Secrets to feeding birds in winter

Last Updated on September 14, 2020 by Greg Gillson

Recently I moved from the San Diego area to the Cascade mountains of southwestern Washington State. 

My winter bird feeding experience is about to change!

The forest is hot and dry now in September, and fires are raging across the state. But the rains will start up in a month. Six weeks after that we can expect some snow. Rain and snow will alternate all winter, perhaps into April.

If you, like me, will have a snowy winter, how do we feed birds in winter? Here’s the secret:

To best feed wild birds in winter you need to provide high-energy foods such as black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet. You need to remove snow and ice from the bird feeder. And you need to provide liquid water for birds to drink.

Image by Daniela Viskova from Pixaby.

Secret #1: The best foods for winter bird feeding

The first secret for successful winter bird feeding is providing the right food.

Birds need fatty, high-energy, food in winter. Here are the foods birds like best in winter.

Sunflower seeds

The “oil” in black oil sunflower seeds indicate that these have higher fat content than striped sunflower seeds. This is what birds want and need in winter. Most seed eating birds love black oil sunflower seeds more than anything else. The black oil sunflower seeds are smaller and have thinner shells than the striped sunflower seeds. So birds can get them open easier.

Hulled sunflower seeds, often sold as sunflower kernels or chips, are primarily made from striped sunflowers. Birds love them–but not as much as black oil sunflower seeds. They are very easy to eat, since the shell is off. So birds with smaller bills like them better.

Peanut halves

Peanuts are a great source of fat and protein. Just what birds need to keep warm on those cold winter days (and nights)! Dry roasted and unsalted peanuts will make birds happy and keep them healthy.

Squirrels love peanuts, too. You may have to set up a separate whole peanut (in the shell) supply to keep those pesky, but entertaining, squirrels out of the bird feeders (may not work, though).


White proso millet provides carbohydrates for energy. It is a small seed that many sparrows and juncos prefer to sunflower seeds. 

These seeds are best offered on a platform feeder or hopper feeder with tray for the birds to stand on. The birds that like millet best are ground feeders. They will like a low feeder.

Warning: a similar small seed is red milo. It is a major component of cheaply-priced bird seed. Most birds will not eat milo. Read your bird seed ingredients label carefully before purchasing.

Niger seed

This small seed is sold as “thistle” or under the trademark Nyjer®. This seed is a favorite of the small finches. Goldfinches and Pine Siskins really love Niger seed!

Niger seed is fed in special finch feeders or thistle socks. These have small mesh that the birds pull the seeds from.

The seed will not last over from one season to the next. It also molds rather easily if left out in the rain too long. When the small finches aren’t eating it anymore, then it is time to throw out the old and start fresh. For this reason, I recommend buying it in small amounts until you know how much your birds eat on a regular basis.


Suet is rendered beef fat. You might not think that seed eating and insect eating birds would eat animal fat. But they love it! Especially in winter.

Think of a suet block as a big juicy grub. The birds that find it have hit the motherload!

Suet is often formed into a block and fed in a special suet cage. To keep starlings and blackbirds from eating it all, feed suet on a special upside-down suet feeder. Check out an upside-down suet feeder at Amazon. [Edit: Works great for my chickadees and nuthatches; the jays have a hard time getting any–it keeps them away, as I wished.]

Plain suet is fine. But often it is sold in a variety pack. It can have bird seed, fruit, nuts, and even mealworms melted into it and hardened. Different additives will attract different birds. I recently bought (but have not yet received, a low-priced variety pack of suet from Amazon). [Edit: inexpensive and the birds love it–I’ve reordered several times!]

Look for me to write a review of the feeder and suet in the future.

Some suet alternatives are made with peanut butter. Some is spreadable and called Bark Butter®. It is spread onto tree bark.

Mixed bird seed

Don’t buy cheap mixed bird seed for feeding birds in winter!

Specifically, stay away from bird seed with red milo and cracked corn. These are two seeds and grains that many birds will not eat.

Make sure any mixed seed you feed to birds in winter is mostly sunflower seeds and white proso millet. See my article on why.

Photo of handful of bird seed
Wagner’s Songbird Supreme

I recommend Wagner’s Songbird Supreme. Look at that seed in my hand! It is 50% sunflower seeds–black oil, striped, and chips! It also contains safflower seeds, white proso millet, and peanuts. No cheap fillers. At all. It is good all year round, but especially good for feeding birds in winter. Buy Wagner’s Songbird Supreme through this Amazon affiliate link. Thank you.

Secret #2: Keep your winter bird feeders full and snow-free

The next secret to feeding birds in winter is to make sure that food is always available to the birds.

One way to do this is to make sure your feeders are always full. Birds can suffer in harsh winter weather. I learned recently that for many species, males out-compete females for food. Thus backyard feeders are very important for making sure that the females get enough to eat in winter.

Having larger capacity feeders can help. Food will last all through the day. And, perhaps, you don’t have to fill the feeders as often, perhaps the bird food will last for several days.

Having more than one feeder allows one to accidentally go empty, yet the other will still have food.
A second way to make sure that food is always available is to keep the bird feeders free of snow and ice.

You may sweep or shovel or trample the snow under the feeder to expose the ground. Bird seed often falls to the ground under the feeder. Some birds prefer to feed there, on the ground.

Purchase hopper or platform bird feeders with large overhanging roofs to keep them from filling with snow. And, if you notice the bird feeders are covered with snow, bundle up and go clean off the snow.

Tube feeders don’t fill with snow like the other feeders. But not all birds feed from tube feeders. And check that the feeding ports are clear of frozen ice or that large nuts or seeds aren’t blocking it. In rainy weather the bird seed sometimes gums up at the feeding ports and needs to be cleaned out.

Secret #3: Provide drinking water for birds in winter

The final secret to feeding birds in winter is to provide water.

Birds need to drink every day. Eating snow uses far more calories to keep warm than drinking cold liquid water.

In some areas where it warms above freezing during the day, a bit of ice on the bird bath in the morning isn’t a problem. But if you get a week of sunny freezing weather, birds need to be supplied with liquid water. You can get up and pour some warm water into the bird bath on those frozen mornings. (Earlier is better for the birds.)

On the other hand, if you live where snow is on the ground for long stretches during the winter, you need a heated bird bath. These can be pedestal types, or mount on the deck. 

They can be a bit on the expensive side. But I like the look of this small heated bird bath bowl that sits on the ground, that Amazon advertises. It is fairly inexpensive.

Are you ready for the next part?
What birds come to feeders in the winter?
(More than 40 birds pictured!)

Related: When to stop feeding birds in summer

Related: Birds that come to feeders in summer

Related: Why fall is the best time to set up your bird feeders

Comments 4
  1. Greg, I love your posts! Keep up the great work!

    I'm just starting to adjust my garden plants to attract more birds. Any chance you happen to do the same or have noticed anything that attracts specific birds? I live around Everett, Washington, and trying to work doubletime before winter hits!

  2. Greetings, CJ!

    My generic recommendation is to check at your local nursery for native plants with berries or fruit. I notice the birds really love a huge flowering dogwood across the street and all its berries. Other trees such as elderberry are smaller.

    But garden, plants? A lot of birds are eating blackberries right now. Any hedges supply a hiding place for security.

    Hope this helps!

  3. I've tried 3 different bird feeders this winter. Two were new. The black oil sunflower seeds do not drop down after they have eaten the available seeds. The seeds haven't been wet. All the feeders have become useless. I've tried 2 different types of seed.

  4. How frustrating!

    Have you tried both tube and hopper feeders?

    Check the feeder port opening to make sure it is large enough. I've only heard of this happening when the seed is wet.

    You can always go to a platform feeder.

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