Posted: November 19, 2021

Written by: Lilly Jensen, Education and Outreach Coordinator

News Article Featured Photo

Winter Bird Feeding and Watching

I have a confession to make. For years, even during my time as an educator with Winneshiek County Conservation, I was a birdfeeding skeptic.

I inwardly guffawed, raised my eyebrows, and even shook my head at the many (many) people in my life who fed birds in their backyards. I couldn’t believe their devotion—the time! the energy! the money!—to their backyard feeders.

Well, I have to eat a little crow here because, I too, am now an avid backyard bird feeder. It all started as something to keep us entertained and distracted during the weird and unnerving spring of 2020. We threw up a tube feeder and some suet and watched in amazement at the swirl of goldfinches, woodpeckers, and cardinals that flocked in. It was just what we needed: ever-changing entertainment, easy chores, and a way to feel some connection to nature when it is not all that nice outside.

So, we added another feeder, and then another. Then we figured out a makeshift birdbath. And soon enough, I was looking for somewhere to hook a third hummingbird feeder and was officially a fully-fledged backyard bird feeder.

Watching and maintaining our feeders is something we do year-round, but the intensity with which we do so—and the intensity of the birds’ use of the feeders—drops off over the summer.

With autumn winding down and winter truly just around the corner, feeder visits will ramp back up as birds begin looking for the sources of food that will sustain them over the winter. They’re making their rounds, charting out where and how they can find some easy meals.

So now is a great time of year to start with backyard bird feeding. The tips and tricks below come from a bit of my own experience, but also from the years of experience and knowledge of some of the birding experts in our local area, including Winneshiek County Conservation Naturalist Larry Reis and ornithologist Paul Skrade.

Download our winter birdfeeding guide outlining the preferred feeder and food types for different species, and our Birding page offers many additional resources.

And, welcome to the club.

Types of Feeders and Food

Birdfeeders come in enough designs, shapes, and colors to satisfy any style and preference, but they can generally be categorized into several types, including platform, tube, hopper, ground, and suet, designed to hold and dispense different foods in different ways.

Different birds use different types of feeders depending on the bird’s feeding style, food preferences, and body shape. Cardinals, for example, don’t do well on small tube feeders because they need long perches to grasp.

Generally, using different feeders with different food types will bring in the most and widest variety of birds. Start with a tube, platform, or hopper feeder that can hold a wide variety of foods, then consider adding feeders built for specific types of food. And keep in mind that birds really don’t care what the feeder looks like. A flat board on a stump makes a perfectly suitable platform feeder.

If you thought there would be lots of decisions to make about the type of feeder to use, wait until you dig into what you put in that feeder. Birds are like people in that they all have their favorite foods. What you fill your feeders with will have a dramatic effect on who visits them.

If you want to keep things simple, you can’t go wrong with black oil sunflower seed in the shell; it’s a great, economical choice for attracting a very wide variety of birds and works in many different feeder types. Adding a bit of shelled sunflower seeds to the mix will make it even more enticing, but slightly more expensive.

After that, you can work on attracting different types of birds with different types of food. Want woodpeckers? Add a suet feeder. Itching to see nuthatches? They like peanuts. Goldfinches? Better try a Nyjer thistle tube feeder. If you really want to up the birdfeeder ante, set up a heated birdbath.

Birdseed mixes that contain cracked corn, white millet, and safflower are a good choice for platform or tray feeders. The pickier birds will messily sort through the mix, thrashing extras down to ground-feeding birds like dark-eyed juncos and mourning doves. Avoid mixes that have lots of red millet, golden millet, or flax, which our birds just don’t like and will leave behind as waste seed that could lead to fungus or bacteria growth.


Location, Location, Location

Where you place your birdfeeders is nearly as important as what you put in them, both for your own enjoyment and for the health and safety of the birds.

Avoid placing feeders where they will increase the chance that birds will hit your windows. Aim to site them more than thirty feet away from your windows, or within about three feet.

Squirrels, raccoons, mice, and other unwanted critters might also be attracted to the food in your feeders, but they don’t have the advantage of flight. Make it harder for them by hanging your feeders from shepherds’ hooks and well away from trees, fences, or overhanging branches that could give them a way to jump onto the feeder.

Birds also need places to hide, rest, and get out of the wind when they are not actively feeding. Planting native shrubs and grasses can provide year-round cover and food for birds, but dense brush piles (or spent Christmas trees, like in my household) can offer great cover in the winter too.

However, cats and other predators can also use cover to sneak up on unsuspecting birds, so keep about five feet of open space between the birdfeeder and the cover.


What to Watch For

Once you’ve got feeder type, food, and location sorted out, the fun of watching begins! Some of our year-round birds in northeast Iowa—including cardinals, blue jays, black-capped chickadees, goldfinches, and various woodpeckers—are all common feeder birds. Dark-eyed juncos are a regular “winter bird” that comes south to Iowa from farther north, and on good years we’ll also see increased numbers of purple finches, house finches, and pine siskins in the winter.

There can also be more unusual winter birds that pop up, especially if food supplies up north are low, and our staff keeps tabs on some of the exciting winter bird sightings across the region. If unusual ones show up, we’ll post ideas and tips for spotting them yourself on the Winneshiek County Conservation Facebook page.


Photo Captions

Photo Credit: Larry Reis, Winneshiek County Conservation

Above: Suet is the best way to attract woodpeckers, like this male downy woodpecker.

Below: Dark-eyed juncos are a winter visitor to northeast Iowa and are perfectly content gathering seed right off the ground.

More Photos

Winter Bird Feeding and Watching Gallery Photo