How To Attract Winter Birds

Everyone knows that birds often return to the same spot year after year to build their nests. We wonder how they can travel hundreds or even thousands of miles over land and sea to the warmer lands of the South and then return the following spring to the same little patch of northern woodland or garden where they nested the year before. Yet we all know they do exactly that.

However, it is not so well known that birds are equally strong in their attachment to good places to spend the winter.

Winter BirdsPin

But the fact is that many birds which nest far to the north of us, in Maine or Canada or Newfoundland return to our region each fall to spend the winter months. 

About the more northern region from which they come, our section is “the south.” They elect to spend the winter if sufficient food is provided for them. If not enough food is available, they are likely to continue farther southward.

Licensed Bird Handers

Bird handers licensed by the Fish and Wildlife Service have proven these facts over and over again.

A small numbered aluminum band is placed on the bird’s leg, the date and species, and other necessary data are carefully recorded, and the bird is released. 

Frequently, he stays days, weeks, or months in the same area and is recaptured, and his hand number is recorded each time in the bird bander’s journal.

This is how we learn how long birds stay when they leave and if they return the following year.

It is a real thrill to welcome these little visitors from faraway places after a year’s absence. A number of our winter birds were banded lucre in 1944 and returned in 1945, 1946, 1947, and 1948. 

One little white-throated sparrow, who is handicapped by having only one leg, regularly returns each year between November 2 and November 15. We feel like we are greeting an old friend when we see “Peg-leg?’ come back to spend the winter season in our garden.

I’m often asked how to attract birds and what and how to feed them. Well, attracting birds is a simple, logical procedure. Their needs are like our own—food, shelter, and safety. 

If we set out to provide these three things for birds in the property surrounding our homes, we will never lack bird songs and bird friends to keep us company.

Importance Of Food

Since food is of first importance, begin by scattering wild bird seed on the ground in a place where. you have seen a few birds gather. Once they form the habit of feeding there, the rest is easy. 

If this spot is too distant from your home, encourage the birds to come closer by scattering a little fresh bird seed each day in places nearer and nearer to your dwelling.

Once birds discover a permanent source of food supply, they will regularly come to it and bring their friends. 

Other birds flying overhead sec what appears to be a very busy and popular restaurant and come down themselves to partake of a feast.

Ground Feeding

Once you get birds accustomed to finding food in one place, it is a simple matter to entice them to new feeders nearby, which are safer for birds because they are raised off the ground.

Of course, certain birds, such as cardinals and mourning doves, prefer to feed on the ground, no matter how well-stocked the feeding trays are high up in the air. 

Ground feeding unquestionably has its problems, for squirrels and other rodents are bound to come to share and perhaps completely take over the food supply you provide for the birds. I know there are lots of people who like to feed squirrels and consider them their pets. 

Attracting Birds

This is all good for people who can afford such luxury. But for our birds alone, we buy between 500 and 700 pounds of fine quality bird seed each season, as well as many jars of peanut butter, boxes of raisins, lots of suet, and many fresh fruits and berries to attract certain of the rarer birds which feed upon such delicacies.

For the past five years, I have endeavored to attract every possible kind of wild bird to our little garden.

We have less than a quarter of an acre of ground planted with everything possible to attract and shelter native songbirds. 

Within the past five years, we have entertained 147 different kinds of birds, and my banding records show that I have handled over 30,000 individuals.

Protecting Garden From Squirrels

Like everyone else, I have struggled with the squirrel problem, and several solutions are in our garden. The most successful are bird feeders on iron poles, with metal guards just below the feeder. 

The metal guards may be a large, inverted cone, a discarded metal lampshade, a large metal cake tin, or even a large metal can of any kind, provided it forms a funnel facing downward, over which neither squirrel nor cat can climb. 

No overhanging tree limbs must be near your feeders because squirrels will go to almost any length in leaping from tree to feeder.

A friend of mine, a man who greatly enjoyed his birds, cut down with real regret one tree which overhung his feeder. His solution for keeping the squirrels from climbing the pole was to face the feeder’s undersurface with a 40-inch square of aluminum. 

This worked beautifully until a heavy snowfall and piles of snow made it possible for the squirrels to jump from the snow piles to the feeder. Active snow shoveling cleared up this little difficulty. Now he is very proud of his squirrel-proof bird feeder. 

Another friend told me how she used 4×18-inch oblong glass panels on each side of the 40-inch square wooden post upon which her feeder rested.

The whole point behind any of these ideas for preventing squirrels or cats from climbing from the ground to the bird feeder is that you must provide some smooth, slippery surface over which they cannot climb. 

Hanging feeders may usually be squirrel-proof by using the same idea, except that the slippery metal should be above the fetch and not below it.

Ideal Time To Start Feeding Birds

Fall or winter is the ideal time to start feeding birds. But never start unless you intend to continue or to have someone continue for you if you must suddenly stop or go away in mid-winter. 

If you do, and the birds suddenly leave without a steady food supply in hotter winter weather, they will certainly starve to death.

Birds must eat regularly to stay alive in icy weather since food is the only fuel to keep their little engines running. 

Many birds, which will stay to spend the winter with you if encouraged to do so by a steady and unfailing food supply, would normally continue on their journey southward to warmer climates where ample food would be assured. Having enticed them to stop at your place, you must provide them with sufficient food.

The more feeders we have and bird food we put out, the more birds we are likely to attract.

Wild Bird Seed

Most of our winter birds prefer wild bird seed to any other food, and birdseed is, therefore, the most widely useful and popular of all foods for birds in winter. For fun, pick up some small seeds and look at them carefully. 

You will see that each seed is like a miniature nut, complete with a shell. Inside the hard outer coating is a sweet, white little “nutmeat.” This contains all three classes of food—carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

Wild Berries and Fruits

There are certain birds, however, like downy woodpeckers and the friendly little chickadees and nuthatches, which also greatly enjoy suet.

Wild berries and fruit put out along with bird seed are also very useful in attracting some soft-billed birds. 

Peanut Butter, Table Scraps, and Leftover Foods

Peanut butter should be thinned with cooking fat, for I have learned of a small bird choked on peanut butter alone.

Bread crumbs and other table scraps, bits of pastry, leftover cheese, and meat are all considered treats by certain birds.

Since birds have no teeth, it is also necessary that they have hard particles, such as earth, sand, or bird gravel, to help them grind and digest their food.

Therefore, always put out some form of bird gravel or sand in wintertime along with your bird seed and other roods.


Water, both winter and summer, is a great inducement. Birds get thirsty just as we do, and fresh, clean water can be kept from freezing in winter by a poultry water warmer.

In summer, a shallow pool or bird bath will attract many birds to drink or bathe, especially if the water is dripping. 

A large flat stone or a ‘heap of little pebbles in the bird bath will give timid birds a place to stand while deciding that the water is not too deep for them. 

A large, leafless, twiggy branch stuck in the ground overhanging the bird bath also encourages birds to try out this new provision for their comfort.

They fly in, perch momentarily on the lookout point, and then, satisfied that all is well, set about drinking or bathing.

This one factor of providing a perch for birds is a very important point in attracting them. Quite frequently, the difference in the success or failure of a new feeding tray depends upon this factor alone.

Tying evergreen branches and twiggy bits of plant material to a bare, new feeder greatly increases its attractiveness to the birds.

Natural Food For Birds

Planting berried trees, shrubs, and vines around your home is also a great attraction to birds. These are natural foods, and birds love them, not only for food but for shelter, and shelter is almost as important in attracting birds as food. 

Birds must eat, and they must also rest and sleep even as we do; so if you want lots of birds in your garden, let your shrubs grow into dense thickets and let the vines sprawl and tangle to make a big thick mass of shelter. Birds will nest there and sleep there too.

Evergreens are especially useful for this purpose, and often on a bitterly cold night, you can look with a flashlight into the closely set branches of an evergreen tree and see the little birds huddled up close against the trunk. 

Another important point to remember is that birds use hedgerows as we use roads for travel, so a thick lane of shrubs surrounding one’s property is a great attraction to any bird which flies overhead.

Using Windowsill Feeder

In snowy weather, a windowsill feeder with an overhanging glass top is a great convenience for a person who cannot go out into the snow.

A wire bicycle basket attached to the front of the feeder will keep this for the little birds and keep out squirrels and other uninvited guests. 

Birds fear dark places, and a light and open feeder is always their first choice. In snowy weather, this is a real problem and one that I have solved by having a loose-fitting slip-cover to place over each feeder as night comes on with its drifting snow. 

Next morning it is simple to take off the slip-cover and, underneath, find your feeder clean and dry and ready for the hungry birds.

Keeping a place open on the ground is also a problem in the snow, though this can be solved by building a tepee-like arrangement of evergreens and large discarded tree or shrub branches. 

Have your opening to the side, away from the wind and drifting snow. Also, a large burlap spread on the snow will prevent the seed you put out from being lost to the birds.

Then, too, I strongly suspect that birds fly over this brown surface on the snow and come down thinking that it is an open patch of brown earth.

If you are a beginner at attracting birds, please be patient and don’t expect lots of birds in the beginning. It takes time for them to discover the treat you offer them, and it takes time for them to learn that they can trust you.

Seeing The Red Cardinal

To those who have come to know the never-ending charm of winter birds, a garden without them is a dead and desolate spot.

Once upon a time, I was not too fond of winter. Then one icy day, when the snow lay heavy on the pines, I saw a beautiful red cardinal before me.

Right there on the snow-laden pine, he made a picture I shall never forget—as a beautiful red rose, I thought, blooming right there in the middle of the snow. 

Suddenly I realized there must be other birds, equally beautiful, of whose existence I was completely ignorant. At that moment, a dream was home, a garden where all winter birds came and went.

Today that dream is fulfilled, and our birds are the gay and lovely flowers of our winter garden. Here the seasons change happily from one to another, and each season has its birds and colorful charm. 

There is no feeling of sadness in my heart when winter comes. With each snowstorm, I welcome back little birds who are friends of long-standing.

44659 by Betty Carnes