bird food winter

What To Feed Birds in Winter: Full Guide for Bird Watchers

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Perhaps the most important time to feed birds is when people put their feeders away during the winter months.

During warmer months, birds have access to all sorts of insects, fruits, and seeds from natural sources. However, bird populations may rely more on supplemental feeding from humans during cold months when other food sources are scarce.

So, as the warm months fade to fall and into winter, some of those food sources start to disappear.

While some birds will head south for the winter, others will stay, and they might be more easily enticed to your feeders.

bird with sunflower seed flying from a wooden bird fee

Which Birds Stay for the Winter?

To know what kind of food to put out for birds, you need to know which birds you’ll be seeing during the winter.

If you live in a southern area where birds migrate to or stay year-round, such as Florida, the Gulf Coast states, or the American Southwest, you may already know what you can expect to see during the winter.

The birds in your area might be similar to those you see during the summer, or you might even spot some additional species that fly to your region during the winter to escape the cold of the north.

Two of the most common types of birds to spend the winter with, regardless of how far north you live, are woodpeckers and finches. Many woodpeckers and finches will spend the winter as far north as Alaska and northern Canada.

Depending on where you live, you may see house finches, purple finches, goldfinches, redpolls, and pine siskins throughout the winter months.

Woodpeckers vary by region, but common woodpeckers across certain parts of the United States and Canada include downy, hairy, pileated, red-bellied, and red-headed woodpeckers, along with northern flickers.

Nuthatches, chickadees, jays, and cardinals are also common winter birds.

What To Feed Birds in Winter?

The foods that birds in winter eat will often be similar to what they consume during the summer months. However, high-energy foods are even more important during the winter.

Here’s a rundown of some bird foods you’ll want to mark down:


Suet is a type of saturated fat found around the kidneys of animals (e.g. cows and sheep) and is perhaps the number one food for winter birds.

Woodpeckers love suet, as do birds like nuthatches and chickadees. It’s very high in fat content, so it gives birds a lot of energy to power through cold weather and days when food is scarce.

You can either make your own suet or buy pre-packaged suet cakes. Making your own suet takes some preparation, but some people prefer to do it themselves.

Pre-made suet cakes are definitely easier, and they’re not super expensive, either. You can often get suet cakes for a couple of dollars each in large packs, which can last you quite a while during the winter.

Click here for a guide to the best suet feeders and brands out there. Many suet cakes come with seeds or berries baked in, and some also include pepper flakes, which deter squirrels.

Birds, meanwhile, don’t taste it.

Sunflower and Safflower Seeds

Two of the most common seeds for birds throughout the year are sunflower and safflower seeds, which are good choices for a variety of birds during the winter.

Cardinals are among the winter visitors that eat sunflower and safflower seeds.

A bright red cardinal on a snow-covered evergreen tree is a classic winter sight, and they’re a favorite among numerous bird watchers across North America.

Northern cardinal perched on a snow-covered spruce

One consideration when feeding these seeds during the winter is how much energy they will provide for the birds. Keeping this in mind, black oil sunflower seeds are often an ideal winter bird seed choice.

There are two types of sunflower seeds commonly fed to birds: striped sunflower and black oil sunflower seeds.

Striped sunflower seeds are similar to what humans eat. They’re larger and easier for humans to shell. For birds, however, that’s not as much of a consideration.

Black oil sunflower seeds are, as their name implies, higher in oil content than striped sunflower seeds, which provide more energy for the birds.

However, safflower and striped sunflower seeds are still not bad choices for the winter.

In fact, safflower seeds are high in fat and protein, and they may have another benefit in that some unwanted guests may not care for them.

Safflower seeds are more bitter than sunflower seeds, and some people believe they’re not preferred by squirrels and birds such as starlings.

Some people don’t mind feeding squirrels or starlings, but if you do, safflower seeds may be worth a try. Birdwatching in general is largely about experimentation, so what works for one person may be different for another.


Peanuts, whether in or out of the shell, can provide bird watchers with a real treat during winter.

For people with lots of feathered friends in their backyard such as blue jays, a feeder full of in-shell peanuts can lead to an all-out feeding frenzy.

The birds often grab a peanut and fly off, only to quickly return to the feeder for another.

Nuthatches and chickadees also enjoy peanuts, although they may prefer the out-of-shell variety, or even peanut hearts, which are smaller and easier to eat.

Also, when purchasing peanuts, go for an unsalted variety. Many peanuts that humans eat are high in salt content, which isn’t good for birds.


If you’re feeding finches, Nyjer seed (also called thistle) is the one food you absolutely need to be aware of.

Unrelated to the thistle plant often seen in ditches or along roadsides throughout North America, the thistle is a high-oil seed from the African yellow daisy that finches love.

These tiny seeds will bring many common birds to your feeders all year long, including redpolls, siskins, and goldfinches.

You can buy thistle as a standalone product and put it in its own specific feeder. It’s also the main component of prepackaged bird seed mixes that claim to attract finches, which may also include peanut hearts or de-shelled sunflower seeds.

Finches are fairly small for backyard birds, even when many of our feathered friends have migrated for the winter. Therefore, giving them their own feeder can be a great way to see more finches.

Sock feeders or slit feeders for thistle seeds are both good options. Click here for our guide to finch feeders.

Cassin's Finch male (Carpodacus cassinii)

What Else Can You Do To Help Birds in Winter?

Give Birds Additional Shelter

Foliage on bushes and trees provides birds with natural cover throughout the spring, summer, and fall, but, as leaves begin to drop from deciduous trees, that cover begins to dissipate.

You can provide birds with additional protective cover by planting evergreen trees.

As well, you can leave a messy garden or brush piles for the birds during the winter, as suggested by Michigan Audubon.

The group also says that birdhouses can provide birds with cover. Building a birdhouse can be a fun activity for a rainy day, but leaving a brush pile or messy garden in your yard is a cheaper and easier option.

Provide Water

Just like in the summer, birds need water. The main concern about bird baths during the summer is the water getting stagnant and becoming a pool of potential disease spread.

European robin (Erithacus rubecula)

During the winter, diseases are still something to be very aware of, but you also need to keep the water from freezing, depending on how cold it gets where you live.

Fortunately, you can purchase heated birdbaths, but you can also make sure to change the water in your birdbath regularly on particularly cold days.

Ensure Proper Feeder Placement

While it may seem like placing feeders close to windows would cause more crashes into the glass, the opposite is actually true.

In fact, researchers have found that placing feeders directly on your windows can decrease the number of collisions, while mortality increases when feeders are placed between five and 10 meters from glass windows.

Michigan Audubon suggests placing feeders within three feet or more than 30 feet from your windows and adding window decals to prevent collisions.

Snow can create additional reflections in windows, so taking steps to keep birds safe can be even more important in the winter.

Blue Jay at Bird Feeder Winter

Keep Feeders Clean and Free of Snow

Dirty bird feeders can be a breeding ground for diseases and bacteria buildup, so cleaning bird feeders is always an important task.

To clean your bird feeders, use a solution of nine parts water to one part bleach. Soak all parts of the feeder in the solution and rinse thoroughly with water. After, let it dry completely.

In addition to cleaning your bird feeders regularly, you’ll also want to clear snow or moisture off regularly in the winter so that birds can access the food easily.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should You Feed Wild Birds in the Winter?

You don’t need to feed birds, but as bird watchers, it’s something most of us definitely enjoy doing.

Birds have evolved to survive in cold weather, so they will be able to handle the season without supplemental feeding. However, if you want to watch them in your backyard, winter is a great time to feed the birds.

You may see some birds that don’t come to feeders at a time when other food sources are scarce.

The winter months can get awfully long, and bird watching is one activity that can last you year-round and make the short, cold days a little bit less dull.

What Is the Best Thing To Feed Birds in the Winter?

What you should feed the birds in your yard during the winter varies by species. You won’t attract every species, but two food varieties to get your started are thistle (Nyjer) seed and suet.

Suet is a high-energy, high-fat food that winter birds like chickadees, nuthatches, and especially woodpeckers love.

Thistle is the quintessential finch food. Birds like redpolls, goldfinches, purple finches, and house finches like thistle seed.

So, if you’re seeing any finches during the year, your thistle seed will likely be very popular during the winter.

When Should You Start Feeding the Birds for the Winter?

If you feed birds all year, you can likely just leave your feeders out year-round, altering your offerings just a little bit based on what birds are still around.

However, if you only want to feed the birds during colder months, start putting out seeds in the fall.

Contrary to some myths, feeding birds in the fall won’t prevent them from migrating, and it will let non-migrating birds know where to find food as the cold sets in.

Should You Give Birds Water in Winter?

You should consider giving birds water in winter, just as you should during the summer months.

There are heated bird baths available, but don’t feel like you have to spend the extra money. Regularly changing the bird bath’s water to keep it thawed is plenty.

If you are considering purchasing a heated birdbath, however, check out our guide for the best products on the market.

What Variety of Foods Should I Avoid Feeding Birds?

Most table scraps should not be given to birds. Human foods are often high in salt or sugar content, which typically isn’t good for birds.

Other scraps that include honey or chocolate may even be toxic for birds, and high-carb, low-nutrient foods like bread can cause diseases, such as angel wings, in some birds.

Therefore, before giving any table scraps to birds, research online to make sure all of the ingredients are safe to give to the birds in your yard.

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