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Archive - January 2017

Survival can be difficult for birds in Illinois during the winter when their natural food supplies may be greatly reduced. They may also be unable to reach food that is covered by snow or ice. By providing food to birds at a feeder or on the ground, you can assist them while participating in an activity that is easy, fun and rewarding.

Feeding birds may allow you to see these animals up close and watch their behaviors. Students can attract birds to the school yard where they can study bird food preferences, feeding adaptations and other traits. These studies can be based upon and used to help them meet state and national learning standards.

A variety of items can be used to feed birds in winter, and variety in the diet is good for birds. Listed below are a few of the foods that can be used to attract and feed birds in winter. Try several of them to see what combination works best with the birds in your area. If birds are not eating an item, replace it with a different one.

Corn and Other Cereal Grains

​Cereal grains are grasses that are grown for their edible fruits. Corn (Zea mays), wheat (Triticum aestivum), millet (Echinochloa spp.) and rice (Oryza sativa) are examples of cereal grains.

Corn provides energy for birds. Most birds will eat dried corn in some form: whole-kernel; cracked; corn meal; dried on the cob; and corn bread. Make sure to use yellow corn instead of white corn, since yellow corn has more vitamins. 

Cracked corn is whole-kernel corn that has been chopped into smaller pieces. Cracked corn spoils faster than whole-kernel corn and may attract species that are not popular at feeders such as European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and house sparrows (Passer domesticus). However, cracked corn can be eaten by small birds that cannot swallow a full kernel of corn. Whole-kernel corn, either left on the cob or shelled from the cob, may be eaten by species including the northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus), mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), woodpeckers, blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) and northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

Other cereal grains that are used as bird foods include wheat, millet and sorghum (Sorghum spp.).  Cracked wheat is included in some purchased birdseed mixes. It may be eaten by several types of birds including the northern bobwhite, blue jay, chickadees, mourning dove, northern cardinal, American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) and pine siskin (Spinus pinus). Millet is a small, spherical seed that is often the main ingredient in purchased birdseed mixes. While it is taken by mourning doves, blackbirds and some sparrows and finches, many birds will not eat it. There are several types of millet, and if you use it at the feeder, you should try some different kinds of millet to see which one may work best with the birds that visit your feeding station. Sorghum is another spherical grain included in commercial birdseed mixes. It is brown and much larger than millet. It contains a little more protein and a little less fat than corn. The mourning dove, blackbirds and some sparrows and finches will eat this grain.

Grains should be a part of the foods offered at a feeder. They are low in proteins and some vitamins, but high in carbohydrates and oils needed for energy. A balanced diet for birds at feeders should include grains, other seeds, nuts, suet and fruit.

Thistle Seeds

“Thistle seeds” that are used to attract purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus), American goldfinches, pine siskins, redpolls and a few other small birds are actually niger (Guizotia abyssinica) seeds. Niger is a plant native to Africa that is grown for its seeds that are loaded with proteins, oils and sugars. Niger is grown as a crop in Africa, India and other places in Southeast Asia and sold all over the world. This type of food may seem more expensive than other packaged bird foods, but it usually turns out to be less costly because you do not have to replace it as often, and there is not as much wasted, uneaten food.


Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower (Helianthus spp.) seeds are eaten by any birds that can crack open the husk. The northern cardinal, chickadees, tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), nuthatches, sparrows, finches and other species are attracted to sunflowers. Black oil sunflower seeds (solid black shell) have high fat and protein content and a thin shell for easy cracking. Striped sunflower seeds have a large, hard shell and not as much seed per shell as the black oil sunflower seeds. Use only unsalted sunflower seeds for birds.


Suet, Lard and Grease

Suet is the fat of cows (Bos taurus) and sheep (Ovis aries). Lard is fat from pigs (Sus spp.). Grease includes the remains from lard, oils, bacon or other fats after cooking. Beef suet is the most important kind of suet for feeding birds. Suet can be offered pure or blended with corn meal, peanut butter, stale bread crumbs and other items. Lard and grease are mainly used in suet mixtures for birds. Suet mixtures are high in energy and popular with all birds that visit feeding stations.


Peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are loaded with protein and fat. Shelled peanuts can be distributed on the ground or strung together and hung between two branches. The blue jay, woodpeckers, tufted titmouse, nuthatches and common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) will eat peanuts in the shell.  Chopped peanuts are suitable for birds, too, and more small birds will be able to eat them. Peanut butter can be used in suet mixtures. Although birds will eat peanut butter that has been spread on tree bark, the ground or other surfaces, it may be difficult for them to swallow it. Use natural peanuts. Do not use salted peanuts!


​Dried fruits, raisins for example, will be eaten by certain bird species like the American robin (Turdus migratorius), thrushes, eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), waxwings, gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) and northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos). Fresh fruits can also be used but care should be taken to keep them from spoiling or freezing. Sliced apples, bananas and oranges are sometimes eaten by the northern mockingbird, gray catbird, Carolina wren (Thryothorus  ludovicianus), American robin and European starling. Grapes, sliced or whole, especially white grapes, sometimes attract birds.

You may find that none of the birds at your feeder will eat fruits in winter. Use fruits sparingly until you learn whether or not they are being used. Fruits can be important food sources during late winter and early spring snow storms when few other foods are available for migratory songbirds.


Chopped almonds (unsalted) (Prunus dulcis) will be eaten by a variety of birds including the blue jay, woodpeckers, tufted titmouse and nuthatches.

Black Walnuts

Crack the shell of black walnuts (Juglans nigra) that fall naturally from their parent tree and let the birds pick out the nut meat. Woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches will utilize this food source.

American Cheese

​A slice or chunk of American cheese may be consumed by the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), Carolina wren and American robin.


​When popped, popcorn will be eaten by the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), chickadees, common grackle and blue jay. Do not use salted or seasoned popcorn. Birds will not generally eat the unpopped kernels.


Grit is made of hard, small objects. It is important to birds for the minerals it contains. Birds also use grit as grinding materials in their digestive tract. In winter, especially when there is a lot of snow on the ground, birds may have trouble finding grit. Ashes, charcoal pieces, sand, egg shells or purchased grit from pet stores and farm stores can be used separately or combined as grit.

White Bread

​Small pieces of fresh or stale white sandwich bread are readily eaten by nearly all birds that visit feeders. While the bread is enriched with vitamins and minerals, it is not as nutritious as other food sources and should be used sparingly. Birds do not readily eat other bread varieties.


Additional Information

​Water is an important consideration when feeding birds. Be sure to provide fresh water for the birds each day, especially when many natural water sources are frozen.

Some foods can be harmful to birds. Peanut butter is better used in suet mixtures than as pure peanut butter. Birds can have trouble swallowing pure peanut butter. Millet seeds have been known to cause the death of brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) by blocking their trachea. Foods like coconut and dry oats that swell with moisture after they are eaten can lead to internal injuries. Any foods that are allowed to spoil and remain at the feeder are harmful, too.

There are other potential problems with feeding birds, too. Foods placed outside to attract birds may also attract unwanted mammalian visitors such as squirrels, Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana), raccoons (Procyon lotor), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and others. With the exception of squirrels, they will most likely come to your feeder at night. Foods that will spoil should be removed from the feeding area before they do so. Spoiled food, like moldy bread, should not be used.  Foods that are salted or seasoned with spices should not be used. Keep seeds, nuts and other dry food in air-tight containers that cannot be opened or gnawed into by rodents. 

Feeding the birds in winter can provide you with hours of bird-watching opportunities each day. Keep the feeding area and your feeders clean, provide food and water daily and see how many birds you can attract. Don’t forget the Great Backyard Bird Count in February. Take part in this citizen-science project. You’ll find the details on their Web site.

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