to be refilled constantly, and easy to keep clean. In general, plastic or metal feeders work better than wooden ones.
There are three types of seed feeders: tray feeders, hopper feeders, and tube feeders. Tray feeders are typically placed close to the ground and attract ground-feeding birds such as juncos, sparrows and towhees. They may also be mounted on deck railings, stumps, or posts. Hopper feeders are very common and are often hung from trees, decks, and poles. These feeders are especially good for larger species such as cardinals, jays and grosbeaks.
Tube feeders are usually suspended from trees or posts and are excellent for finches, titmice and chickadees. Feeders should be close to natural cover such as trees or shrubs. Evergreens are ideal, because they shelter birds from winter winds. Loosely stacked brush piles near feeders provide additional cover for birds.
Bird Notes recommends cleaning feeders every two weeks by scrubbing them with soap and water, then dipping them into a solution of one part bleach and nine parts water. Rinse well and allow them to dry thoroughly before refilling them with seeds. Poorly maintained feeders may contribute to the spread of infectious diseases among birds.
Avoid overcrowding at feeders by placing feeders several feet apart. Taper off gradually before you go. If going away for a week or two during the winter, birds who have been at feeders will adapt and search for food elsewhere. Studies show that even birds with full access to feeders consume three-quarters of their diet from natural food sources available in their habitat.
Supplement with suet and fruit
Suet is available at most supermarket meat departments and is an excellent high-energy food that is a favorite of chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers. Offer suet in a wire basket or holder. Premade suet cakes are also available in most stores that sell bird-feeding supplies. These cakes often contain a mix of birdseed.
Mixing peanut butter with cornmeal or oatmeal also provides a high energy source for birds. Bluebirds and cedar waxwings will also enjoy fruits, such as softened dried raisins or currants or sliced fresh fruit, placed on a platform feeder or on the ground.
Consider adding a bird bath heater
Birds need water for drinking and for bathing, since clean feathers provide the best insulation. A dependable supply of fresh water attract more birds in the winter.
An immersion-style water heater will keep a birdbath unfrozen in the winter. The birdbath should be cleaned often and kept filled with fresh water. For more information see the Bird Notes “Providing Water for Birds.”
Information for this article was adapted from “Bird Notes from Sapsucker Woods,” a publication from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology that has tips for the best types of seeds and feeders along with many other helpful tips. The full article is available online, along with many other notes related to various bird topics.