What do birds need to survive the winter? Ensuring your garden has what birds need to be safe and healthy means providing the right habitat all year-round.
Also see the Complete Guide for Choosing Birdseed to give your wild birds the most nutritious options.
Attract Wild Birds & Brighten Up Your Winter
Wild Bird Safety Note
During outbreaks of the highly pathogenic diseases including avian influenza, it is strongly recommended to remove bird feeders and cease any hand-feeding. This may help reduce transmission rates amongst our wild bird populations.
Ongoing, feeders should be cleaned frequently with a bleach solution and remove any debris from ground around feeders.
Is there anything more cheering than seeing wild birds flitting about in the garden on a snowy winter day? —All from the comfort of a warm home, of course!
Depending on your region, there may be dozens or hundreds of bird species that stay throughout the winter instead of migrating to warmer climates.
Our job as gardeners and stewards of the earth is to provide the natural habitat they need.
Plants including trees, shrubs, vines, flowering perennials, and ground covers provide both food and shelter.
Like other living things, birds need a diverse eco-system supporting a multitude of living things.
It’s most rewarding to grow a garden that is first and foremost there to support wild life.
As humans, it’s a huge boost to winter morale to see the birds thriving.
Get a good field guide for your region and keep a camera handy—you never know who might come by.
What Winter Birds Need
In many ways the birds are just like us! They need food, water, shelter, and a reliable internet connection. (Just checking to see if you’re really reading this.)
Ensuring birds have what they need is a year-round, ongoing effort.
In the summer months, a main staple of a bird’s diet is insects and spiders. As the growing season continues, they add on fruits and berries. By winter, the options are more limited.
To feed the winter birds, create foraging opportunities (by leaving your plants to produce seeds in fall) and, optionally, provide good quality bird seed and suet. You want to provide as much nutrition (good fats) as possible for the least amount of effort by the birds.
If you’ve ever wondered why birds don’t freeze in frigid temperatures, this is why.
Food for Winter Birds
It’s best to research food options to find what’s healthiest for the species in your area.
Each species has its preferences for both types of food and feeding locations.
Some will take seed from a feeder, others, like doves like to forage on the ground.
- Black-oil sunflower seed (these have the best meat-to-shell ratio)
- Shelled peanuts
- Suet (Beef fat or natural peanut butter – recipe here)
- Good quality seed mix (see what to look for here)
- Nyjer or thistle seed (Amazon)
- Safflower seeds
- Leftover fruits and berries on trees and shrubs
- Corn – opinions vary on this
- Raisins or currants or other fruits (no preservatives) – presoak them in water to soften them up
Avoid milo, bread, and anything else unnatural for birds.
It’s ideal if there are seeds and berries to forage.
I let most of my flowering perennials go to seed and don’t trim them back until the spring for this purpose: the birds will dine on them through the cold winter months.
For commercial wild bird food options, I always recommend finding a reputable shop specializing in wild bird care. They will help you make informed choices and find good quality food and other supplies such as birdhouses and birdfeeders that are safe and beneficial to the birds. There’s a lot of junk out there, including birdseed mixes filled with things the birds don’t eat.
- Different birds use different types of feeders and eat different types of bird feed.
To attract a wide variety of winter birds, create several different feeding stations of various heights and styles. Let the big birds have their tall standing feeders, and give the smaller birds feeders that only accommodate their size and weights. The squirrels will decide which they prefer, whether you want them to or not.
You can find a detailed guide to choosing birdfeeders here.
Cleanliness Counts All Year-Round
Be sure to wash your feeders every week or two and disinfect with a bleach solution before using again. Here’s a guide to washing and disinfecting your birdfeeders. This will help prevent the spread of disease and stop mold from forming.
I keep a few sets of feeders so I can put out fresh seed without waiting to clean the current feeders.
Also, clear off snow so there’s lots of room to stand and dine.
Suet / UnSuet-Suet
- Quality matters
- Easy to make your own
Suet is high in calories and great fuel for warmth, but not all suet products are created equal. Again, a reputable wild bird feed shop should have high quality suet. Cheaper ones contain fillers such as millet that do not benefit the birds.
Alternately, you can make your own homemade “unsuet-suet”, using natural peanut butter instead of lard (here’s my easy recipe for peanut butter suet). It takes only moments to prepare and I can tell you with complete certainty that the birds absolutely love it.
How do I know? Besides the fact that they come in droves to the garden as soon as I hang a fresh batch up, they tweet about it too.
For the actual suet feeder, I like the style (pictured above) because it extends below the suet cage, providing support for bird tails. The less energy they have to expend while eating, the better.
Birds need fresh water all year-round and it can be difficult to find in the winter months when everything is frozen.
- Have fresh water available: keep it from freezing with an outdoor water deicer.
I keep a recirculating pump running vigorously in the bottom of my shallow pond to prevent the water from freezing. This not only keeps my fish safe (they go dormant instead of freezing), but the birds and other wildlife are able to access water any time. I love seeing the various paw prints and bird tracks in the snow around pond each morning.
You can also use birdbaths to provide fresh water if you include an electric or solar water heater and change the water regularly. Click here to see an example of a heated birdbath at Amazon. com.
It’s important to keep the water shallow (and inch or less) to avoid drowning mishaps. Some of these products have deep bowls that prove hazardous to birds. They know how to access pond water but something in a big dish is a different challenge.
- Provide trees and shrubs for natural shelter. Make sure birdhouses are safe.
The best shelter is, of course, trees and shrubs, where the birds can rest and stay away from frigid weather conditions.
I also hang roosting pockets from tree branches. The smaller birds will huddle in them when it’s really cold and windy.
Early nesters or small birds seeking warmth may also use birdhouses in the winter. If you keep birdhouses outside year-round, Cornell Lab of Ornithology has very good information on the best choices for housing specific types of birds.
Most birdhouses are made for decorative purposes and are not actually safe or suitable for nesting birds—often trapping the fledglings inside (unable to reach the door) or designed without removable panels that enable seasonal cleaning. If you keep decorative ones outdoors, block off the doorways so there are no mishaps with unsuspecting birds.
Attracting Wild Birds to Your Garden
- Give priority to providing a healthy, natural habitat that provides food and shelter for local wildlife including birds. Biodiversity is key.
- An eco-beneficial garden is a “messy” garden: dead and decaying things nourish life.
- Avoid the use of any products toxic to birds and their food sources including caterpillars.
- Keep pets out of your garden.
- Decorative birdhouses are not safe for birds.
- Use nesting boxes intended to safely house specific bird species.
- If using feeders, provide clean fresh water and the right types of seed.
- Clean bird feeders frequently. Remove feeders immediately if you notice any sign of disease or problems like salmonella, trichomoniasis, aspergillosis, or avian pox are reported in your area.
TIP: Use a wildlife camera with a motion sensor in your garden to get a candid look at life in your garden.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛