Monday, January 10, 2022

Helping Birds Survive the Winter 

Carolina wrens on snowmanAs winter sets in across the North Country, devoted bird-enthusiasts resume feeding overwintering birds. They take both pleasure and pride in helping their feathered friends survive the harsh winter months, by dutifully providing them with food, water, and shelter.

Feeding birds during the winter can be a never-ending source of entertainment and enjoyment. And an easy, rewarding, and sometimes surprising way to connect with nature. No matter where you live, you can invite birds into your yard and help to ensure their survival by simply putting food out for them to find.

Ground Feeding 

    Many bird-watchers simply scatter seed on the ground or, more accurately, atop the snow and ice that’s on the ground. And many birds welcome; perhaps even prefer ground-feeding (e.g. juncos, grosbeaks, cardinals, grackles, doves). But ground-feeding can be wasteful. And I find that enough seed spills from my hanging feeders to appease the more-adamant ground-feeders.

birds at feeder

A mix of birds gathered around a snow-covered bird feeder on a winter day; Martha Allen, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Feeders and Feeding Stations 

    It’s best to use feeders that keep seed dry, and to establish feeding stations in areas that are sheltered and that provide natural cover for birds as they wait for their turn to feed. Tray feeders should be placed near the ground; hopper and tube feeders hung or suspended from tree limbs, shepherd’s hooks, etc. Just be sure that your feeders are placed in locations that you can access easily, even in deep snow, and where discarded seed husks and critter droppings won’t present a problem.

What to Feed 

    I don’t think there’s a North Country birder that wouldn’t agree that black oil sunflower seeds are, far and away, the preferred choice of chickadees, finches, cardinals, grosbeaks, sparrows, and many others. These seeds have a thin shell that’s easy to crack and a larger, meatier center than other sunflower seeds. They’re extremely nutritious and high in fat content, as well. Folks that put out standard mixes of seeds inevitably find that feeder visiting birds will sort through and discard the many other varieties of seed, which often include millet, oats, buckwheat, and flax, choosing to eat only the favored sunflower seeds.

    Many bird watchers put suet out, as well. Suet is a first-rate energy food for birds and another of their favorites. It’s widely available, inexpensive, and the birds, especially the woodpeckers, nuthatches, and jays absolutely love it.

    You can even make your own.

Suet Recipe 


        1 cup lard

        1 cup peanut butter

         2 ½ cups oats

         2 ½ cups cornmeal

         (Optional) raisins, fruit, nuts, and/or birdseed

Melt the lard and the peanut butter.

Stir in the oats and the cornmeal.

Add the optional ingredients.

Pour the mixture into a pan and refrigerate overnight.

Cut into squares and wrap in plastic for easy storage and removal.

Coping with Squirrels 

     Unfortunately, putting out food for the birds will almost always, sooner or later, attract squirrels to your yard, too. Squirrels frighten birds away. They’re often destructive. And they can empty (or damage) a feeder in no time, often not even eating the seed that they take, but rather storing or ‘squirreling’ it away in the hollow of a tree or in some other location.

     Many birders place barriers or baffles over the top of their feeders to prevent squirrels from stealing large caches of seed. Others use exclusion-type bird feeders and / or pole feeders, which are supposed to be squirrel proof.

    Then, there are those who add cayenne pepper to birdseed to discourage squirrels and other rodent pests. And while it’s true that squirrels find cayenne pepper difficult to take, while birds can eat cayenne pepper without being affected by the heat, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology warns that the capsaicin in hot peppers can burn birds’ eyes, and that pets that poke around in the fallen seed may suffer similar injury from exposure.

    Others have found that combating determined squirrels can become an endless struggle. They choose, instead, to ground-feed corn or put up easy access feeders specifically for the squirrels, and to welcome them and enjoy their presence and their antics, as well.

northern cardinal

A northern cardinal glides above a snowy landscape; John Capella, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Feeding Wild Birds Shouldn’t Be a Casual Decision 

    The birds that come to your yard will be relying on your feeders for their survival. And, according to the National Wildlife Federation, quoting Dr. David J. Horn, a Professor of Biology at Millikin University, in Decatur, Illinois, whose research interests include wild bird feeding, ‘a bird’s diet must fuel a metabolism that can require up to 10,000 calories a day (equivalent to a human consuming 155,000 calories).’ So, you have to keep your feeders full, which means you’ll be spending your hard-earned money on birdseed.

Project FeederWatch 

A great way to get involved with winter bird-watching is to sign up for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch; a citizen scientist project that runs annually from early winter through the end of April. People with feeders identify species of birds that are visiting and record the species they observe in an online database. Learn more at

Photo at top: Carolina wrens sit atop a snowman’s head. Photo by Michele Black, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

9 Responses

  1. nathan says:

    birds 10,000 calories a day??? how can a bird eat and digest that much calories a day??? your talking about a bird eating like 20 times their weight a day! i think you should recheck your data and fix article. that would be equivalant to a cardinal eating about 12 cups of sunflower kernals a day. maybe a turkey could possibly eat 12 cups of sunflower hearts, but chicadees, cardinals, jays, ect sheer exageration.
    i found 1 referance stating up to 10,000 calories a day for a bird, but says nothing about bird type. wanna bet an ostrich???

    • Boreas says:

      Those are calories. A calorie is a tiny amount of energy. Humans call kilo-calories “calories” by common mistake. What we refer to as a “calorie” is actually 1000 calories, or a kCal. Humans need about 2000 kCal/ day, or about 2,000,000 calories. So the birds need 10 kCal/day which puts things in better perspective.

    • Boreas says:

      EDIT: Before I get called into the office for spreading lies, my above explanation should say “by common convention”. This is what the food industry uses – partly because it results in smaller numbers to deal with, and partly because Americans are bad at the metric system.

  2. ADKresident says:

    Thanks for the article and suet recipe! I’ve been wanting to make my own suet.
    I have had problems with squirrels and found that when I buy cracked corn and scatter all around, their hogging up the birdseed and presence at the birdfeeders has significantly decreased. Now I don’t mind them ….too much.

  3. NOEL A. SHERRY says:

    Hello Richard, good practical piece. I live in Grafton, MA, next to Worcester, and have 3 feeding stations out, all on poles or pipes to raise them far enough to put a cone or baffle to keep squirrels off. If I let the grey squirrels free reign I will have up to 6 fat ones emptying my (expensive) feed on the ground. So far I have beat these clever animals but they learned to jump from several branches over to the near feeder and from that to the next. I had to cut those branches, getting into trouble with my spouse, but I took pride in beating the squirrels (again), at least for now. I now get blue birds in now, very frequently, because I put branches of red Christmas Berries out in the back yard, which attracts Robbins and Blue Birds, and occasionally a flock of cedar waxwings. What brings the blue birds in is a bag of mealworm, which they love, and now chickadees and others feed on them too. I have not been able to attract bright orange tanangers, but occasionally see one fly by. I have a wide range of woodpeckers with my peanut or nut-based feeder, and of course the blocks of suet. Cardinals are a frequent visitor, and the others you mention.

    • Boreas says:


      I am curious about your “bright orange tanangers” – if you are talking winter sightings. Both Scarlet Tanagers and Orioles are migratory and typically wouldn’t be in MA in winter. Any other thoughts on what these birds may be? Are you sure they aren’t Cardinals?

  4. Charlie Stehlin says:

    Thank you so much for this bird story! I just love the birds! They are so special and could use all the help they can get from us!

  5. Pat B says:

    Regarding those marauding squirrels, in the late 80’s PBS aired a BBC series called Daylight Robbery which can be found on YouTube. Their behavior trying to defeat the obstacles we construct is truly extraordinary. Definitely worth checking it out.

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