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Cold Weather Birding Tips

Cold Weather Birding Tips

By Duncraft
Photographs courtesy of Duncraft

Birds are well-adapted to survive harsh winter weather. A bird’s feathers provide better insulation than a mammal’s fur (think about a fluffy down jacket). The ultra-fast blood circulation in a bird’s legs and feet keep them warm, and the dry scaly surface ensures that they don’t have to worry about their feet freezing and sticking to metal perches. But birds need to keep their feathers clean so they are fluffy and warm, and they need lots of extra calories to help maintain warm body temperatures.

When temperatures plummet, natural food sources like insects, seeds, and berries become scarce; birds struggle to find calorie-rich foods, shelter and fresh water. We can play a key role in helping birds get what they need to survive by offering appropriate food, water, and shelter during the winter.

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Red Barn Cardinal Feeder.

Food

The best foods to offer birds in colder weather have a high fat or oil content to provide abundant energy for winter survival. Nutritious winter foods for birds include:

  • Black Oil Sunflower Seed
    This is the universal bird seed—all seed-eating birds will eat black oil sunflower seed. This seed is rich in fat and protein, and is available in the shell, as hearts, and chips.
  • Peanuts
    Shelled peanuts will bring woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, chickadees, and titmice flocking to your backyard.
  • Nyjer Seed
    Nyjer seed (also known as thistle seed) is the favorite of small finches. Goldfinches, house and purple finches, pine siskins, and redpolls love this tiny, oil-rich seed. You need a special feeder for this seed—an easy way to audition this seed is with our set of three filled Nyjer stockings.
  • Bird Seed Blends
    Can’t decide which to put on the menu? You can serve it all at once with a good seed blend. Our most popular mix (Duncraft Super No-Waste Blend) is made up of all the food we just talked about, plus cracked corn, which is a great source of protein and fiber, loved by doves and juncos. A high-quality blend can attract more birds than by offering a single type of seed. Beware of low-price blends which contain lots of filler seeds, which will end up on the ground, uneaten. 
  • Suet
    Suet, the perfect winter food for insect eaters, is available in a wide variety of flavors and forms. It comes as cakes, pellets, nuggets, logs, and balls, so you can choose the style you prefer to feed. And the flavors! Try nut, peanut butter, berry, fruit or insect varieties. Not sure? Try a suet sampler to see which flavor your birds like best. Be careful with old fashioned DIY recipes – never feed your bacon fat to the birds!

Different types of birds prefer different types of feeders, so offering a variety of feeders will help you attract more types of birds. A tube feeder, platform feeder, and a suet feeder makes a great winter combination that will allow you to serve a wide range of foods to many different birds. Look for feeders that have protective roofs to keep seed dry and free of snow, rain and ice. The cover should extend several inches over the edge of the feeder to ensure protection from all but the most serious storms. If you are getting large numbers of visitors, a large capacity feeder will keep the food available with fewer trips outside for refills. If you only have room for one feeder, how about something like the Red Barn Cardinal Feeder, which can be used for both seed and suet.

Winter bird feeders should be placed in sheltered locations out of the most severe winds. Locate feeders out of prevailing winds as much as possible. If you’re siting the feeder near a window, put it as close as three feet from the window to protect birds from accidentally flying into the glass. Feeders should be at least 10 feet away from shrubs or brush piles that might provide a hiding place for predators. Stamp down the snow around your feeder to make it easier for ground-feeding birds to find tasty tidbits. And as always, keep your feeder clean and filled with fresh, nutritious birdseed.

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Duncraft Hexagon Heated Ground Birdbath.

Water

A dependable source of water during the cold winter months will attract birds that you might not normally see at your feeders. In fact, you can enjoy putting out a water source even if you are not able to provide seed or other food. Birds get some moisture from their food; however most still need to drink at least once or twice each day. They also need to bathe regularly to help keep them warm. In cold weather, birds fluff up their feathers to keep warm but when their feathers are dirty and matted, they can’t fluff and they lose that critical insulation. A sunny spot is great for your birdbath, and of course you’ll need to consider the length of your extension cord!

You can find a variety of styles of heated baths: ground, pedestal, and deck rail mounted. Maybe you can add a de-icer to a bath you already have. Heated baths and de-icers are thermostatically controlled to prevent the water from freezing over without making the water feel particularly warm. Since they don’t run all the time, you don’t have to worry about putting them on a timer.

During extreme cold snaps you may get some ice around the edges, but the water shouldn’t freeze solid. There is some concern that bathing can be hazardous for birds when the temperatures drop into single digits or below. When that happens, you could cover the bath so that just the edges are exposed for sipping, or arrange rocks and sticks in the bottom so the birds can’t totally immerse themselves. The most important safety tip is to keep the bath clean and the water fresh!

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Duncraft Convertible Roost House.

Shelter

Do you ever wonder where birds sleep during cold, snowy nights? Some birds roost together for warmth, and others find a protected spot in a tree cavity or dense evergreen. Some will even settle down in an empty bird house. While nest boxes do offer shelter, they aren’t ideal for winter protection. They are made to draw in the air from outside to cool young birds during hot summer weather, not to keep winter inhabitants warm. You can make birdhouses a little cozier by adding insulating material like wood chips or bits of fabric. Just make sure you clean them out in early spring to get ready for the new tenants.

If your backyard is short on protected roosting spots, you might want to offer your feathered friends a roosting box or pocket. The Duncraft Convertible Roost House has a little ladder inside it so that a small group of birds can enjoy a cozy communal roost and the bottom entry hole helps keep the heat in the box. In early spring, just remove the ladder and flip the front panel and you have an instant bird house, ready for summer inhabitants. Some birds prefer roosting pockets. These cute little woven huts are inexpensive and simple to hang. You can get creative, too. A brush pile, a shock of cornstalks, or your leftover holiday tree can all provide a little extra shelter in your yard.

Whether you have a yard full of backyard bird products or just a small feeder or bath, one thing is for sure: Birds give us as much as we give them. The sheer delight of watching them congregate at your feeders or frolic in your birdbath can brighten the dreariest winter day. Enjoy the season, and happy birding!


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