Garden Variety: Feeding birds in winter

Birds fend for themselves very well, but providing a little extra food for them in the winter can be an entertaining hobby for nature and bird enthusiasts. The right kinds of food can also reduce stress for both year-round resident birds and those who have migrated here from harsher climates.

To start feeding birds, look for a location that is protected from the wind. Nearby bushes or trees provide shelter for the birds from predators as well as from inclement weather. The feeders will provide the most enjoyment if viewable from a window or porch, but remember that the reflection of the landscape on the glass may fool birds into flying into windows as they take off from feeders. Feeders are best placed very near a window or more than 30 feet away to prevent accidental collisions.


Trying to attract a specific kind of bird to your bird feeder? Make sure you pick out the right food.

Next, decide what type of feeder to use. Platform, hopper and bin-type feeders are best for attracting cardinals, wrens, chickadees, titmice and the American goldfinch. Hanging feeders are less attractive to some species because they move in the wind, but chickadees, titmice, grosbeak and finches should be able to hang on to the feeder. Ground feeders, low-raised feeders, or feed placed on the ground will attract sparrows, juncos, mourning doves, grackles and starlings.

The type of feeder and type of feed to offer go hand-in-hand. Black oil sunflower seeds are popular with many species and can be placed in a variety of feeders. Black oil sunflower seeds are preferable to striped sunflower seeds because they have a higher calorie-per-ounce ratio and smaller, thinner shells. Proso millet is more favorable to juncos than other types of food, but they will also feed on Nyjer thistle and suet.

Suet is best placed in a suet cage or a feeder designed for birds to hang upside down, and is most favorable to woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches and blue jays.

Always read the label when purchasing seed mixes as some contain seeds that few birds will eat, such as milo. You may also wish to clean scattered seed from the ground to prevent buildup of waste, and clean the feeders with a dilute bleach solution between refills.

Providing a water source is also beneficial to birds and will enhance your viewing pleasure. Use a submersible heater in a birdbath or a heated fixture to keep water from freezing.

If squirrels are a problem, move feeders away from trees or switch to a less-accessible type of feeder.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show” and has been a gardener since childhood. Send your gardening questions and feedback to


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