An expert from the National Audubon Society answers your questions on feeders, seeds, and more.


'Tis the season for hosting out-of-town guests, and in some parts of the country, that could mean visiting birds in your backyard. "Depending on where you are in the country, there are many birds that'll stick around your backyard during the winter," says Dr. John Rowden, senior director of bird-friendly communities at the National Audubon Society. "This includes a variety of finches, chickadees, nuthatches, jays, woodpeckers, and more." So, what to do when you find unexpected birds visiting your home this winter? While some studies have shown that human-supplied feedings can alter the behavior of wild birds, Rowden says the best thing to do is feed them. "During the colder months it can be more difficult for our birds to find food," he says. "Offering nutritious food options is a good way to help them through the winter and entice them to your backyard."

cardinal perched on bird feeder in snow
Credit: Robert D. Barnes / Getty Images

At the onset of winter, birds that have become used to supplemental feeding may suffer when that food supply is suddenly missing, which is why it's important to maintain your feeders. With the knowledge that feeding your backyard birds through the coldest months of the year will help them stay healthy and well-fueled, here's what Rowden says you should do.

Draw Birds to Your Backyard

If you want to let migrating birds know your feeder is open for business in the winter, look for a way to attract them to it. "One of the best ways to draw birds to your backyard is offering a variety of food sources and nutrients," Rowden says. "Whether they're looking for fuel on their migration journey or they tend to stick around year-round."

Serve the Right Nutritious Seeds

Of course, you'll want to make sure you have plenty of healthy food sources in your backyard to supply your feathered guests." The best food options offer high-calorie combinations of fats and protein," Rowden says, "Sunflower seeds, millet, nyjer, and suet are all great."

Grow Native Plants in Your Backyard

If you have a green thumb, Rowden says you can also grow native plants in your backyard to provide winter birds with both food and shelter. "Planting native plants in your backyard also offers natural nutrients and habitat for birds all year," he says. "You can learn more about which plants are bird-friendly and native to your region with Audubon's Native Plants Database."

Employ a Good Feeder (or Three)

"There are a variety of feeders for winter backyard birds, including tube, hopper, suet, thistle, and ground feeders, that are suitable for different backyard birds," Rowden says. "If you're looking to attract a diverse group of birds, we suggest mixing up the types of feeders (and feed) that'll support different groups from finches and warblers to cardinals, jays, and nuthatches. Be sure to keep the feeders fairly spread out to avoid too much competition among different species."

Clean Your Feeders Regularly

Rowden says keeping your bird feeders clean and bacteria-free is almost as important as what you feed your visiting birds in the winter. "Wash your feeder every two weeks and make sure it's completely dry before refilling," he says. "Keep an eye on your feeders and be sure to replace any feed that gets dampened by snow or rain."


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