Out My Backdoor: My Winter Bird-feeding Strategy

Carolina wrens sitting on bird feeder
Carolina wrens (Terry W. Johnson)


By Terry W. Johnson

Winter bird-feeding is a favorite pastime among thousands of Georgians. However, as is the case in so many endeavors, some folks enjoy more success than others. This begs the question: Is there a secret to their success?

After feeding birds for more decades than I care to mention, I have learned it is easier than you think. All you have to do is keep in mind the best way to fill your yard with all sorts of birds in winter is to provide them with food and water. The trick is finding the right combination that works in your backyard.

For decades, Project FeederWatch has been surveying bird-feeding activities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Data collected indicate that far and away the most common food offered by people is mixed seed. The next three most popular are suet, black-oil sunflower seed and nyjer (thistle).

My feeding regime differs somewhat from these findings. For example, I avoid feeding mixed seed.

These mixes contain varying amounts of sunflower seed, millet, sorghum, corn, wheat and the like. Premium mixed seed contains much more sunflower seed and millet than most mixes. Consequently, if you offer your feathered neighbors a mix with large amounts of inexpensive grains such as sorghum, corn and wheat, more than likely you will discover many of the seeds in these mixes are not eaten and end up rotting on the ground. This, in turn, increases risks for the spread of a number of diseases.

If you want to avoid this problem, before you buy a seed mix, read the label on the bag. Avoid buying mixes that are largely composed of seeds our backyard birds find less desirable. Instead, consider buying a mix that primarily consists of black oil sunflower seed and white millet. These mixes will cost a little more; however, they will greatly reduce the amount of seed that birds toss aside, and you will not be faced with raking up piles of wasted seed. Remember you get what you pay for.

Here is what works best for me. I offer birds two seeds—white (proso) millet and black oil sunflower—in separate feeders. Although you can find black oil sunflower seed in most places that sell wild-bird seed, white millet is more difficult to find. I purchase both black oil sunflower seed and white millet in 50-pound bags from a local feed store and store them in metal trash cans. Buying the seed in bulk is far more cost effective than purchasing them in small bags.

These two seeds will attract all of the seed-eating birds you are likely to see in your backyards. Birds such as sparrows (chipping, white-throated, fox, white-crowned and song), dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves and eastern towhees all relish white millet. Even cardinals eat their fair share of millet seed.

The long list of birds that prefer to dine on black oil sunflower seeds includes northern cardinals, house and purple finches, Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, brown-headed, red breasted and white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers, American goldfinches, and pine siskins. Some years, I will also offer the birds at my backyard bird cafe nyjer seed. Whether or not I feed this seed depends on the numbers of American goldfinches and pine siskins wintering in my neck of the woods. When I offer it, most often it is in years when the populations of these two species are high. I have found that when they are low, the seed goes largely unused.

I am also constantly trying new offerings. For example, at the suggestion of a good friend a few years ago I began feeding corn bread. I did so after he told me that it is a favorite for of the hermit thrush. While I have not yet attracted a hermit thrush to my feeding station, sparrows and mockingbirds regularly dine on it.

Many of the winter birds that prefer to eat insects rarely, if ever, visit seed feeders. Others, like chickadees, nuthatches and some woodpeckers, will eat sunflower seeds. Consequently, the best way to satisfy their nutritional needs, as well as those birds that rarely eat seeds, is to supplement their winter diet with suet.

Like wild birdseed, there is a dizzying array of different kinds of suet on the market. While all varieties are eaten by birds, it has been my experience that the suet preferred by the most birds contains peanut butter. Some of the backyard birds that will visit suet feeders in winter are downy and red-bellied woodpecker, Carolina wrens, ruby-crowned kinglets, mockingbirds, orange-crowned, and yellow-rumped and pine warblers.

In spite of all that we offer them, some of our backyard guests rarely visit backyard feeders. However, they can be enticed to visit with water. In fact, more different kinds of birds can be attracted to water than with food. With that in mind, maintain a birdbath throughout the winter. All birds will bathe and drink at birdbaths during the coldest season of the year. However, some of the birds that you can usually only attract with water include the northern flicker, cedar waxwing and American robin.

I have shared with you my approach to backyard feeding. Although it works well in my backyard in the lower Piedmont region, it may not be the answer to your backyard-feeding situation. However, I am certain that elements of my approach will enhance your feeding program.

I urge you to maintain a birdbath throughout winter and experiment with different foods. Believe me, the secret to bird feeding success in your yard involves each. Once you find that best mix, the birds will benefit and you will enjoy hours of watching birds in your backyard even during winter’s coldest days.

Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”