First priority – Water
Before you even contemplate putting out bird food in winter, make sure to have a clean, unfrozen source of water for overwintering birds. Clean, accessible water is very difficult for birds to find – especially in cold weather. Buy a well-constructed, heated bird bath. You’ll be amazed by the number of birds that will utilize this valuable resource.
Natural Food Sources
When considering what to feed birds, the more natural sources of food you make available, the less you will have to think about providing supplemental food. Survey your landscape to see what plants you have that offer natural bird food in winter – native grasses with seeds that you have left standing? How about native perennials with seeds? Do you have trees and shrubs that are still holding fruit, such as bayberry, juniper, winterberry, etc.?
Plan to add more of these bird-fueling plants to your landscape in the spring. Emphasize plants that are regionally native and suitable for your landscape. These natural food sources frequently provide better nutrition to birds than does run-of-the-mill bird seed.
What Birds Eat
With non-natural foods it can be difficult to feed every species of bird what its needs. Not all birds eat the same type of food. Some birds are gramnivores (seed-eaters), some are frugivores (fruit-eaters), others are insectivores (insect-eaters), or carnivores (flesh-eaters), and the lucky ones are omnivores that eat many different things. Try to grow as many native plants as you can to satisfy many different bird species, at different times of year.
Pros and Cons of Supplemental Feeding
Many studies have found that bird food provided in winter can significantly increase birds’ survival rates. Birds that otherwise may not have been hardy enough, might make it through a severe winter with your help. This could be a mixed blessing – two studies in the UK found that birds which ate human-provided birdseed in winter had lower reproduction rates. Scientists speculate that perhaps the seed had the wrong nutritional profile (too high in fat) or potentially that weaker birds, with lower reproductive ability, survived.
What to Feed Birds in Winter
So, what should you do? It’s really a personal decision. I do provide supplemental food to birds in winter – choosing varied food, including hulled sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, Nyjer seeds, suet that is laden with insects/berries/nuts/peanut butter, and the occasional fresh piece of cut fruit. I avoid low-quality mixed bird seed, especially those foods full of millet.
Birds add so much beauty and pleasure to our landscapes. Be a good bird steward this winter and help our feathered friends by providing the natural foods and water they need. If you do choose to offer supplemental food, make sure it’s nutritious.
Kim Eierman, a resident of Bronxville, is an environmental horticulturist and Founder of EcoBeneficial. When she is not speaking, writing, or consulting about ecological landscapes, she teaches at the New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Native Plant Center and Rutgers Home Gardeners School.
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