winter bird feeding – to feed or not to feed?

It’s always been more or less conventional wisdom that feeding wild birds in winter ups their survival rate because their normal sources of food – seeds and insects – are greatly diminished. But is this wisdom correct? Some challenge this thinking, saying that feeding the birds makes them overly dependent on human handouts and weakens their ability to find food on their own. So what’s a bird-lover to do?

These questions aren’t easily answered, but a three-year study of black-capped chickadees by the University of Wisconsin found that during harsh winters, survival rates were higher when chickadees have both feeder and natural food options; where winters were more moderate, there were no significant differences in survival rates.

Since the late 1800s, many species including tufted titmice, northern cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatches have been expanding their range northward (following the settlers), some making it as far as southern Canada. Evidence bears out that bird feeding played a role in that expansion. Clearly, in these colder climates, supplemental feeding can be important, if not critical, to bird survival.

Nuthatches visit both suet and seed feeders

Tufted titmice are also regular visitors to our feeders

While it would seem “free” food would be irresistible to birds, some of our Virginia resident species, such as mockingbirds and phoebes, tend to shy away from seed feeders, choosing natural food sources instead.

This mockingbird is warning intruders to stay out of his winter food territory. He is protecting several berry bushes nearby.

These species, however, don’t shun feeders altogether. Phoebes have been known to visit mealworm feeders and mockingbirds occasionally come to suet feeders; however, I’ve never had either species come to my feeders. How about you? What atypical visitors have you seen at your feeders?

It’s true that feeders can put birds at risk by increasing their exposure to predators like cats and hawks. But it’s also true that birds that visit feeders eat more in less time than they would in the wild, giving them more time to watch for predators. In addition, birds that frequent feeders where they know cats are nearby keep a watchful eye for the felines and send out the danger signal to other birds when any predator is spotted. You can minimize the risk by keeping cats indoors or placing feeders where they are inaccessible to cats.

Feeders can also cause bird collisions with windows because they lure birds closer to houses and other buildings. One way to minimize collisions is to add tape or decals to your windows so birds won’t fly into them. Distance also plays a role, so place feeders far enough from windows so there is less chance that startled or frightened birds will fly into them.

If you choose to feed the birds this winter, remember that they will be relying on you when the weather turns harsh. The consequences can be disastrous if you suddenly stop, so once you start filling the feeders, continue through until winter’s end. If you are away over the holidays, ask a friend or neighbor to fill your feeders while you’re gone.

What am I going to do? Although I don’t start supplemental feeding until the first snow or hard frost (usually around mid-November), I’m going to feed the birds, as I always do. During periods of heavy snow, ice, or extreme cold, birds have a difficult time finding food and bird feeders can mean the difference between life and death. For me, it’s a no-brainer.

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17 thoughts on “winter bird feeding – to feed or not to feed?

  1. May God bless you for feeding the birds. My mother always kept bird feeders and special feeders for hummingbirds. We loved to watch them all come and go. I think feeding birds is a treat for them and for us!

    • I used to put up my feeders in the beginning of October, but now try to wait a little longer because we have so many native wildflowers and berries that the birds can eat until we get a hard frost. I have to say I get a lot of enjoyment watching them come and go from the feeders!

      • Me too! My mom told me cardinals like orange slices and bluejays like peanuts. They sure do! I was feeding a jay every morning when I got up and if I wasn’t there in time, he’d sit by the window and scold me until he got his peanuts!

  2. I am glad you answered a question that has nagged me for years. I do not feed in spring and summer but I will surely re-activate my feeders once we get some hard freezes. Snow accumulation has greatly decreased over the years with climate warming but I know the birds still need a boost. Now, if only the squirrels would migrate!

    • Watching the weather, you’re as warm there as we are, but I know that can change in an instant. Our squirrels are “country squirrels” – they haven’t yet learned to come to bird feeders, but they are smart, and I’m sure they will soon figure it out!

  3. In a “natural” ecosystem, we would be best not to feed the birds because by doing so we would affect the natural balance. But we don’t live in “natural” ecosystems. No matter how nature-friendly we are, we have completely changed the natural world apart from in the most wild of places. So feeding the birds in winter to make up for shortfalls in natural food that have perhaps been caused by us in the first place, is a good thing. Or at least that is the rationale that I use as I’m an avid bird feeder from October right the way through to the end of March.

    • I just know that on the coldest of winter nights I sleep better knowing that “our” birds have had as good meal to get them through the night. That, and I enjoy watching them and observing how they interact.

  4. I feed the birds in the winter as much for my own pleasure in seeing them (and photographing them) as for their benefit. But as you say, once you start, it’s important to keep it going because they become dependent on that resource.

  5. I only started feeding this year – I really love their constant presence. I was wondering about winter – I think I’ll keep my tiny neighbors well stocked:)

  6. The birds hit my feeders hard first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon when they need energy the most, then throughout the day they forage in the fields and along the edge of the woods. So I know they are getting a varied diet!

    • I’d have to agree with that, particularly on a day like today when it’s very windy and cold (“feel factor” in the single digits), they need all the help they can get.

  7. Hi:

    Good topic and nice photos!
    Here’s my take:
    Birds have survived for a couple million years on their own just fine. They know how to find food. What bird feeders do for us, really, is get the birds fed in a proximity to ourselves so we can enjoy the experience. If the feeders are not there or not filled, the birds will simply feed elsewhere. Even then, your yard will not be devoid of birds.
    Do they really get “dependent” on feeders? Not very likely. Imagine their nature. If a berry bush runs out of berries, birds will not sit on its branches with a tin cup and starve. They’ll just go find something to eat elsewhere.
    Birds will, however, become accustomed to the best locations of resources in their environment, so keeping your feeders filled will insure regular visits.
    In an all-natural yard environment, birds are also fed by insects, rodents, and nature’s foodstuffs like thistle seeds and sumac.
    Oh, yeah, and sometimes other birds.
    Don’t forget, the hawk that is mentioned herein as a predator is also a bird. They’re attracted to birdful yards and feeders, too!

    Take care and keep in touch,

    Paz

    • You’re right, hawks have to eat too. They are an important part of the ecosystem. We are trying to build up the natural food sources on our farm by letting nature take its course in the fields. Thanks for your thoughts on feeding the birds!

  8. After many years away in the industrial world, I came home to Stuart, VA, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. On 10 acres, I rebuilt my Houston house that has 50 windows which allows me to watch all types of local wildlife up close. During the first winter snow, I saw the difficulty of the birds and all the animals trying to find food. After trying out several types of feeders, I threw them all in the trash and resorted to 4×6 ft sheets of plywood. I have one on the front porch, two on the back deck and two along the yard/woods interface. One of the deck sheets is on the picnic table up against a big window and the birds and squirrels will eat while only 3 ft from me. We have viewed many types of birds, gray squirrels, turkeys, deer, red and gray foxes, raccoons, opossums and coyotes. My neighbors have encountered the black bears but I haven’t had the opportunity. This season, we purchased 240 lbs of sunflower seed, 150 lbs of corn and 100 lbs of small bird seed.
    The deer and turkeys eat the corn along the 300 ft concrete drive way.

  9. We go through A LOT of bird seed, corn and suet in the winter. We had a very mild winter without much snow, but the birds still showed up every day. The feeders were especially busy in the morning when the birds need to refuel quickly and in the evening when they need to eat to build up body heat to get them through the night. We don’t have as many other critters as we did when we first moved here in 2011 because we have three dogs, but I think we get more birds every year – I guess that’s what happens when you put out free food for the taking!

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