Caring For Birds In Winter

Feeding birds is an enjoyable and rewarding activity and provides nutritional support during the winter when the natural food supply is low and if done correctly provides an opportunity to learn bird identification and observe a variety of species closely.

The most important things are to site your feeders within 1 m of windows to reduce window collisions, to choose the appropriate nutritional food and to clean your feeders regularly (at least every 2 weeks).

Please visit the Stewardship Centre for BC website which has everything you need to know about feeding birds.

Feeding Birds – What Food to Provide

These are widely available for wild birds. Different mixes have been formulated for feeders and for table/ground feeding. The better mixtures contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds, and peanut granules.

Mixes containing chunks or whole nuts are suitable for winter feeding only. Small seeds, such as millet, attract mostly sparrows, juncos and finches, while flaked maize is taken readily by American Robins. Chickadees favour peanuts and sunflower seeds. Pinhead oatmeal is excellent for many birds. wheat and barley grains are often included in seed mixtures, but they are really only suitable for pigeons and doves, which feed on the ground and rapidly increase in numbers, frequently deterring the smaller species and upsetting neighbours!

Avoid seed mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice or lentils as again only the large species can eat them dry. These are added to some cheaper seed mixes to bulk them up. Any mixture containing green or pink lumps should also be avoided as these are dog biscuit, which can only be eaten when soaked.

Black sunflower seeds are an excellent year-round food, and in many areas are even more popular than peanuts. The oil content is higher in black than striped ones, and so they are much better. Sunflower hearts (the husked kernels) are a popular no-mess food.

Nyjer seeds are small and black with a high oil content. they need a special type of seed feeder, and are particular favourites with Goldfinches and Siskins.

Peanuts are rich in fat and are popular with Chickadees, Purple Finches, House Finches, Sparrows, Nuthatches, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and Siskins.

Crushed or grated nuts attract many birds including Winter Wrens. Nuthatches may hoard peanuts. Salted or dry roasted peanuts should not be used. Peanuts can be high in a natural toxin, which can kill birds, so buy from a reputable dealer who will guarantee freedom from aflatoxin.

Fat balls and other fat-based food bars are widely available, and are excellent winter food. if they are sold in nylon mesh bags, always remove the bag before putting the fat ball out – the soft mesh can trap and injure birds. You can make your own bird cake by pouring melted fat (suet or lard) onto a mixture of ingredients such as seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake. Use about one-third fat to two-thirds mixture. Stir well in a bowl and allow it to set in a container of your choice. An empty coconut shell or plastic cup makes an ideal bird cake ‘feeder’. Alternatively, you can turn it out onto the birdtable when solid.

Mealworms are a natural food and will attract insect-eating birds such as Brown Creepers and Winter Wrens – supplies can be obtained from advertised dealers in pet and wild bird food stores. It is very important that any mealworms fed to birds are fresh. any dead or discoloured ones must not be used as they can cause problems such as salmonella poisoning.

Polyunsaturated margarines or vegetable oils are unsuitable for birds. Unlike humans, birds need high levels of saturated fat, such as raw suet and lard. Birds will need the high energy content to keep warm in the worst of the winter weather, since their body reserves are quickly used up, particularly on cold winter nights. The soft fats can easily be smeared onto the feathers, destroying the waterproofing and insulating qualities.

Never give milk to any bird, regardless of species or age. A birds gut is not designed to digest milk, and therefore milk can result in serious stomach upsets or even death. Birds can, however, digest fermented dairy products such as cheese, and mild grated cheese can be a good way of attracting some species.

Cooked rice, brown or white (without salt added) is beneficial and readily accepted by all species during severe winter weather.

While many moulds are harmless, there are some that can cause respiratory infections in birds, and so it is best to be cautious and avoid mouldy food entirely. if food turns mouldy or stale on your birdtable, you are probably placing out too large a quantity for the birds to eat in one day. Always remove any stale or mouldy food promptly. Stale food provides a breeding ground for salmonella bacteria, which can cause food poisoning. At least one type of salmonella causes death among some species of sparrows. Large quantities of food scattered on the ground may attract rats and mice which can carry diseases that affect humans.

Download our Supporting Wild Birds PDF here.