Birds make a colorful accent in the garden anytime of year, but particularly in winter when the landscape turns a monotonous gray. Their musical voices lift our spirits as they flit among the branches of trees and shrubs seeking food and shelter. If you are not one of the millions of Americans who already enjoy backyard birdwatching, winter is the perfect time to start.
Wintertime is a special season for most birds. Those that migrate are faced with long journeys through unfamiliar territories. And those that stay put find that their favorite foods are scarce or unavailable. Backyard birdwatchers can take advantage of this seasonal situation by offering them a ready food supply. The slim pickings this time of year mean that feathered foragers are more likely to feast at backyard feed stations.
Putting out feeders stocked with the right kind of seed is a great first step to winning over your winter visitors. Experienced bird watchers learn quickly that birds have distinct preferences for particular types of feeders and food choices. To help you make the best selection, we’ve compiled this general guide that explains those preferences and how to cater to them to attract the widest variety of avian visitors.
There are four basic types of feeders: tubes, house or hopper style, platforms, and suet holders. There are also a few specialty feeders. Which kind of feeder you choose will depend primarily on which types of birds you hope to attract.
The Droll Yankees Whipper Feeder is an extremely effective squirrel proof feeder. It comfortably holds several medium sized birds, such as Cardinals. But when a squirrel tries to grab on to the perch, it will collapse and the squirrel will simply slide off the feeder.
Tube feeders are hollow cylinders that have multiple openings with perches. Tube feeders are available in two sizes. Those with larger perches for medium sized birds like cardinals, bluejays, grackles, and robins; and those with smaller perches usually reserved for small birds like chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, nuthatches and finches. The small perches discourage the large birds, as well as squirrels. Many also have baffles or wire screens to help keep squirrels off. One advantage of tube feeders is that the seed inside is more likely to remain dry in wet weather. Some tube feeders have openings large enough for sunflower seeds to fit through while others are designed to hold tiny nyjer seeds, the favorite food of finches.
Duncraft’s squirrel-proof hopper feeder has a panel that pulls down over the feeder ports when an animal heavier than a bird tries to perch or pull on it.
Hopper feeders look similar to a miniature house or gazebo. They’re great for nearly any type of bird and usually large enough to store several days worth of seed. You fill them through the roof, allowing the seed to gradually drain out through the bottom onto a small platform at the base. The hopper’s roof and side panels offer some protection from wind and rain while allowing birds to perch on the base and eat from the platform. The lift-off roof makes these feeders easy to refill. The side panels are usually made of clear plastic or plexiglass so that you can see when the feeder needs to be refilled.
The American Bird Seed Saver Multi-Use Feeder from Droll Yankees is a versatile feeder that caters to a wide variety of birds. A 10 in. height adjustable domed cover allows for bird selectivity and protects food from the elements.
Some birds prefer to feed by pecking at the ground to locate seeds or insects. Platform feeders simulate this foraging method by allowing the birds to stand on the platform tray along with their food.
Platform feeders are those with any flat, raised surface. Platform feeders are attractive to virtually all birds, however, they’ll also attract squirrels, raccoons and other not-so-welcome wildlife. Their open style also leaves seeds exposed to the weather, making it very important to keep the platform clean and the seeds fresh. When placed low to the ground, they are most likely to attract juncos, doves, robins and sparrows. Higher platforms will attract jays, woodpeckers, grosbeaks, cardinals and many other species.
A suet feeder is a wire cage designed to hold a suet cake. Suet cakes are generally made from lard or other dense fat mixed with various combinations of dried fruit, nuts, seeds, insects, and other tasty morsels. The mix is pressed into a hard cake and placed inside the feeder.
Suet cages are designed to hold, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, or insects that have been pressed into a cake called “suet.” Suet is one of the best cold-weather foods you can offer. In winter, many birds need high energy foods to make up for the scarcity of insects that they feed on the rest of the year. Suet is the perfect winter substitute and is popular with most birds. Suet is a high energy formulation of animal fat and other ingredients that provides a quick source of heat and energy. It’s made into a dough and baked into a cake that fits conveniently into a standard-size wire cage, or suet log holder. It’s also a great low-maintenance feeder. It only needs to be refilled once every week or so and is relatively easy to clean. Plus, it comes in scrumptuous flavors like orange, cherry, berry, peanut and raisin. Yum! But suet is best offered only in the cooler months. In the heat of summer suet cakes can spoil quickly.
A ruby throated humming bird drinks from her nectar-holding feeder.
Specialty feeders include nectar dispensers for hummingbirds, window feeders, finch socks (for holding nyjer seed), fly-through feeders, and decorative items.
Goldfinches like to cling to the sides of a tree trunk – or finch sock – and pull seeds out through the mesh fabric.
Premium seed brands have less debris, fewer empty shells, and a minimum of less desirable seeds, so you get better value for your money. Marshall Grain proudly features high-quality seeds and seed mixes from Coles and Wild Delight. Along with all the popular seeds types, you’ll find various fruit and nut blends, suet cakes, hummingbird nectar, and special treats like freeze-dried and live meal worms.
Water for Drinking & Bathing
Even in winter birds have the constant need for fresh, clean water. In North Texas, water sources don’t normally freeze over in cold weather, and birds enjoy having it available near their food table. Of course, they also love an occasional, refreshing splash in a bath. A bird bath, fountain, or other water feature in your garden will enhance your feeding station and help attract more feathered visitors. Plus it will look terrific in your garden all year long.
Good Hygiene, Good Health
Your visitors depend on you to maintain proper hygiene on and around all bird feeders and bird baths to prevent the spread of avian diseases.
Typically bird baths are simple, shallow bowls that, if not properly maintained, allow water to stagnate. Stagnation leads to the growth of algae, mold, and bacteria that can spread diseases among your avian friends. Stagnant water also attracts mosquitoes looking to breed. Regular cleaning is essential. Scrub all water sources out regularly with a mild bleach solutions (nine parts water).
One way to help prevent stagnation and keep water fresh longer is with a Water Wiggler. Water Wigglers are weather-proof, battery powered devices that agitate and aerate the water so that it stays fresh. You’ll find Water Wigglers, along with cleaning supplies, in our Wild Bird Department.
Water Wigglers keep water moving to maintain freshness, prevent freezing, and keep mosquitoes from breeding. A battery inside the Water Wiggler dome operates small propellers that continuously stir the water inside the bird bath.
Keep Food Fresh
Keep all foods dry and free of mold or mildew. Keep feeders clean by scrubbing them out regularly with a mild bleach solutions (nine parts water). Make sure your feeders are completely dry before refilling them with fresh food. Never use old food. Rake up spilled seeds, hulls and bird feces at least weekly. If you notice any dead or sick birds in your yard, stop all feeding immediately. Discard any seed left in your feeders and disinfect them. Wait at least a week before you resume feeding. And always wear gloves to protect yourself as well!
Offering multiple feeders helps reduce the risk of disease by allowing each bird more room, and will, in turn attract more birds. Feeding and watching them gives us the opportunity to enjoy nature right from the kitchen window. In the process, we may even learn something about ourselves.
Ultimately the type of feeder you choose will depend on what types of birds you want to attract. The chart below provides an overview of preferences for common bird species.
Wild Bird Foods & Feeders
Primary Food Products Recommended
TUBE (Large Holes)
Titmice, Chickadees, Finches, Jays, Grosbeaks, Nuthatches, Redpolls, Pine Siskins, etc.
Cardinal Food Nut and Fruit Mixes Seed Mixes
TUBE (Small Holes)
Finches, Nuthatches, Chickadees.
Finch Food Mix Fine Sunflower Chips
Cardinals, Songbirds, Jays, Titmice, Finches, Chickadees, Nuthatches, Buntings, Grosbeaks, etc.
Cardinal Food Fruit and Berry Mixes Nut and Seed Mixes Woodpecker, Nuthatch and Chickadee Foods Dove & Quail Food Shelled Peanuts Safflower Seed Black Oil Sunflower Seed
Cardinals, Songbirds, Jays, Titmice, Finches, Chickadees, Nuthatches, Buntings, Grosbeaks, etc.
Cardinal Food Fruit and Nut Mix Nut and Seed Mix Woodpecker, Nuthatch And Chickadee Food Dove & Quail Food Shelled Peanuts Safflower Seed Black Oil Sunflower Seed
Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Chickadees and other clinging birds.
Woodpecker, Nuthatch And Chickadee Food Nut and Seed Mixes Fruit and Nut Mixes Shelled Peanuts
Squirrels, Chipmunks, Raccoons, Jays.
Squirrel Food Corn on the Cob
Ask Our Experts
Marshall Grain has a complete Wild Bird Department dedicated to birdwatching with everything you need to launch your new hobby, or add to your existing offerings. Our friendly staff is available to help you make the best choice for your needs.
Read More About Bird Feeders:
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