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Over the Garden Fence

It's For the Birds

Bird seed and feeding birds over the winter is an annual discussion with homeowners that enjoy having birds in the yard over the winter. First, the bird seed talk everyone should hear or read. All bird seed mixes are not created equal. Selecting bird seed means buying seed to attract your favorite birds and not just the least expensive bag on the retail shelf. Wild bird mixes most often contain millet, sunflower cracked corn and milo. White millet with a bit of red millet is good, avoid those that contain large amounts of milo, as it is not a favorite of many birds.

If the interest is in attracting a wide range of birds into your backyard, you will likely find that birds will sort through the seed available on the feeder, scattering unwanted seed around under the feeder. There are birds that are ground feeders that can benefit, yet it is also a great way to attract the overwintering and active small 4 legged critters to the yard. That general mix should attract Finches, Snowbirds (Juncos), Cardinals, Blue Jays, Mourning Doves and others to the feeder. It will also attract our more common House Sparrow along with White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows. An example of feeding to attract a specific bird would be feeding thistle seed for several kinds of finches. Feeding birds using their favorite seed using several feeders will eliminate waste, saving money in the long run.

Bird feeding should start sooner than later so the birds learn that food is always available to them in your yard. Birds will be finishing off available seeds and fruits as fall approaches. Feeding well into spring is also important. Until nature begins to supply food again, those birds still count on your feeders. Migratory birds also have to eat along their journey, so you are helping them out as well. Make your decision feeding early and keep the food flowing all winter. Feeding for just part of the winter means a higher mortality as they became dependent on your feeders.

Another aspect overlooked is a source of drinking water. One a sunny day the snow melts, yet much of the winter open free water is not easily found. There are a number of commercially available bird baths that have built in heaters that will keep the water from freezing. Those with ponds that have circulating water all winter are providing water for more than birds too.

Buying enough seed to get you well into spring is one approach. Having the seed around that long means running the risk of introducing a common pantry pest, the Indian meal moth into the home. Purchasing small bags as you need may be a better option. Storing the seed in tight sealing container or keeping the seed in the unheated garage is a way to reduce the risk of finding the moths. Feeding into late spring as natural sources of food comes available until the seed is gone, means not having to store the seed which always guarantees no pantry pests. Lastly, when you are done feeding, clear out the seed debris in the feeder before storing away for the summer.

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.