Three for Thursday: Winter Gifts for your Backyard Birds

Dark Eyed Junco enjoying a peanut.

Dark Eyed Junco discovering a peanut.

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time you already know how much we love our backyard birds. With the colder weather upon us, food and water become scarce and we like to give them a little winter help! Here are our favorite winter tips.

Water – I feel providing fresh water for the birds is even more important than providing food. If I had to choose one or the other, water would be my first choice. Why? Food sources don’t freeze in the winter, water does! And birds need to drink.

House Finch Bathing

House Finch bathing in our heated bird bath.

There many commercially-available choices for keeping water thawed. We use a heated bird bath, which doesn’t actually keep the water “warm” but rather just a few degrees above freezing. It’s easy to maintain and a simple outdoor extension cord provides the electricity. If you already have a non-heated bird bath you like, you can add a heater. It’s important to keep the bird bath clean and the water fresh. (The best tool we’ve found for cleaning our bird baths is a grill brush!)

Food – Although your outdoor birds will appreciate any food, investing in a higher quality seed will greatly increase the quantity and variety of birds you can attract.

Millet seed, common in grocery-store bird seed blends.

Millet seed, common in grocery-store bird seed blends.

Most grocery-store seed mixes contain a high percentage of millet seed. Millet is cheap, readily available, and also happens to be the favorite food of the House Sparrow, which to me is the devil of the backyard bird world. House Sparrows are aggressive, overpowering, and will essentially eliminate other backyard visitors. Thankfully, not serving millet does significantly reduce the number of House Sparrows in our back yard!

Safflower - a better alternative.

Safflower – a better alternative.

We feed primarily safflower seed, which is a favorite of cardinals, house finches, and chickadees among others. More importantly, House Sparrows don’t like it, and neither do Starlings and Grackles which are also considered feeder-hogs, emptying feeders quickly if they find their favorites. So, although you will be spending a bit more for the safflower, it pays off by lasting longer since you will be attracting fewer nuisance birds. We also offer thistle, black oil sunflower seeds (shelled and unshelled) and peanuts. These attract Goldfinches, Juncos, Blue Jays, Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, and Titmice in addition to the safflower-loving birds mentioned above.

Homemade Treats -Because our combined dog food/bird food bill easily exceeds the amount we spend on the humans in the house (and because I’ve already got you spending money on a bath heater and better feed!) I like to supplement with some homemade goodies. Most recently, I’ve made a suet-type treat that everyone seems to enjoy. Store-bought suet is cheap, but often sits untouched. Not only is this mixture less costly, the birds actually eat it!

Homemade Bark Batter

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup flour
2 cups cornmeal

Combine all ingredients until well-mixed. I used my hands. Feel free to add some sunflower seeds, nuts, dried fruits, anything your birds might like!

There are many ways to serve this treat! We have a board attached to a pole, but you can also smear it right onto the tops of your bird feeders, or even onto the branches of a tree or bush. Or, add chunks of it to a tray feeder. The options are endless.

Homemade Bark Batter

One quick note about the blasted House Sparrows. They do seem to like this homemade treat. So, when they find it we keep the board empty for a few days until they leave again (not finding anything else of interest in our feeders) and then re-fill. Usually the juncos will finish it before the sparrows re-find it!

Many thanks to my photographer!
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