Brad Ross: Winter bird feeding can be fun


As a faithful reader of this column, you already know I am one of those nuts who enjoy winter. I like to ski, both downhill and cross country, hike, and have even been known to go dog-sledding a time or two and hunker down for a couple of hours of ice fishing.

When winter is at its harshest, I can still get my winter fix through feeding the birds. I find that watching the birds is very captivating and brightens even the dreariest of days with action, color, drama and song. We joke at our house that watching the birds at the feeders is dog TV for my four-legged friend, Brew. Here are some pointers for success:

• Don’t be skimpy! Most bird seed blends include cheaper ingredients such as milo, wheat and oats. Such ingredients are attractive to starlings and house sparrows, nonnative species which are pests. Beginning birders can’t go wrong with black oil sunflower seeds. The list of birds that favor sunflower seeds is impressive: cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, finches, grosbeaks, nuthatches, tufted titmice and many more.

• Variety is the spice of life! Branch out and try different kinds of food. Niger, also known as thistle seed (sterilized to prevent germination), is attractive to finches. Because this seed is expensive compared to black oil sunflower, be sure to use a feeder especially designed for niger seed in order to reduce waste. Many species benefit from the high energy found in suet cakes. Conventional suet feeders were a problem at our house due to suet robbers (also known as raccoons, crows and starlings) so we purchased hanging feeders. Such feeders are no problem for woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees that can acrobatically hang upside down to feed.

Peanuts are another high-energy food and can be purchased shelled or unshelled. We usually buy unshelled and have extra viewing fun watching the blue jays swoop in and peck out the nuts.

Peanut butter is also a rich food source for wintering birds. You can make your own peanut-butter feeder with a short log. Drill one-inch diameter holes throughout the log, fill the holes with peanut butter, and hang the log in your bird-feeding area. A fun activity that kids really like is to pick up pine cones, spread them with peanut butter, roll in sunflower seeds, and hang outside for your birds.

• Just add water! I realize that a bird bath full of water will freeze during the winter in Ohio; however, you can purchase a nifty submersible electric heater which costs just pennies to operate. This gives the birds a source of drinking water when any natural source would be frozen.

• Be patient! It may take a few days to a couple of weeks before the birds find your dining station. Don’t worry. If you provide the smorgasbord, they will come.

• Check with the experts! The Internet holds a vast array of worthwhile information on feeding and watching birds. Cornell University has the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which has everything and anything related to birds, including bird identification guides, live cameras and a whole lot more. Other sources include and
Penn State University has an excellent publication titled “Winter Bird Feeding: the Basics” which can be found at

Help our feathered friends during the long winter days and they will pay you back with hours of entertainment. You could be hooked — like Brew and me!

Brad Ross

Contributing columnist

Brad Ross is communications specialist at the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at [email protected].

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