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Feeding wild birds in winter

In much of North America, winter is a difficult time for birds. Days are often windy and cold; nights are long and even colder. Lush vegetation has withered or been consumed, and most insects have died or become dormant. Finding food can be especially challenging for birds on extremely cold days. Setting up a backyard feeder makes their lives easier and ours more enjoyable.

Tufted titmouse eating nuts
Tufted titmouse eating nuts
© Maria Corcacas

Types of bird food

During spring and summer, most songbirds eat insects and spiders, which are highly nutritious, abundant, and, for the most part, easily captured. During fall and winter, nonmigratory songbirds shift their diets to fruits and seeds to survive. This is the time of year when bird feeding enthusiasts roll out the welcome mat and set the table. The question is, what to serve? To attract a diversity of birds, provide a variety of food types.

Which seed types should I provide?

Black-oil sunflower seeds attract the greatest number of species. These seeds have a high meat-to-shell ratio, they are nutritious and high in fat. Their small size and thin shells make them easy for small birds to handle and crack. Several studies, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Seed Preference Test, show that this high-energy food is the favorite of most birds that visit feeders. Striped sunflower seeds are popular with larger-beaked birds. These striped seeds are larger and have a thicker seed coat than black-oil sunflower.

Peanuts, and tree nuts like almonds, cashews, pecans and pistachios are enjoyed by jays, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, Carolina wrens and titmice. If you don't want squirrels "going nuts" for these foods, try using a squirrel-resistant feeder. Woodstream Corporation (www.birdfeeders.com) and Droll Yankees (www.drollyankees.com) offer many options for squirrel-resistant feeders.

Millet is a small round seed. It comes in white and red varieties; most birds prefer white proso millet over red. Nyjer®, or thistle seed, is a delicacy for small finches such as goldfinches, siskins, and redpolls. Offering the small-sized, premium-priced Nyjer seeds in special Nyjer feeders will provide more value for your money. These feeders come in either a sock form with a small mesh fabric, or a tube feeder with tiny ports that prevent the seeds from spilling out. Finches will pull the seeds individually through the mesh or ports to enjoy them.

Some birds, most notably cardinals, appreciate safflower which comes in a white variety and a more nutritious golden version. Safflower has limited appeal for nuisance visitors such as starlings, grackles and squirrels. Dried, whole-kernel corn is favored by jays, pigeons, doves, quail, and pheasants. Cracked corn, however, is easier to eat for blackbirds, finches, and sparrows.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Seed Preference Test found that most ground-feeding bird species prefer white millet to black oil sunflower seed, but many tree-feeding species prefer sunflower seed. Birds' feeding habits vary based on weather patterns, geographic region, season, and individual taste, so you may find exceptions to these guidelines. Experiment to see what your birds like best!

Lyric Supreme Mix contains 12 ingredients to attract the widest variety of birds, with 50% sunflower seeds and nuts. Lyric Cardinal Mix is a premium mix featuring sunflower seeds and golden safflower, favorites of cardinals, jays and grosbeaks.

Content for this article is provided through a partnership with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and originally published in BirdNotes Number 1: Winter Bird Feeding.

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