Feeding birds in winter – the dos and don'ts

Feeding birds in winter is essential for keeping our feathered friends healthy during the coldest season

feeding birds in winter Red Cardinal sits perched on a bird feeder during a snow fall
(Image credit: Getty images)

Feeding birds in winter is vital to their wellbeing throughout the colder months, as food is scarce and energy is precious.

Start by noting which birds already visit your garden. Different birds have different tastes and favorite foods, so feeding the birds you know already frequent your garden is a good start, plus it will encourage them to keep returning. 

American robins, for example, love to eat fruits while blue jays love to eat peanuts and northern cardinals love black oil sunflower seeds. Once you're feeding your regular guests, you can then branch out with other types of feed and attract even more species of bird into your garden.

During periods of bad weather, birds will come to rely on your feeders as an essential source of food. Easy to find and nutritious seed and fats will help your feathered friends to conserve their energy – using it to keep warm rather than hunting down scarce berries and insects.

Below, we offer tips and tricks for feeding birds in winter as well as what to feed them and what to avoid – you can include them in your winter garden ideas to create a welcoming space.

Feeding birds in winter

Blue jay on feeder in falling snow

(Image credit: Getty images)

Feeding birds in winter is fairly easy to do but makes a huge difference to the well-being of wild birds. Food is scarce in winter and the food that you put out in your garden could be the difference between surviving winter and starvation. You can, of course, put food out for birds, but better still, work plants that feed birds naturally, when planning a winter garden.

‘Birds become used to your feeders, especially in bad weather when the food you provide may be life-saving. If you are gone for a long time, ask a neighbor or friend to keep the feeders running,’ says Ethan Howell, co-owner of Florida Environmental.

bird feeders in snow

(Image credit: Getty images)

Water is as important as food. Like any other living thing, a clean source of water is essential to wellbeing.  ‘Offering a birdbath during the winter season helps wild birds easily find this valuable resource. This in turn helps them reserve energy for other activities such as keeping warm. If you live in an area where temperatures dip below freezing, consider a heated birdbath since its likely natural water forms are also frozen,’ advises Tammy Poppie founder at On The Feeder.

Tufted Titmouse in winter sitting on heated birdbath with snow and icicles

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The best things to feed backyard birds in winter

When feeding birds in winter there are lots of options for good foodstuffs. 'Obviously it helps for the food to be as calorific as possible and seeds, nuts and fat are best of all,' writes Monty Don on his blog.

We've rounded up some of the best things to put on your bird table, hang in a tree or scatter on the ground when feeding birds in winter. 

  • HIGH FAT options such as nuts, lard and suet are good choices for winter as birds will benefit from the additional energy they provide. 
  • BLACK SUNFLOWER SEEDS are a one of the most popular seeds among a wide range of birds. If you are only putting one type of food on your feeder, this is the one to go for. It is loved by lots of birds including Northern Cardinals, Tufted titmice, House finches, nuthatches, and jays. 
  • BLACK OIL SUNFLOWER SEEDS are also popular. The difference between sunflower seeds and black oil sunflower seeds is that black oil sunflower seeds are larger and have more calories per seed, making them a highly nutritious meal for your feathered-friends.
  • CHEESE is a great choice for the same reason as above and is popular with a wide range of birds. Opt for a grated mild cheddar.
  • MIXED SEEDS are a great coverall option and an easy way to start feeding birds in winter. However, 'avoid mixed bird seed containing mostly oats and milo - birds don’t eat these grains,' advises Kathee Muzin, founder of The Joy Of Birdwatching.
  • FRUIT like apples and pears are a great addition to the bird feeder. Even badly bruised fruit will go down well. Chop into small chunks so it's easier for smaller birds to enjoy.
  • PEANUT BUTTER is a high calorie food that is loved by lots of different birds. However, it must be unsalted as the salt can harm the birds. There are specific peanut butter feeders available, or you can spread it into the crevices of a large pinecone and then hang it from a tree. There are lots of bird-friendly types of peanut butter available on the market too.
  • MEALWORMS are not the most attractive type of bird feeder, however, they are undoubtedly a favorite for backyard birds, especially chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, cardinals and the American Robin. Live meal worms are preferred and have a higher nutritional content, however, dried mealworms are easier to store and won't crawl off the bird feeder.
  • CRACKED CORN is a versatile foodstuff for feeding birds in winter and is often found in bird seed mixes.
  • WHITE PROSO MILLET can come as seeds or as sprays. Hanging sprays from a bird table or on a branch of a tree gives your birds even more variety. Alternatively, you can fill a tubular feeder with the seeds. These are a particular favorite of sparrows.
  • NIGER SEEDS are goldfinches' favorite treat. Hang a specific niger seed feeder in addition to your main bird feeders and welcome these colorful birds into your garden. 

‘Place bird feeders in areas where predators like cats and foxes can't hide. Place the feeders 10-12 feet away from shrubs or brush piles,’ says Ethan Howell, co-owner of Florida Environmental.

Winter scene with closeup of bluejay perched on snow covered rock

(Image credit: Getty images)

Are eggshells good for birds?

Yes, eggshells are good for birds. Eggshells are high in calcium, a mineral in which many birds are deficient. Calcium is particularly important for female birds who need the calcium to create the shells for their eggs. However, it can be difficult to find enough in nature.

That's where our eggshells come in. Simply rinse your egg shells and then bake them in the oven at 450ºF for 10 minutes. Once they are cool, crush them up and add them to your bird table. Alternatively you can scatter them on the grass or over your borders – this might even have the added benefit of deterring slugs who don't like the gritty feeling – it's a win-win. 

Eggs in the garden

(Image credit: Getty/Elva Etienne)

What should you not feed birds in winter?

There are several things you should never put on your bird feeder, whether you are feeding birds in winter or at any other time of year. 

  • NO CHOCOLATE as this is toxic to birds.
  • NO TABLE SCRAPS as these are unappealing to birds and are more likely to encourage rats to your bird feeder. They may also have been cooked with oil, garlic or spices that are harmful to birds. 
  • NO ROTTEN FOOD as this can lead to harmful bacteria and mold which can cause illnesses in birds. 
  • NO SPOILED BIRDSEED – be sure to only put dry and fresh seed, if it is spoiled, clumped, sprouting or wet to the touch it should be discarded.
  • NO SALT – if eaten in high quantities salt is toxic and will affect the bird's nervous system. Therefore, avoid heavily salted foods like meats or salted nuts. Also don't add salt to bird baths as a method to stop them freezing, placing a ping-pong ball on the surface is a much safer option. 
  • NO MEAT as this will attract unwanted guests such as rats, cats, and foxes to your bird feeder. Raw meat also spoils very quickly and grows bacteria that can ultimately kill birds.
  • NO BREAD since this has very little nutritional value for birds and will fill up their stomachs. This will mean that they won't eat enough seeds, grains and fats to keep them healthy throughout the winter months.
  • NO MILK because this will cause sickness and diarrhea which will cause dehydration. This is especially dangerous for birds in winter when water is scarce.

Female Eastern Bluebird sat in tree in pennsylvania

(Image credit: Getty images)

What plants can you grow to help with feeding birds in winter?

You can also add plants for birds to your garden to help with feeding birds in winter. Pick plants that have seeds and berries throughout the winter period and that are native to your state or region as these are the ones that birds will recognize as safe to eat.

These winter plants will not only be good food for your feathered-friends but will also add some color and life to your garden throughout the winter months:

  • Beautyberry
  • Holly
  • Winterberry
  • Black chokeberry
  • Arborvitae
  • Common hackberry
  • Crab apples
  • Service-berry
  • Viriginia creeper
  • Viburnums

As well as providing delicious seeds and berries for your feathered friends, the plants will also provide them with valuable shelter during the winter.

cedar waxwing songbird on a snowy branch

(Image credit: Getty images)

Is it good to feed birds in the winter?

Yes it is good to feed birds in winter. Birds' natural food sources, like insects, seeds and berries, will become more scarce in winter. At the same time, birds require much more food during this period in order to have enough energy and fat to keep themselves warm. 

By feeding birds in winter you are providing them with a constant source of food so they don't have to waste energy seeking out insects under layers of snow. This will help your feathered friends to survive the winter, and as such do wonders for the bird population.

Another benefit of feeding birds in winter is that you will encourage more wildlife into your garden. Come spring and summer when you're gardening, these feathered friends will also snack on slugs, snails and other garden pests – helping to keep your garden healthier. 

Close up photograph of two male blue jays getting seed from a snow covered bird feeder

(Image credit: Getty images)

How to attract birds to my garden?

The easiest way to attract birds is feeding them. Birds are attracted to sources of food and if it is always available to them they will soon be frequenting your feeders.

However, it may take some time for your feathered friends to spot a new feeder. Be patient and ensure there is always food available for them. 

To increase the number of birds to your garden, consider also adding one of these bird bath ideas. ‘Your birds might be attracted more to the water at first, so having the birdbath out and then placing your foods on a ground feeder or scattered near the birdbath may be the best way to attract them to the foods you’re offering,’ advises R. Brune in the Duncraft blog.

To further increase the amount of birds in your garden, you can install some of these bird house ideas which will provide birds with a warm and safe space to nest.

Splashing Sparrow at Birdbath

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to make your own bird feeders to feed birds in winter

Making your own bird feeders is a great way of feeding birds in winter. It's also a brilliant activity to get the kids involved and teach them about the importance of feeding birds in winter.

These coconut shell feeders are made from suet and seed. High in fat and protein, they are great for feeding birds in winter. Drill a hole in the shell of a coconut and tie string to make a loop. Then simply melt 1 cup of lard or suet in a saucepan and then mix with 2 cups of bird seed. You can also add cheese, meal worms and dried fruit. Pack this into the coconut shell and leave to set for an hour or two. Once set, hang in your garden and wait for the birds. 

Long-tailed tit on coconut feeder

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While you should never feed birds actual cookies, you can make your own bird cookies. To make your own, mix 7g unflavored gelatin with 1/4 cup of water. Then mix this with the bird seed. Push this into cookie cutters and add string to ribbon. Then leave to set, then push out of the moulds and hang in a tree.


(Image credit: Future)
Holly Reaney
Content Editor and Sub-editor

Having graduated with a first class degree in English Literature, Holly started her career as a features writer and sub-editor at Period Living magazine, Homes & Gardens' sister title. Working on Period Living brought with it insight into the complexities of owning and caring for period homes, from interior decorating through to choosing the right windows and the challenges of extending. This has led to a passion for traditional interiors, particularly the country-look. Writing for the Homes & Gardens website as a content editor, alongside regular features for Period Living and Country Homes & Interiors magazines, has enabled her to broaden her writing to incorporate her interests in gardening, wildlife and nature.