Feeding birds in your backyard can be entertaining and educational. It can also help birds get through cold winters and long nights when food is sparse and our avian friends expend
more energy to generate heat.

This article has been updated from its original text.

Growing up near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, I had the benefit of observing northern bird ecosystems while washing the dishes. Our window feeder attracted a wide variety of birds during the day, and it wasn’t uncommon to see more than a dozen varieties over one season.

While bird feeding can be a mutually beneficial arrangement, new information suggests that we need to take care when providing food for our feathered friends or else we risk spreading disease and increasing bird fatalities. Adhering to a few best practices when setting out your winter bird feeder will improve your overall birding experience and bring better results for you and the birds.

Locating your bird feeder

When considering where to put your bird feeder, study your yard and what types of birds are in the neighborhood. Many birds prefer to have some trees and shrubs close by for cover from predators, but other factors will also help determine whether or not birds will visit your feeder for a snack.

  1. Choose a sheltered location free from disturbances. Locate your feeder close to trees and at least thirty feet away from windows (or closer than three feet).
  2. If possible, plant some vegetation close to your feeder location. Shrubs with berries will be especially popular and help attract more birds to your yard. Birds that are feeding very close to your house are also less likely to be injured from window collisions if nearby shrubs provide cover and perching space. Seeds scattered under the eaves of your roof will also stay drier (or the feeder can have its own roof).
  3. Place some leaf or other stickers on the windows to make the glass visible to birds.
  4. If you don’t have a tree near your feeder location, place feeders on a pole or hang at least two yards above the ground to keep birds safer from ground predators. Metal poles or flashing will make the pole more difficult for predators or squirrels to climb. You can also use the inverted plastic ‘bowls’ (at least 18 inches in diameter) on the pole and/or over the bird feeder to prevent squirrel and cat access. Just be sure to keep your feeder at least 10 feet from trees, railings or other structures that squirrels can use as a platform to launch a flying leap.
  5. Add a nearby birdbath, pond or fountain to make your place a veritable avian Shangri La. The sound of running or dripping water is a great bird attractant, but be sure to provide fresh water daily and clean out the bath with the bleach solution every two weeks. Heaters are now available for year-round bird baths in northern climates.

Choosing a bird feeder

There are a few different feeding behaviors exhibited by groups of birds and providing specialized bird feeders for each of them will widen the appeal of your offerings. Silo feeders suspended off the ground and filled with black oil sunflower seeds are one of the best options for attracting a variety of birds that would normally feed among the trees and shrubs. These include chickadees, grosbeaks and finches.

Special niger seed silos are also available with small slots that allow finches and siskins to feed. In contrast, scattering seed on elevated platforms is a good option for ground feeders like juncos and sparrows. A tray made of hardware cloth and window screening with space underneath will allow these seeds to drain and dry. As a rule, avoid spreading seed directly on the ground since this is more likely to attract pests and make the seed moldy, which can sicken birds.

When suet blocks are secured in a cage—suspended and attached to the underside of a board—they are accessible to the target audience but harder to reach for non-native species like starlings.

Some ingenious hopper-style feeders have counter weights that will prohibit access to feed when a large bird or squirrel applies weight to the perch. These visitors can hog the feeder and stash most or all of your seed away somewhere in the neighborhood. Once I hung a silo feeder on the clothesline and watched a red squirrel clamber upside down, foot-over-paw like a circus performer, to get the seed … until I greased the line and the squirrel went for a wild ride. It is always nice to have some locations where smaller birds can feed undisturbed, and these feeders provide that luxury.

If you do want to attract large birds, regular hopper feeders are great for birds like jays and pigeons. On the other hand, woodpeckers and nuthatches prefer suet blocks attached to a tree or the eaves of your house. When these suet blocks are secured in a cage, suspended and attached to the underside of a board, they are more accessible to the target audience but harder to reach for non-native species like starlings. They are also less likely to be raided by jays.

In some areas, like coastal regions in the Pacific Northwest, hummingbirds will stay through the winter if you supply nectar at your feeders.

Types of feed

While most birds prefer to eat the black oil sunflower seeds, the millet, oats and cracked corn included in many mixes are not universally popular. This means lots of waste and spoilage when the birds sift through the mix, along with pest problems from rats under your feeder. Instead, provide different feeders with a selection of food types so birds can select their dining location appropriately.

For hummingbirds, mix one part white sugar to four parts water, bring to a boil and let cool, and then add to your feeder. No food coloring is needed, but be sure to change the solution every three days to prevent mold. Below is a chart with some feed options and some of the birds these options will attract.

Feed TypeChickadees NuthatchesFinchesSparrows BlackbirdGrosbeaksPigeonsJaysWoodpeckers
Black oil sunflower seedsPreferPreferPreferPreferWill eatWill eat
Cracked CornWill eatPreferPrefer
Niger SeedPrefer
White milletWill eatWill eatWill eat
SuetPreferWill eatPrefer

Preventing disease

While bird feeders have been shown to increase winter survival and improve bird condition in many studies, they can also spread disease if you aren’t careful. To prevent illness among your feathered friends, clean bird feeders with warm water and soap and then a bleach solution at least every two weeks. Mix one part bleach with 9 parts water and soak the feeder for 15 minutes. Rinse the feeder and dry thoroughly before adding seed again. It’s also a good idea to move the feeder around the yard so that the fallen seeds and bird feces do not accumulate in one location, spreading mold and disease.

You can also rake and vacuum up the hulled and uneaten seeds and add them to your compost. If you do notice sick birds around the feeder and yard, stop feeding the birds for a week or two to avoid exacerbating the problem. Be sure to store bird feed in a dry location secure from rodents, which can spread disease. Metal garbage cans stored in a shed are good option.

Be sure to inspect the feed in your bird feeders frequently and discard any that is moldy. If the birds are jostling to get to the feed, consider expanding your avian restaurant by adding some more bird feeders and spreading them out to avoid crowding the birds.

Knowing when to feed

Be sure to only use suet during cold weather, because it can go rancid when the weather warms up or melt and get smeared into the birds’ feathers. In fact, it may be best not to feed most birds past April 1, since that is when many songbirds start to breed and bears emerge and enjoy snacking on bird treats. Breeding birds require more protein than what common feeds provide, and many may be better off dispersing to natural habitat in the spring. An exception is hummingbirds, which are just returning to most areas in spring for insects and nectar. Start feeding most birds again in early autumn when natural food sources begin tapering off.

Backyard bird feeding habitat

Your entire landscape can become an effective bird habitat if you plant trees, shrubs, and flowers that attract an even greater variety of birds than would come to your feeders alone. This includes plants that provide winter seeds and berries, such as black-eyed Susan, fall rye, coneflower, viburnum, crab apple, or juniper, along with coniferous trees and shrubs that provide seed cones for winter feasting. Watching which birds choose which plants will add a new dimension to your understanding of bird behavior and the changing seasons. If you create good natural habitat, and provide a safe space and some birdhouses, many of your birds will stick around through the seasons, offering a great natural pest control service.

Back at home, we delighted in watching each new arrival to our feeder, getting to know the birds as the years and seasons changed. Lying still under the dense branches of a nearby tree, I spent more than one morning observing the birds close-up, as they landed all around me singing a sweet symphony of glee.

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