Winter Bird Feeding Tips

When the chill of winter sets in, your customers may begin to worry about the birds struggling to survive the cold.

The key to a successful winter bird feeding season for your store is providing your customers with everything they need to make it happen. You can provide advice as well as stocking the key birder supplies, including bird food, feeders, waterers and bird houses.

How do Birds Survive the Winter?

Your customers may wonder how birds can even manage to stay around when cold weather, snow and ice get a grip on your area. Believe it or not, birds are well-equipped for winter weather.

Feathers

Birds have a built in winter coat thanks to their layered plumage. Feathers overlap extensively, which helps birds keep heat close to their bodies. Even when flying , they stay quite warm.

If birds do need to warm up, they have learned to expose their backs to the sun and fluff up their feathers. Why their backs? This region has a large surface area and birds essentially use their backs as a personal solar heater! When they’re warm enough, they flatten their feathers to the normal position and that heat is further trapped in their insulating feathers.

Feet

Another adaptation is that their exposed feet do not get cold very easily. Unlike humans, our feathered friends have a fine network of arteries and veins that run through their exposed skin. Their blood circulates into those areas and keeps them from getting cold.

Beyond that amazing internal plumbing, the scales on bird feet and legs also minimize heat loss.

Flight

The ability to fly is another huge advantage in the winter. This mobility helps birds find food and water relatively fast when compared to land-based animals.

Likewise, birds are less likely to be exposed to severe weather because they can escape it quickly. That means birds don’t face the same exposure risks we do – they rarely get wet in freezing weather! (Sure, ducks and other water birds get wet, but they have even better insulation than your typical songbird!)

Attracting Birds in Winter

To make a yard an inviting place, tell your customers that winter birdscaping is absolutely vital! By doing so, they will be guaranteed regular visits from a variety of birds.

Natural Cover for Birds

One of the best ways to guarantee regular appearances by backyard birds is to provide them with natural cover throughout the winter. Evergreen shrubs and coniferous trees are great shelters for birds during harsh winter weather. This vegetation protects birds from the wind, predators and precipitation.

Another option is to create a brush pile that birds can use for roosting. Even this seemingly sparse protection provides them with a safe place to rest and works as a hiding place from predators.

Winter Bird Houses

Very few birds raise young during the winter, but bird houses do not go unused during the cold season. Many bird houses are occupied on cold winter nights, often by chickadees and other cavity nesters.

Of course, bird houses aren’t the perfect winter getaway. They are made to draw in the air from outside – a design meant to cool young birds during hot summers.

Your customers can winterize bird houses by adding some insulating material, such as wood chips or bits of fabric, early in the fall. Just make sure you clean it out in the early spring!

Some bird houses, however, are designed to convert for winter use! These houses have a front wall that can be removed and rotated for winter use. By putting the entrance hole at the bottom of the feeder, it traps more heat for its winter users.

Winter Bird Nesting

We mentioned above that very few birds will rear young in the winter, that means they don’t really make nests either! Nests are only used to keep eggs and young protected.

When people say a bird is “nesting overnight,” they really should be saying that a bird is “roosting” for the night!

In the winter, birds prefer to roost in a sheltered spot that keeps them safe from predators while protecting them from wind and precipitation. Ideal roosting spots include inside old or unused buildings, inside evergreen trees and shrubs, on tree branches, in dense brush or in shelter provided by tree cavities or other natural resources.

Other birds will simply gather together on a branch or wire, using their collective body heat to add to their warmth.

You can help birds survive long winter nights by providing the shelter types above. You can also create a roost pocket, a woven shelter that retains heat better than a bird house. You can hang it just like a bird house.

Best Winter Bird Feeders

When selecting a bird feeder for winter feeding, your customers should seek out a number of features that help birds while they are feeding and provide some protection from the weather. The features they should look for are:

  • Wide lids – Bird feeders with a wide lid are great for winter bird feeding. The lid helps to shield seeds from rain, ice and sleet. The lid will also keep snow from accumulating on feeder trays. Large, overhanging lids also help birds. A large feeder lid can provide a buffer from harsh weather and allow birds to further retain body heat.
  • Moisture control features – Some bird feeders, including the all-metal NO/NO® mesh feeders, expose seeds to the elements. This is actually OK. The seeds may get drenched by rain or sleet, but they’ll dry off very quickly since they’re exposed to the air. What your customers don’t want is a bird feeder that offers no way for the moisture to evaporate or drain from it. The best winter bird feeders will have drain holes in the feeding tray and hopper.
  • Feeding styles – Be aware that different species feed in different ways. Some birds, such as Northern Cardinals, prefer to feed from trays. Others, including the White-breasted Nuthatch, like to climb on a feeder and pluck out seeds. Feeders that only allow small birds, such as Black-capped Chickadees, to eat from them are also an option.
  • Squirrel proofing – Squirrels are active all year long, so your customers will need to protect their bird seed from them. A squirrel-resistant feeder should include at least one or two anti-squirrel features, such as all-metal construction or a weight-activated shutoff.
  • Easy to remove – At least once every two weeks, bird feeders should be taken down and cleaned with warm, soapy water. That means your customers need a feeder that’s easy to remove from its hanging hook, line or pole. In the dead of winter, they will not want to be outside working with a bunch of tools just to remove a feeder!

Water for Birds in the Winter

Another great way to help birds in the winter is by providing them with fresh, unfrozen water. While thirsty birds will eat snow, it’s an energy drain as they have to waste valuable body heat to unthaw it.

As backyard bird enthusiasts, your customers can help them conserve that energy for more important things. All you need to do is provide your birds with a supply of fresh water. Do that with a bird bath or bird waterer.

Of course, if the outdoor temperatures are below freezing, they will have to take steps to keep the water ice-free. For bird baths, try placing an oven-heated brick in the water – one brick in the morning should be enough. For bird waterers, take them inside at night to unthaw and put them back out in the morning.

If you’re worried about your birds getting wet in your bird bath and freezing to death, don’t fret too much. Their instincts will let them know when to take a bath in the winter and how to dry off afterward.

Winter Bird Feeding

What bird seed should your customers offer birds in the winter? There are several options:

  • Black-oil Sunflower Seed – Easily the best, all-around bird seed, black-oil sunflower seed will draw in a huge variety of species thanks to the fact that it’s packed with protein. Big birds and small birds alike love this seed!
  • Safflower Seed – Advise the use of safflower seed if squirrels are a problem for your customers. Squirrels don’t like to eat this seed, but birds don’t seem to mind. Among others, you can expect to see Northern Cardinals, grosbeaks and chickadees at a feeder filled with safflower seed.
  • Peanuts – Another high-protein option for bird feeders are in-the-shell peanuts or peanut pieces. Birds absolutely love peanuts, but so do many other animals! Still, there’s no denying that a steady supply of peanuts will be a big boost to your birds through a tough winter.
  • Nyjer® Seed – Another anti-squirrel option is Nyjer® seed, which most varieties of finch will happily gobble up. This tiny, slender seed requires a specialized finch feeder to hold it.
  • Suet – For the fall and winter, another option is suet. Suet cakes are made of rendered beef fat, seeds and grains. This high-energy diet is especially important in colder zones where a bird’s metabolism has to work extra hard just to keep warm. Look for bird feeders specially designed to hold suet cakes.

Outdoor Winter Bird Feeding Activities

As bird feeding enthusiasts, your customers can’t sit inside and watch the birds all day long. Bird feeders and waterers require some attention, whether it’s winter, spring, summer or fall.

In cold and wet weather, birds are likely to visit feeders more often! That means your customers have a few things to do:

Refill feeders daily

Fill feeders every day through the winter, but put out only a quantity of seed that the birds can eat before sundown. This is especially important where raccoons, bears, deer and other animals are a problem. By providing just enough for the birds, they’re keeping those nocturnal visitors from recognizing a bird feeder as a useful food source.

Stamp snow down

Many birds, including juncos and doves, don’t feed directly from a feeder. Instead, they will eat underneath the feeder, where they snap up seeds that other birds have dropped. To help those birds, stamp down the snow under the feeder after a snow storm. This helps these birds find seeds easier. Cleaning up discarded hulls regularly is also important because removing debris gives the grass underneath a chance to recover in the spring.

Break up ice

If your customer has a pond or other outdoor water feature, suggest that they break up the layer of ice that may have formed over the water. Birds don’t have the strength or weight to do this, and they need access to water on a daily basis. The same should be done for bird baths, but tell them to be careful because the cold can weaken the bird bath and a sharp blow could cause it to break!

Clean feeders

Whether it’s summer, spring, fall or winter, a clean bird feeder is vital to birds! Dirty feeders can transfer disease and illnesses from bird to bird. Be sure customers know to throw away any uneaten seeds and discarded hulls. With that complete, they can rinse the feeder off and scrub it with warm, soapy water.

Regional Bird Feeding & MigrationN

Since birds stick to certain ranges throughout the year, some regions of North America will see different birds throughout the winter. These birds may migrate from sub-arctic regions to the more temperate climates of the U.S. and Canada. Some birds stay in a region all year long. These birds are called “resident birds.” Still other birds may leave the continent for the winter.

Here’s a quick look at which birds each region can expect:

Winter Bird Feeding Guide
Food Quality Information
U.S. Northeast Mid October Blue Jay, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal
U.S. Atlantic Coast Late November Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal
U.S. Southeast Mid December Carolina Wren, Fox Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow
U.S. Midwest Late October Dark-eyed Junco, Purple Finch, Red-breasted Nuthatch
U.S. Texas Late December American Goldfinch, Cedar Waxwing, Spotted Towhee
U.S. Rocky Mountains Late September American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin, White-breasted Nuthatch
U.S. Plains/Canada Plains Late September Black-capped Chickadee, Common Redpoll, Pinyon Jay
U.S. Southwest January Evening Grosbeak, Pyrrhuloxia, Western Scrub-Jay
U.S. Pacific Northwest/Canada B.C Early November Anna’s Hummingbird, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Pine Siskin
U.S. Alaska Late August Boreal Chickadee, Common Redpoll, Gray Jay
Canada Ontario and Quebec Early September Blue Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Pine Siskin
Canada Maritimes Late August Common Redpoll, Purple finch, Red-breasted Nuthatch
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