Is Feeding Birds in Winter Good for Them?

During winter, most birds traditionally eat weed seeds and overwintering insects. Their options have dramatically increased in the last few decades. Now almost one-third of adults in North America put out nearly one billion pounds of birdseed each year. Does this help birds, or does it create an unhealthy cycle of dependency?

Research has shown that feeding birds in winter is largely to their advantage.

How does winter feeding benefit birds?

A study by the University of Exeter and Queen’s University Belfast found that extra food provided at bird feeders during winter leads to more successful breeding in the spring. Birds that received extra food laid eggs earlier and had a higher survival rate of the chicks.

The researchers also concluded that it’s beneficial to keep feeding until the end of breeding season. Feeders that were left out until late spring continued to have a positive effect on breeding outcomes.

Winter bird feeders have been shown to have the greatest benefit when birds are most challenged, such as during a particularly harsh winter or in poor-quality habitats. This is true for summer and fall feeding as well. Any time when natural food is scarce, supplemental feeding can help.

Feeding birds during winter may improve their immediate survival and breeding success, but what about the dependency issue? Do winter-fed birds lose their ability to forage for natural food sources when the feeders are gone?

It turns out this is also a myth. A University of Wisconsin study removed feeders from a woodland where chickadees had been fed for the previous 25 years. They compared survival rates with chickadees in a nearby woodland that never had feeders. They found that the winter-fed chickadees were able to switch back immediately to natural foraging and they survived the winter as well as the chickadees who had never used feeders.

What should you feed birds?

It’s important to provide nutritious options to overwintering birds. Don’t ever give them leftover bread or baked goods. This is not their natural diet and will not provide the vitamins and minerals birds need to survive the winter.

Seeds. These are the most common bird food available. Seeds are high in carbohydrates and calories, which provide valuable energy during cold temperatures. Commercial seed mixes often contain a lot of cheap filler seeds and grains, such as oats, wheat and flax. You’ve likely seen these seeds thrown on the ground as birds search through the mix looking for their favorites.

It’s recommended to buy separate seed varieties. Try putting each type of seed in different feeders so the birds can choose what they like. This will give you a good idea of what your local birds are looking for.

The black oil sunflower seed is well-loved by many birds, and thistle seed is favored by siskins and goldfinches. Millet is often preferred by ground-feeding birds, such as quail, doves and juncos. Specialty seed blends can also be found at higher-quality stores.

Suet. Most suet is beef kidney fat, which has similar fats and proteins to insects. This will attract insect-eating birds, such as woodpeckers, jays and nuthatches.

Prepared suet cakes are often available at stores that carry birdseed. Suet can be mixed with other foods, such as seeds. Either plain or in a mix, you can put suet in wire mesh feeders or smear it into suet logs or pine cones.

Do not put suet out in warm weather. It can become rancid or melt quickly. When melted, the liquid fat can coat birds’ beaks and cause damage to feathers during preening.

Fruit. Many birds, such as waxwings, thrushes and robins, may only come to your feeder if fruit or berries are offered. Fresh or dried apples, cranberries, blueberries, currants, oranges and raisins are often popular.

Peanut butter. This can be used similarly to suet. Try mixing it with some seeds, cornmeal, and dried fruit for an alternative, high-protein bird snack. Stick to natural peanut butter to avoid any added sugar and salt.

One more reason to plant a tree.

A significant issue birds face today is loss of habitat. The wild spaces they once had for natural foraging are decreasing. Another way you can help birds to successfully overwinter is to revitalize wild areas or plant more food-bearing shrubs and trees in your backyard. Not only will this provide more food, it will also give them nesting sites and protection from predators.

The Pros and Cons of Backyard Bird Feeders
Winter Bird Feeding: 7 Tips and Recipes
10 Reasons to Make Lichen Your New Hobby



Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill3 years ago


Patricia D.
Patricia D3 years ago

Thank you for this information!!

Patricia Harris
John Taylor3 years ago

Of course it's good for them!

M B.
M B3 years ago

The cat waits in I have to let it hang from the tree, LOL

Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Christie C.
Christie C3 years ago

I love tossing out some millet in the winter for the sparrows and juncos. It's cheap and they love it. I'll put a pile down that's easy to access and most of the flock goes for that. But I also spread it out in deeper grass. The smart ones find those seeds. They get to have their fill undisturbed while everyone else is fighting over the pile. A few years ago, there was one group that got so used to feeding in the morning, that I could spread the seed evenly and everyone would pick their spot to eat. They made a 3' x 3' grid of little heads bobbing up and down. So adorable! But do watch out for cats- don't toss seed and leave or put it in a spot they can't get to.

Kay M.
Kay M3 years ago

my cats appreciate watching the birds too.

Angela K.
Angela K3 years ago

I need no scientific study for that .... If everything is full of snow and iced in the winter, they can't find anything - logical ! I feed many birds for years and will do this also continue . And they love a bird bath in summer, if they drink and splashing therein - very sweet :-)

Iskrica Kneževi?

thank you