Feeding Backyard Birds in Winter

Feeding Backyard Birds in Winter

By Meredith Stoesz, Wild Birds Unlimited

Feeding backyard birds during the winter is not only a fun pastime but can also be quite beneficial for birds and humans alike! Studies show that Black-capped Chickadees with access to supplemental food have higher survival rates than chickadees without access to supplemental food.[1] As well, there are many mental health benefits for us humans.[2] The opportunity to interact and see birds up close is priceless. But of course, there are many things to consider when it comes to inviting birds into our yards and gardens.


First things first: food! You want the food you offer to be of high quality and seeds that birds in Manitoba will eat. The simplest food to offer is black oil sunflower seed. High in oil and fat, with a soft shell, it is a favourite among many species of birds including chickadees, nuthatches, and finches. You can also try sunflower seeds out of the shell – less mess and less effort for the birds for a win-win situation. Adding a bit of white millet into the mix will accommodate ground feeders like sparrows and, during warmer months, Mourning Doves. But beware of blends that are mainly millet as you can end up with a big mess and less diversity.

Next up, peanuts! Blue jays love peanuts in the shell. They spend weeks in September and October caching peanuts all over neighbourhoods to prepare for colder weather. Skinless peanuts are a great option for smaller birds like chickadees and nuthatches who may not want to put the effort into cracking the shell. Woodpeckers also enjoy sunflower seeds and peanuts, but they especially love suet which is made from rendered beef fat and can be mixed with nuts, fruit, and mealworms. Other birds, like chickadees, nuthatches, jays, and sometimes early spring Yellow-rumped Warblers, will also go after suet.


PHOTO: Courtesy of M.Stoesz, Wild Birds Unlimited. Pileated Woodpecker on double tail-prop suet feeder.


Now that you have food, you need a feeder. Suet comes in a universal square cake which can be offered in a cage feeder or a tail-prop feeder to mimic a woodpecker’s natural foraging behaviour. If you’re just interested in smaller birds at the feeder, then a tube feeder is the right choice with its small perches for small birds like chickadees, nuthatches, and finches. Tray feeders, platform feeders, or hopper feeders provide a larger perching area which accommodates a larger number of species.

When feeding birds, their health and well-being should be the top priority. Unmaintained feeders can spread disease and sickness. It is recommended that feeders be cleaned with a 10% bleach/water solution (1:9) regularly. This means every couple of weeks.[3] Times that I would highly recommend cleaning feeders would be after large congregations of birds have been visiting, when weather has been fluctuating between humid and hot, after heavy precipitation, and before and after seasonal migration. It is very important to keep your feeders clean! You wouldn’t want guests eating off dirty plates.

The Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outbreak of 2022 and spring of 2023 was a confusing time for bird feeders, but studies have found that only two per cent of wild bird cases were songbirds or feeder visitors.[4] The chance of spreading Avian Influenza via bird feeders is low but is still something bird watchers should be aware of. Poultry are much more susceptible to Avian Influenza so if you keep chickens or ducks it is recommended to remove bird feeders from your property.[5] If you do encounter sick or dead birds at your feeders, it is best to remove feeders for two weeks to allow birds to disperse and report such birds to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative information line at 1-800-567-2033 or make a report online. The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative website provides bi-weekly HPAI updates.

Supporting Bird Populations

PHOTO: Courtesy of M.Stoesz, Wild Birds Unlimited. House Finch and White-breasted Nuthatch on tube feeder.

Backyard birds that spend the winter with us start choosing winter territories in August and September. They’re looking not only for food sources but shelter as well. Shelter for birds could be mature trees, shrubs, and tall grasses. You can even provide a brush pile over the winter months or, if you celebrate Christmas, that real tree can serve another purpose for the birds after the holiday is over.

If you’re thinking about birds, then you are probably already aware of the danger and struggle that all birds face. Since 1970, we’ve lost 2.9 billion birds, but the good news is there are many ways we can help![6] The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has come up with seven simple actions to help conserve current and future bird populations. These actions include making windows safer to reduce the incidence of bird strikes, keeping cats indoors, planting native plants, avoiding pesticides, drinking shade-grown coffee, using less plastics, and participating in citizen science projects like Project FeederWatch and eBird.[7] Taking steps towards these actions or even being able to enact one or two is an amazing accomplishment. It’s important to keep in mind that every little bit helps. If you’ve got the birds in mind, then there’s no stopping you!

Backyard bird feeding is a fun, rewarding, and exciting hobby especially when spring migration rolls around. You never know who is going to visit your yard and the more bird friendly the yard the more diversity you’ll see. One thing that I always stress to beginner bird feeders is adding native plants to their yard or garden. Native plants provide food sources for many different insects which in turn provide more food for birds! It is an, “if you build it, they will come,” situation. One of my favourite places to visit after a long winter is a native plant nursery. Then I like to plan how to squeeze those newly purchased native plants into my yard.

Featured Photo: (Courtesy of M. Stoesz, Wild Birds Unlimited.)
White-breasted Nuthatch and Black-capped Chickadee


[1] Brittingham, M. C. & Temple, S. A. 1988 Impacts of Supplemental Feeding on Survival Rates of Black-Capped Chickadees. Ecology 69, 581.
[2] https://news-archive.exeter.ac.uk/2017/february/title_571299_en.html
[3] https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/migratory-game-bird-hunting/avian-influenza-wild-birds.html#toc3[1]https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/avian-influenza-outbreak-should-you-take-down-your-bird-feeders/#
[4] https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/avian-influenza-outbreak-should-you-take-down-your-bird-feeders/#
[5] https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/migratory-game-bird-hunting/avian-influenza-wild-birds.html#toc2
[6] https://www.3billionbirds.org/
[7] https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/seven-simple-actions-to-help-birds/