How to attract birds in the winter

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Some songbirds stick around for the cold months. Here’s how to attract birds in the winter. 

How to attract birds in the winter
Bluejays are common visitors to winter feeders as they are among the birds who do not migrate south in colder months. | Julia Bayly

Not every bird heads south for the winter.

In fact, hundreds of species and varieties of songbirds stick around in northern climates, riding out the winter often with a little help from non-feathered friends.

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“Winter is the time of year that if people are going to feed birds, I would say roll out the welcome mat and set the dinner table for them,” said Adrienne Leppold, wildlife biologist and bird group researcher with Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “In winter the [bird] species that stick around are going to shift from eating insects to eating seeds and fruits.”

It can be a lean time for birds, Leppold said as cold weather and deep snowpack can limit access to natural foods upon which the birds rely.

“During the winter supplemental feeding can help birds survive during really severe stretches of bad weather,” Leppold said.

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The most commonly sighted birds that stick around northern states in the winter are chickadees, bluejays, snow buntings, junkos, nuthatches, woodpeckers, titmice and song sparrows.

Time to clean

Now is the time, according to Leppold, to prepare for the winter feeding by prepping food and water stations and stocking up on what birds like to eat.

When it comes to winter bird feeding, forget spring cleaning. Fall is the time to get feeders spruced up.

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“Bring your feeders in and clean out whatever is left over from the previous [feeding] season,” Leppold said. “Use a solution of nine parts water to one part bleach to clean the feeders and rinse them out completely and let them dry before setting them back out”

This, she said, will help reduce the transmission of diseases to and between birds.

Leppold recommends cleaning feeders once a month during the winter feeding season.

“It’s not uncommon in late winter or in the spring to get calls from people who find dead birds,” Leppold said. “The deaths are usually a result of salmonella or conjunctivitis.”

Songbirds are not the tidiest of eaters and create a bit of a mess under feeders with spilled seed, husks and their own droppings.

“Raking up and keeping the area under feeders clean is a must,” Leppold said. “That old seed and waste can get wet, harbor moisture and be a breeding ground for molds and bacteria.”

How to attract with bird food

Snow buntings are ground feeders and can often be seen below bird feeders during the winter months helping themselves to the spilled food. | Julia Bayly

Different kinds of food will attract different birds, but one thing they all seem to agree upon is black oil sunflower seeds.

“If you were going to pick one food, I’d pick the sunflower seeds,” Leppold said. “It will attract the most diverse number of species and is suitable for a large number of them to eat and [sunflower seeds] have a fairly high energy content that the birds need.”

Other food options are cracked corn, thistle seed, dried mealworms, unsalted peanuts and suet.

Gardeners can save and dry seeds from pumpkins, squash, zucchinis and cucumbers to serve to the birds during the winter.

Different types of feeders will attract different types of birds, according to Leppold.

Wire-mesh tube feeders, for example, are perfect for birds that can cling like chickadees, woodpeckers or nuthatches who can grasp the the side of the feeder while selecting food. The design also prevents larger, non-clinging birds, like jays from hogging all the feed.

“Some birds like to land on the feeder and others are ground feeders,” Leppold said. “So the more varied your feeders the more birds you will attract.”

It’s also a good idea to provide a feeder stocked with suet made from animal fat.

“It has a good, high fat content the birds need in the winter,” Leppold said. “You can get suet prepackaged at a store or ask your butcher to save any meat fat trimmings for you.”

Winter water for birds

When the temperatures drop, water freezes and finding sources of open water becomes a bit of a challenge for over-wintering birds.

Installation of a heated water source or bird bath can be a great help to these birds.

“Don’t put it right next to your feeder because the food and waste will get into the water,” Leppold said. “You want something that is fairly shallow — even an overturned garbage can lid can work — that your can insert a heater into.”

Most songbirds do not need to drink a huge amount of water over the winter, as they obtain much of their hydration through their food, eating snow or drinking ice droplets.

“The bigger issue for the birds is bathing,” Leppold said. “They maintain their feathers and the insulating properties of their feathers by preening and bathing in water.”

Even in the far north there are enough sources of open and running water for most of the birds, but the heated bird baths are a help to them and attract the birds for those who enjoy watching them.

Once the food and water sources are set up, the only thing left to do is keep the food coming and sit back and enjoy the daily bird show.

“If you really care about the birds getting enough food all winter, also make sure to keep the feeder clean of snow,” Leppold said. “And keep your cats inside.”

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