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Winter Bird Feeding

[Male cardinal]

Hey kids, when you're tired of watching the snowflakes fall this winter, why not look for colorful birds in your backyard? By putting up a bird feeder in your yard, you can attract wild birds to a spot where you can easily see them. This activity can open up a whole new world of excitement right outside your window and you can do it from the warmth of your home.

Not only is bird feeding fun, it also helps birds through harsh winter conditions when food may be hard to find or buried under the deep snow. Don't be discouraged if it takes time for birds to find your feeder. Your location, the abundance of natural food nearby, and the weather can all affect your bird feeding efforts.

Read on to find out how to improve your chances of seeing birds this winter.

Feeder fun

Bird feeders come in many shapes and sizes from shelf feeders to log feeders, suet to traditional styles. Building a bird feeder will give you a project to work on when the winds are howlin' and it's too cold for playing outside in the snow. Click here to view some unique bird feeder plans:
Pinecone Feeder
Milk Jug Feeder
Suet Feeder

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Eagle eyes

[kid artwork] There are lots of birds that spend their winter in Wisconsin. This means you'll need to keep a close eye on your feeder and maybe after a time, you'll be able to tell them apart. Birds come in all shapes, sizes, colors, have different calls, and they are very picky about what they eat. A field guide and binoculars will help you identify them. You might also want to keep a list of the different birds you see and count them up at the end of the winter. Why not take photos of the different birds you see, or keep a journal of what they do.

This list will help you when trying to identify birds:

  • Bird Size - Ask yourself, is the bird bigger or smaller than a robin?

  • Bird Markings - Look at the coloration of the feathers, what is unique? Does the bird have markings like a cap, a scarf or bib, eye streaks?

  • Bird Beak - What shape is the beak? Is it short and wide to crack seeds, is it long and narrow to eat suet, is it sharply curved as if to eat meat?

  • Bird Legs - What type of legs does this bird have? Are they short and narrow, long with webbed feet, long with strong talons on its feet?

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What's for supper?

[bluejay] Here are some helpful hints to prepare you for this adventure. First, there are two main types of food that birds will be attracted to in your yard. One is seed and the other is suet (sounds like soo-it). Suet is high quality fat from animals and can be purchased from the meat department of your local grocery store. Many birds that prefer seeds at your feeder also eat seeds in the wild and get them from berries, crops, or other plants. The birds that eat suet, usually find worms or insects in the summer months to fill their stomachs, but can't find insects in the winter. Some birds also like nuts, fruit, or other table scraps. Look at the list below to find out who eats what.

Birdseed Bonanza:

Grains: Grains are very popular with many bird species. Sunflower seeds, corn, milo, and millet are common birdfeed grains. Black, oil-type sunflower seeds and white proso millet are probably the best and most popular seeds to attract goldfinches, blue jays, cardinals, black-capped chickadees, evening grosbeaks, pine siskins, purple finches, pine grosbeaks, and white-breasted nuthatches. Corn is also a very popular grain food on the ear, shelled, or cracked. Blue jays, house sparrows, starlings, and pheasants all prefer corn. Milo, another grain, is preferred by dark-eyed juncos, American goldfinches, pine siskins and tree sparrows. Cardinals like squash seeds if you've got any extras from your fall harvest.

Suet: Suet (beef fat) is a nutritious food for brown creepers, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, red- and white-breasted nuthatches, and black-capped chickadees.

Thistle: Thistle seed is a great way to attract redpolls, purple finches, pine siskins, and goldfinches.

Here's a list of common winter birds and how to attract them with a feeder and the correct mixture of seeds or food types.


Type of Feeders

Type of food

Northern cardinal ground tray, post, tube feedersunflower, safflower, peanuts, cracked corn, white millet, white bread, melon seeds, raisins, bananas
Purple finchhigh post, hanging and tube feederssunflower, safflower, thistle, peanuts, suet mixtures, white and red millet
Bluejayground, any seed or suet feederswhole corn, striped sunflower, peanuts, suet mixtures
Black-capped chickadeeany type of feeder or the groundsunflower, safflower, suet mixtures, peanuts, thistle, peanutbutter, pie crust
White-breasted nuthatchall feederssunflower, safflower, suet mixtures, peanuts, peanut butter, pumpkin seeds
Woodpeckerssuet, hanging log feeders, post feederssuet and suet mixtures, cracked corn, peanuts, fruit
Mourning doveground or low tray/post feederscracked corn, white and red millet, safflower, thistle, wheat

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Winter feeder care

[nuthatch] Don't just put your feeder out and forget about it. If you provide food in the winter, keep the feeder full since many birds will rely on it as a regular place to eat. Also, it is very important to keep the feeder clean since birds can get sick from moldy birdseed or pass diseases on from your feeder to another bird. Keep the following tips in mind for a healthy feeding station.

*Give your seed feeders (especially thistle and tube feeders) a shake before you refill them to dislodge compacted seed. Dump out any wet clumps of old seed.

*Clean all hulls off platform feeders and out of seed trays daily.

*Occasionally clean your feeder with a sturdy brush and soap and water before you refill it. Rinse in a weak bleach/water mix if it looks like you have any disease problems (please have an adult help you with bleach). Rinse and allow feeders to dry before refilling with seed.

*Wash your hands after filling or cleaning your feeders.

*Don't allow large amounts of seed to become wet on platform feeders. Instead, when it's wet outside, feed birds from covered feeders that will keep seed dry, or put out only a handful of seed at a time on the platform.

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Watch out for feeder bandits!

When you put food out in the winter, other animals will also come looking for food. Watch out for squirrels and raccoons, they can eat all of the seed up in a matter of hours and possibly destroy the feeder to get at the food inside. Use baffles (cone- shaped barriers) on your feeder poles or over the top of feeders hanging from tree branches. Cages also work for some type of hanging feeders.

Birds of prey, like hawks, can also dive at your feeders or wait in the shadows to make a meal out of the birds eating in your yard. You can help protect the birds at your feeder by placing it in an area that has trees, brush piles, and bushes nearby so the birds can take cover if they are being watched. Baffles over feeders can also help as well as wire cages around the feeder to keep birds protected inside.

Cats on the loose are also a problem for birds at feeders. They wait in the shadows like hawks and pounce on feeding birds. Believe it or not, Wisconsin cats kill an estimated 39 million birds each year. If you have cats, it is best to keep them on a leash or better yet in the house.

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