Attract Birds to Your Garden This Winter

— Written By and last updated by Tamara Carawan
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Carolina wren on a tree limb

Written By: Jessica Strickland, an Agriculture Extension Agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County.

Feeding birds in your backyard is a great way to add some life and color to a cold, winter landscape. There are many different bird species that can visit a feeder. The type of landscape habitat you have in your backyard will determine how many and the types of birds that visit. A landscape that is more wooded and in rural areas provides a haven for a greater diversity of birds.

Deciding what type of feeder and type of seed to buy can be overwhelming with the numerous choices available. Different bird species prefer different feeders and seed, and where you place your feeder will affect the diversity of species you attract. As a general rule, all feeders need to be sturdy, easy to clean, and should repel water to limit degradation of feed.

Three common feeders often used are house feeders, tube feeders and tray feeders. A house feeder is one that looks like a house, made of clear sides, and sits on a platform. The advantages are you can easily tell when more seed needs to be added and the seed is less likely to get wet. The disadvantage is it is easy for squirrels to also feed on the seed. A tube feeder is a hollow, clear cylinder with multiple feeding perches. The size of the perch can influence what type of birds visit, with larger birds needing a larger perch and small birds being able to use small and large perches. Tray feeders are simply flat surfaces that seed is spread on. They are easy to make, but do not provide a way to keep water and other animals out. Drainage holes in tray feeders is important.

American Goldfinches on a tube feeder

When deciding where to place feeders consider your point of view, but also the bird’s point of view. Most people want their feeders in a place visible from inside their home. The most common location is to place feeders near a favorite window. From the bird’s point of view, they want a location where they feel safe and secure. Placing feeders within 10 feet of a protective cover, such as trees and shrubs, allows birds to quickly retreat for safety.

There are many types of seed available for birds. One common type is black-oil sunflower seed. It is preferred by small species of birds. It has a high oil content that is nutritionally beneficial and a thin seed coat that makes it easy to crack open. Striped sunflower seeds are more popular with blue jays and cardinals, but not smaller birds. Millet attracts many different species, but also attracts less desirable birds like house sparrows. Thistle seed is popular among several species of finches, while peanuts attract blue jays, chickadees and woodpeckers.

To keep it simple, a mixture of seeds can allow you to view a wide range of bird species. You can choose to purchase birdseed mixes or create your own mix. When purchasing a mix, check the label to see what is actually in the mix. Birds can tell the difference between seeds and will sort through mixes. Mixes containing wheat, oats, rice and rye are not attractive to most birds.

Water availability can also have an influence on birds visiting a feeder. Besides food, birds need a source of water for drinking and bathing. Having a water source attracts different bird species that would otherwise not visit your feeder. You can buy or make your own bird bath. All the bird bath needs is a non-slippery surface and be no more than three inches deep. During freezing winter temperatures, break away frozen water and refill bird baths or use heaters to prevent the water from freezing.

Attracting birds to your backyard can be a simple, yet great way to add some excitement to your winter landscape. Many gardeners enjoy the practice of recognizing different bird species by seeing returning visitors and spotting a new species coming to visit.

If you would like to learn more about attracting wildlife to your property, then visit the NC State Extension Wildlife Friendly Landscapes portal. If you have any questions, contact Daniel Simpson at 252-745-4121 or