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The Binocular Advisor

Winter Bird Feeding

I've started feeding the birds in winter, and a few kinds are coming. How can I get more different kinds of birds to visit my feeders?
                                                            —Linnea Poe, Minneapolis

Diane's reply:

Tufted TitmouseTo maximize the number of species that visit your feeders, you'll want to offer a variety of food. And offer it at different heights above the ground.

Most birds that stay in cold regions in winter eat seeds. They have to. Insects are hard to find in freezing weather. So in winter, offer seeds to the wild birds. Here is a selection of seeds that attract a wide variety of birds.

Black oil sunflower seeds

The favorite is sunflower. It attracts cardinals, woodpeckers, blue jays, goldfinches, purple finches, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches. It's good to put most of your sunflower seeds in hanging feeders. It's safer from squirrels and raccoons that way.

Get black sunflower seeds, sometimes called oil seeds, rather than the grey-and-white-striped sunflower seeds sold for people to eat. They're higher in oil content, softer shelled, and cheaper.


Spiral feederNyger has replaced thistle as the most popular seeds to feed goldfinches. Goldfinches adore nyger. You may have dozens of goldfinches visiting your nyger feeder at once, which is quite a cheering sight on a winter day. Niger is a black seed, so tiny and light you can blow away a handful with a gentle breath.

Niger is also expensive, over a dollar a pound, so you won't want to waste it. Buy a hanging tube with tiny holes, designed especially for niger, like the 36-inch spiral above. Hang it where you can see it from your best viewing window. Up close to the house, even under the eaves, is fine. Goldfinches will become very tame and won't mind your standing two feet from them, on the other side of the window, while they eat.

Safflower seeds

Black-capped ChickadeeSafflower is a white seed, slightly smaller than black sunflower seed. Chickadees, titmice, chickadees, and downy woodpeckers eat it.

The great thing about safflower seeds is that squirrels don't like them. Neither do grackles, blue jays, or starlings. I bit into a safflower seed myself once and found it extremely bitter.

White millet

Dark-eyed JuncoMillet is the least expensive bird seed. I scatter it on the ground for sparrows, juncos (like the one at right), and mourning doves.

You can buy these seeds at feed stores, nurseries, supermarkets, and some hardware stores. I buy everything except the costly niger in 25-pound bags and store them in the garage in mouse-proof metal trash cans.


Downy Woodpecker on SuetBirds love suet. It's the solid fat rendered from beef and venison. It provides concentrated energy to help birds make it through freezing winter days and nights.

Suet is the way to attract woodpeckers to your feeding operation. You can buy suet cakes in the market for a little over $1 each. Always hang suet, so as not to attract mammals.

A word to the wise

One caution. Don't buy bags of mixed birdseed. They contain a lot of filler, such as red millet. Most birds won't eat it. It gets kicked onto the ground, where stays until it rots. Mixed birdseed is not a bargain. Buy the seeds you know your birds want.

When starting up a feeding program, be patient. It may take as long as several weeks before the birds discover your feeders. While you wait, be sure to keep the feeders filled. Eventually, the birds will come.

Water — the great gift

Sometimes the birds suffer more for lack of water than food. And they need it all year around, including in the winter. There are wonderful bird baths available for providing unfrozen water in winter, as well as in summer.

And when that first storm hits, they'll show up. Hungry. Chirpy and chattery. Red and blue and black-and-white and yellow. Fun to look at on a cold winter day.

— Copyright 2008-2015 Diane Porter
— Photos copyright 1999-2015 Michael and Diane Porter

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