|Chickadee on a bird feeder (own work)|
Some well-intentioned people operate under the misconception that all birds head south for winter. I live in the northern half of the US, and while shopping at my local grocery store last fall, I noticed a display of bird food and bird feeders. I stopped to check them out (my old feeders were due to be replaced). While I was examining a feeder, a young boy and his grandfather walked by. I overheard the boy ask if they could get a bird feeder, and the grandfather said (loudly, as if he was making sure I could hear), “Why would anybody buy a bird feeder this time of year? The birds are all going south!”
Another time, once again in fall, I was having a chat with a former co-worker about backyard birds. When the topic of feeding them came up, he said, “That reminds me. It’s about time to take the feeders down for the winter.”
Actually, as I explained to my co-worker, winter is a great time to feed the birds, even for those who live in more northerly latitudes. While it is true that some birds do in fact head south when the weather starts cooling off, quite a few stick around. Blue jays, cardinals, mourning doves, chickadees, finches, titmice, and sparrows are just some of the birds who are year-round residents. There are even some birds that migrate to the northern US from even further north. I always know winter is almost here when I see dark-eyed juncos hopping around in my backyard.
Food sources for these birds are scarcer in winter than they are during warmer months. Plants aren’t growing and producing new seeds or fruit, and most insects are dead or dormant. If you keep your feeders stocked, you’ll be sure to draw a crowd! I have a few birds who are regular visitors to my yard in summer, but my feeders are a bustling center of bird activity in winter. I also see a much wider variety of birds when it’s cold.
If you decide to offer food in winter, higher fat foods are best. They are higher in calories, and birds burn off a lot of calories just trying to stay warm. Sunflower seeds, safflower seeds, peanuts, and suet are good choices for most birds. If you’re not squeamish about it, you can also offer dried mealworms and insects. Just keep in mind that suet, peanuts and sunflower seeds are likely to draw squirrels and other critters as well. It’s said that squirrels don’t care for safflower, but that seems to vary by region.