Guide to Winter Bird Feeding

Cardinal at a bird feeder in winter.

Feeding birds in winter is a rewarding way to watch wildlife at home. While providing some extra food during a leaner time of year, you can observe animal behavior and enjoy seeing different species up close and in the open.

Feeding birds comes with the responsibility of doing so safely and ethically and using enough discretion to know when feeding can happen and when it should not.

Think of the food you are providing birds as a bonus – the birds can survive on their own without the subsidy you are offering. Your goal should be to minimize any possible negative impacts of feeding while still giving a little boost to your local winter birds.

This guide offers some best practices for feeding birds in Connecticut while reducing commonly overlooked problems.

When and Where to Feed Birds

The DEEP Wildlife Division advises against feeding birds during the warmer times of the year, typically from late March into December. Feeding during these times often leads to conflicts with black bears. In winter, bears are usually less active and spend most of the time in their dens. If you live in an area with low bear activity, bird feeding can be done responsibly during the winter months (mid-December to late March). In parts of the state with frequent bear activity, some bears are likely to remain active during the colder months, and the winter feeding of birds can become problematic. Check our map of current bear sighting reports to find out if you live in an area with frequent bear activity.

Tips for Responsible Bird Feeding
  • Do not feed birds during the spring, summer, and fall.
  • To reduce opportunities for bears and other untargeted animals to appear at your feeders, put out feeders only on the coldest days of winter, when birds can really benefit from the extra calories.
  • If bears access your feeders, remove them immediately and cease feeding for the season.
  • Take down feeders if predators like coyotes, foxes, and hawks are taking advantage of congregating birds.
  • Do not allow spilt seed to pile up underneath feeders.
  • Clean feeders and bird baths regularly to reduce the spread of diseases.
  • Plan the placement of your bird feeders and baths with care to reduce window strikes (more on that from National Audubon).

Many types of bird feeders are suitable for winter, including tubes, platforms, hoppers, and suet cages. Feeders are often designed for offering specific types of foods or attracting different species of birds. For example, black oil sunflower seeds can be used in many feeder types and attract most species who visit feeders. Nyjer is a good seed choice if you prefer feeding mostly finches, but a special tube feeder is required due to the small seed size. Larger feeding platforms tend to attract larger birds, like starlings, which can dominant a feeder over other birds. Suet cakes can be hung in cages to attract woodpeckers and other species that do not prefer seeds.

More ideas about seed and feeder types for birds can be found on the Project FeederWatch website. Keep in mind that not all feeding setups are appropriate for responsible winter bird feeding in Connecticut. For example, putting out large quantities of seed on the ground or on a table to attract ground feeding birds will also attract more rodents and predators.

Using Plants to Feed Birds Year Round

Instead of putting out seed and suet for a handful of bird species in winter, consider managing your backyard habitat to provide year-round food for all birds. You have probably noticed that some bird species do not visit feeders, and some cannot open seeds or even eat seeds very well. Some species favor tiny seeds while others prefer winter berries or searching for dormant insects. The all-encompassing way to support local birds is to improve and enhance habitat, starting with your backyard.

Native plants are the backbone of wildlife habitat. In the simplest way, plants are food for many insects, which become food for birds. With the help of pollinators, native plants create seeds and fruits that are also eaten by birds.

A small garden plot of native wildflowers can produce tens of thousands of seeds, which scatter widely across the ground. Until they can germinate the following spring, these seeds are a natural source of food for seed-eating birds during winter. This is one reason why it is important to not tidy up your flower garden too much in the fall. Without realizing it, you could be removing all the natural seeds that birds are looking for each winter. Leaving fallen leaves around also helps many of the insectivorous birds, like robins, who can be seen scratching around in the leaves looking for dormant and overwintering insects in the leaf litter.

Connecticut is home to many trees and shrubs that produce fruits, seeds, and other foods late into fall and winter. Bayberry shrubs, junipers, sumacs, and viburnums, as well as native hollies like winterberry, produce copious amounts of late season fruits that are enjoyed by flocks of cedar waxwings, robins, and many other birds not often seen at bird feeders. Refer to the Connecticut Native Tree, Shrub, and Perennial Availability List to find a list of Connecticut businesses that grow and/or sell native trees, shrubs, and perennial plants.

Growing natural winter bird food has the added benefit of providing habitat for birds and other wildlife through the entire year without the issues associated with bird feeders. You will also be able to enjoy seeing more species of birds from any window of your home, not just from the one with a feeder in front of it.

To learn more about enhancing your backyard habitat for wildlife, you can view and download our Enhancing Your Backyard Habitat for Wildlife Guide.

Content last updated in March 2024.