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Winter Bird Feeding Basics

The weather this fall has been stretching the limits of my patience. The wind, rain and snow has stymied our efforts to complete the year-end clean up and organization.  No matter how busy we are, we always make time to check our bird feeders so our feathery friends will not be scrambling to find much needed food on the cold and stormy days ahead.

Winter is a time for repose and reflection, and many gardeners take to bird feeding to fill their need for color, texture and interaction with their landscape. If you are an old hand at feeding our winter visitors, or a newbie, these tips from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will guide you in feeder/feed placement and selection.

There are three main choices in food: large seeds, small seeds and suet. Large seeds include black-oil sunflower, striped sunflower, safflower, peanuts, shelled corn, ear corn and cardinal mixes that contain sunflower, safflower and peanuts. Northern cardinals, Blue jays, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed chickadees, House and Purple finches, American goldfinches, Evening and Pine grosbeaks, Gray and Steller's jays, nuthatches, crossbills, and titmice all love sunflower seeds. Peanuts provide a nutritious diet for birds, including Black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and Blue jays. Even Northern cardinals will come to a peanut feeder. However, these feeds also attract mammals including squirrels and raccoons.  Safflower seeds are not as attractive to these eating machines. Cracked corn and milo are attractive to house sparrows and starlings, which will discourage other birds from visiting your feeders, and are not recommended. Small seeds include millet and Niger thistle.  Millet sprinkled on the ground or in tray, feeders will attract Dark-eyed juncos, Mourning doves, and American tree, Fox, Harris', White-throated, White-crowned and Golden-crowned sparrows. Niger thistle will bring American and Lesser goldfinches, Common and Hoary redpolls, House and Purple finches, and Pine siskins. Many wintering also birds benefit from suet, suet mixes and peanut butter, including Pileated, red bellied, red headed, downy and hairy woodpeckers; chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches.

Water is critical to overwintering birds. Including a heated birdbath in your feeder set up will be an open invitation to a variety of birds.  Do not worry about birds freezing if they bathe on a cold winter day.  This water is primarily for drinking. Include a variety of feeders: open or covered platform feeders, suet feeders, and cylindrical feeders will be attractive to a broad variety of birds. Place feeders close to protective cover and convenient for viewing from a window. The best feeder sites are downwind from the shelter provided by conifers, ornamental grass plantings, cattail marshes or buildings. To avoid giving raptors or cats an advantage in catching birds, feeders should be at least ten feet from the nearest cover where such predators could hide. Use several feeder clusters of three to four feeders per cluster and a ground-feeding site. Each cluster should include a variety of feeder types that offer larger seeds, smaller seeds, and suet.

Make sure you have a pair of binoculars and a good bird identification guide close to your viewing window, sit back and enjoy the show.

For more information about feeding the birds throughout the season, visit, or check out Wild About Birds: The DNR Bird Feeding Guide by Carroll Henderson.