As temperatures drop across much of the country, it’s time to put more thought into what your backyard birds are eating. Providing high-quality food during winter not only entices more birds to visit your yard, it also may help them survive the season.

“Bad weather like blizzards and ice storms can make it hard to find food, and cold can take its toll,” says Sally Roth, author of The Backyard Bird Feeder’s Bible. “A well-fed bird is a warmer bird, better able to withstand winter rigors.” Roth recommends providing “a big spread of visible food and a variety to suit all appetites”—including seeds, cracked corn, nuts and suet—to bring in the first visitors. “After birds find your feeders, their presence and activity will attract others,” she says.

Northern Cardinals by Laura Hedgecockk
Two Northern Cardinals visit a Minnesota feeder on a cold, gray day. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Laura Hedgecock.
Winter also is the time to switch to more appropriate cold-weather foods. Birds need rich sources of fat and calories to combat low temperatures and severe storms. Suet, nuts and high-oil seeds such as nyjer, black-oil sunflower seeds and sunflower hearts are all great choices. “If you can find a way to keep squirrels away from them, mixed nuts are like crack for birds,” says Sharon Stiteler, founder of and author of 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know. “They love the stuff, even more than black-oil sunflower seeds.”

Even in cold weather, you should clean feeders regularly to prevent the buildup of bacteria that can cause disease. “Dirty bird feeders, especially during a warm spell when the snow melts, are breeding grounds for disease and could wipe out a whole flock of pine siskins,” Stiteler says. “It’s very important to keep a feeding station clean and to remove old seed that has been getting wet on the ground.” If possible, rotate feeders so dirty ones can be brought inside for cleaning without reducing available food. Make cleaning and refilling feeders more convenient by keeping a path to them clear, even after heavy snowstorms, or relocate your feeding station to a sheltered deck or patio that won’t be used in winter.

Waxwing eats berries
Berries make great winter food for birds such as the Bohemian Waxwing. Photo Credit: Yuri Timofeyev/Flickr Creative Commons
Don’t forget bird food that nature provides. “Feeders should be seen as supplements to the natural foods you provide by cultivating native plants,” says NWF Naturalist David Mizejewski. Even during winter, seed-eating birds such as goldfinches and juncos will flock to the dried flower heads of aster, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, sunflowers and other plants. These wildflowers’ stalks also may house insects for birds that need a little protein.

Make sure to leave berries and other fruit on your native trees and bushes. Birds ranging from robins, cardinals, juncos, waxwings and mockingbirds to wild turkey and grouse will feast on these fruits throughout the cold months. And if you’ve been smart enough to leave your fallen leaves on the ground since autumn, the decaying leaf litter will provide a feast of insects, seeds, nuts and other treats for your backyard birds.

Garden-For-Wildlife-150x26Help backyard birds and other native wildlife all year long by becoming a wildlife gardener!

Sources: “Make Winter Your Top Birding Season,” National Wildlife, December/January 2014; “Setting a Winter Table for Wildlife,” National Wildlife, December/January 2012; “For the Birds: Which Seeds Are Best?National Wildlife, October/November 2009.