The Best Winter Bird Foods

Which Foods Attract Which Birds?

February 26, 2021
Cardinals in Winter on Bird Feeder

During late winter and early spring, when natural seed sources are scarce, give some TLC to the birds. Tom Warren, our Almanac birder, lists some favorite foods of winter birds across North America.

Best Winter Bird Foods

Favorite winter bird foods include:

  1. Sunflower
  2. Niger (Thistle)
  3. Cracked Corn
  4. Nuts & Fruit

See our chart on more wild bird food preferences.

The little grain of wheat, tritucum, is the noblest food of man. The lesser grains of grasses are the food of passerine birds at present. Their diet is like man’s”.  
–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Suet can be purchased inexpensively in the meat department at your local grocery store. Suet can be placed in containers purpose-built for bird feeding (they most often resemble a little cage). Almost all birds will eat suet, especially in cold weather. Most often you will see the Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and  Pileated Woodpeckers as well as chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice. See how to make suet.

Cracked Corn
A number of birds are ground feeders and will eat corn scattered on the ground; cardinals, sparrows, juncos, turkeys, and other birds will appear daily.

An expensive but special treat, nuts provide much-needed protein, fats, and vitamins. Unshelled peanuts will be attractive to blue jays and woodpeckers, and will also provide entertainment as you watch smaller birds like chickadees and titmice attempt to reach the nutmeats inside the shell. Peanuts are a favorite of blackbirds, chickadees, jays, and sparrows. Peanut hearts are especially attractive.

Niger (Thistle seed)
Niger, commonly called thistle seed, is a very popular seed for finches including redpolls, Pine Siskins, Goldfinches and Purple Finches.

Apples, crabapples, pears, and oranges are popular foods for jays, waxwings, woodpeckers, Ruffed Grouse and pheasants.

Small black oil seeds are best. Hulled sunflower seeds are attractive to birds, though costly. Popular with many birds, but especially finches.

At garden stores, pet shops, and numerous other stores, you can purchase seed mixes in bags from 10 to 50 pounds. Seeds will typically include sunflower, corn, millet, buckwheat, and other grains.

You can also make your own birdfood. See homemade bird food recipes

Red-bellied woodpecker
Red-bellied woodpecker at a suet feeder.

Caution: Spoiled Bird Seed
Spoiled seed can be contaminated with mold, feces, fungus, and other chemicals. Mold and fungus can lead to bird diseases. 

Old bird seed loses its nutritional value and should be discarded. Seed that is wet and lumpy should be removed from feeders. Maintain a seed inventory for only a few weeks and use large metal trash cans with tight covers to store seed.

Bird Feeding Locations

During periods of severe winter storms, snow and freezing rain, clearing an area on the ground near cover of bushes or forest can be life-saving for many species.

Feeders can be placed on poles, hung by wires from tree limbs, or placed on gutters so that they are just feet from windows, preferably in south-facing locations.

See more about choosing the right birdfeeder.

Fill your feeders before impending storms and then watch the feeding party that follows! What food do you put out for birds in the winter?

About This Blog

Tom Warren is a graduate of Harvard College and earned an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He has had an interest in birds since the age of 3, when he lived across from the President of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who showed Tom how to care for injured birds. Later, a neighboring grandmother taught him the songs of warblers and thrushes, and in the eighth grade, his Middle School biology teacher took his class on birding excursions every weekend. Tom has guided bird walks and owl prowls for conservation groups, and has also participated in annual Christmas Bird Counts and the Hawk Watch on Pack Monadnock Mountain. Throughout the years, he has spent time at Pt. Pelee in Ontario observing the spring migration and has traveled to a variety of other migration areas. Tom is also committed to protecting birds and their habitat as a Trustee for both Massachusetts and New Hampshire Audubon, and the Harris Nature Center.