The Best Winter Bird Foods

Which Foods Attract Which Birds?

January 29, 2019
Cardinals in Winter on Bird Feeder

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When you feed winter birds, consider bird food that is normally available to birds in winter. Here are some favorites foods of winter birds across North America.

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

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.

Best Winter Bird Foods

Favorite winter bird foods include:

  • Sunflower
  • Niger (Thistle)
  • Cracked Corn
  • Nuts & Fruit

See our chart on wild bird food preferences.

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.

See more 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!

Do you feed the birds in your backyard? Who are your favorite feathered guests? Let us know in the comments!

About This Blog

Tom Warren 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.

2019 Garden Guide

Reader Comments

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Raw versus roasted peanuts

I have been buying the roasted unsalted peanuts from Costco for several years from my blue jays and squirrels.there is one bird food I found that has a combination of split and pieces of peanuts but they are both raw and roasted together is it safe for the birds to eat raw peanuts?

Beware of Mice!

I just love to feed my feathered friends, and had a ton of feeders on my porch and outside my windows. Unfortunately, the birds are so messy when they eat, and while some of the dropped food is eaten by ground feeders, the mice also found heaven on earth! They were just fat and happy and living under my house, so I had to move my feeders. They feed at night, so you won't know you have a problem until you start finding stashes of birdseed in the strangest places!! So just a warning...

Birdseed under the hood

When I took my car to the garage the mechanic brought a plastic container from under the hood that was full of sunflower seeds! I set a couple of mouse traps under the hood that night and caught two fat mice. Now I try to keep the seeds from accumulating too much under the feeders.

rat / mice do not like this

I was buying bird seed at my bird store the food had cayenne pepper in it (but is way more expensive) so now I but good bird seed pour seed into a large bowl and sprinkle cayenne pepper stir well.
Rats and mice squirrels do not like the hot taste. Birds do not feel the heat.

Bird feeding

I hang squirrel proof feeders in a tree and my pole feeders have baffle to keep squirrels off. I feed black oil Sun flower seeds, peanuts, suet, and a fruit & nut mix. Millet on the ground draws in the Juncos and Morning Doves. Blue Jays devour the peanuts. Cardinals and Chickadees love the sunflower seeds. Downey and red breasted woodpeckers, Gold Finch are also in the mix. Squirrels clean up the spill . I feed all year but only one feeder in the warm months

Feeding birds

Most of the time I enjoy watching the many birds that come to my feeders, However, starting last fall, the goldfinches have turned into "bully" birds, descending like a cloud of locusts to gobble up all the food. They crowd out other birds, fight amongst themselves and leave so many droppings that I worry about disease. I have a feeder for finches in addition to two other feeders - one with black sunflower seeds and the other with a mixture. Does anyone have any advice? Also, the birds here don't seem interested in suet for some reason. It just gets wasted. I know it spoils quickly in warm weather, but they don't even eat it in winter. I live in southeast Alabama.

bird seed for doves

We had raised a turtle dove that fell out of a tree last year. She stuck around several months like a pet with freedom to go as she pleased. She left us in mating season so I started to put out her favorite feed (a millet mix) in case she was hungry in the wild. Now we have at least 20 doves that hang around our back yard enjoying the feed. :)

My 10 feeders attract...

I have a few different types of feeders. I have 2 suet feeders that the woodpeckers really enjoy; a ball feeder that I fill with sunflower seeds that the squirrels and cardinals like; 4 regular hanging feeders with perches that have a mixture of sunflowers, mixed songbird feed, safflower seeds, and millet, that attracts the different wrens and nuthatches, house and purple finches, cardinals, eastern bluebirds, and Carolina chickadees; a tray feeder that I put shelled corn in for the squirrels and cardinals; and I have a rock wall along the back of my yard that I spread shelled corn along for all of the animals that come along. I have had norther flickers, different types of doves, bluejays, crows, sparrows and grosbeaks at my house last year. He/she is not in my yard but at the pond behind my house ,a very pretty blue heron. Canadian Geese come along often too, and they have one white goose leading one flock of them.
I enjoy sitting out on the deck with my camera and a cup of coffee and watching all of them fly around a try to decide which feeder has just what they want.

Feeding birds

Yes I feed the birds all year. Even in winter they need water also. But especially in summer as it is very hot in Texas.

A big variety!

My bird feeder is like Grand Central Station some days...I get 3 types of woodpeckers (downy, hairy, and pileated) who love the suet. (The nuthatches love it too!) There are many ground feeders, including Junckos, brown sparrows, a whole flock of mourning doves, blue jays, cardinals, crows - all who go for the cracked corn, sunflower seeds, broken bits of bread, and a bit of dried cat food....sometimes peanuts when I can afford it. The hanging feeder has sunflower seeds, which gets visited by tufted titmice, chickadees, cardinals (surprised me a lot when they started perching there!) sparrows, and goldfinches, also a lone purple finch from time to time. About 2 years ago I added a 'tractor' attached to the tree - which has 2 long screw for pushing on ears of corn, for the squirrels. I regularly have grey squirrels, and this year I also have a pair of small red squirrels. In addition, I have started including 1/2 orange or tangerine, pushed on open side up, and found that I have a pair of flying squirrels (nocturnal) who LOVE citrus! All these wild ones also enjoy having available water - I have an electric heater positioned under the stone in the middle of my bird bath. It keeps the water from freezing even when it's below zero outside! I have seen one or 2 of my mourning doves sit on the rock to keep their feet warm! (LOL)

Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Anonymous brown birds

That's what we get. They love shell peanuts and black sunflower seed. There are juncos and sparrows, some mourning doves. But they don't like the yellow hard round seed in the mix, the millet, and not much of the cracked corn, oddly enough. The squirrels come running some days and there is a lot of commotion over who exactly is entitled to those peanuts and sunflower seeds.


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