Bird-Friendly Winter Gardens

Gardening for the Birds

Nothing helps relieve that “cabin fever” feeling during a long winter better than gazing out the window and watching birds play tag at the feeder or feeding on savory seeds plucked straight from your shrubs. Making your property more bird-friendly can attract and keep birds longer and create a pleasing landscape for you to enjoy too. For birds to make their winter residence in your garden, they need to have the basics: food, shelter and water. Shelter is easily managed with a few evergreen or conifers to provide protection from winter winds, ice and snow. Providing food and water is decidedly more challenging for birds when temperatures drop below freezing and the snow starts to pile up. Designing a garden to be bird-friendly during the winter months is no more difficult than designing an attractive year-round garden that contains persistent berries and seeds.

A bird-friendly garden (at any time of the year) can be accentuated by using a diverse group of native plants, designed so there are many layers of dense plants to attract a wide spectrum of ground dwelling to treetop birds. The ideal backyard bird habitat also has limited open areas where birds are exposed to predators and contains feeding stations, birdhouses and watering holes. A tidy garden where every inch is trimmed, blown, raked or swept leaves little of interest for birds. For birds, messy is better – so leave some dead branches upon which to perch, seedheads for food, and leafy debris to entice insect food.

Blue Jay in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario Canada

Blue Jay in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario Canada

Get to know the birds that stay around during the winter and their food preferences. This will allow you to select the best mix of plants for your landscape and maximize the food potential that your plants give. Observe which birds like to frequent the ground level, which ones prefer thorny shrubs or conifers and who likes to perch up high? Designing your garden with the favorite foods of your winter season birds will pay off with a steady stream of avian friends. For ground-level birds like mourning doves, juncos, sparrows and towhees consider planting perennials with overwintering seedheads, ornamental grasses and low shrubs like chokeberry or gray dogwood. For birds that like to be at shrub-level such as cardinals, finches and jays plant larger shrubs or small trees like bayberry, winterberry, sumac or vernal witch-hazel. To attract treetop birds such as the titmice, goldfinches or chickadees plant hackberry, hawthorn or conifers (also for tree trunk frequenting birds like woodpeckers, nuthatches or wrens).

Overall, though, design a garden that suits you. Don’t select all wild, natural shrub forms if a formal garden is what you want. There are still lots of formal-looking plants that are bird friendly if a formal garden style is what you want.

Female Northern Cardinal in the garden. Photo by GeoffClark

Female Northern Cardinal in the garden. Photo by GeoffClark

Don’t worry that you can’t include a favorite food plant for every bird that might visit your garden. The National Bird-Feeding Society reports that there are over 100 species of birds that visit bird feeders throughout the United States. You can’t attract a huge variation of birds from owls to hummingbirds to orioles to bluebirds to a small property. It’s not possible to get all the plants (food sources) and environments perfect for such a diverse group of birds. Narrow your garden design plan down to target the birds that are common visitors to your area and the ones that you like best.

In addition, don’t forget that using organic growing methods and non-toxic cleaning products and building materials outdoors will benefit your avian visitors.

Tips For a Bird-friendly Winter Garden

  1. Create several vertical layers of plants to attract a diverse range of birds.

Groundcover layer: mosses, partridgeberry

Perennial layer: thistle, golden rod, columbine, ornamental grasses


Appropriate for the perennial layer is the attractive Columbine plant which produces seeds that attract birds in the garden.


Shrub layer: dogwoods, nannyberry, spicebush, witchhazel, viburnums, sumac, cotoneaster, pyracantha, mountain ash, junipers, flowering dogwood, weigela, bayberry, roses, quince, winterberry

Staghorn sumac seedhead photographed in Hamilton, Ontario Canada

Staghorn sumac seedhead photographed in Hamilton, Ontario Canada

Vines: grapes, Virginia creeper (if it isn’t invasive in your area)

Tree canopy: crabapples, pine, spruce, fir, maples, elms, oaks

  1. Select a variety of plants that will provide food during the fall and winter months.

For the fall migration season, many southbound birds such as the thrushes, vireos, warblers and tanagers need fatty fruits to build up reserves for the long flight ahead. Good fruiting shrubs include dogwood, spicebush and mapleleaf viburnum.

For the overwintering birds, such as the finches, sparrows and waxwings, persistent fruits are needed when food supplies become scarce because of snow cover. Shrubs such as winterberry, snowberry, sumacs, viburnums and highbush cranberry will hold their fruit into the winter for birds.

For early spring, northward migrating birds such as bluebirds, robins and thrashers need persistent food (or uncovered food when the snow and ice melt) such as conifer seeds, bayberry, hawthorns, crabapples and sumac fruit.

  1. Plant clumps or groups of the same species so that good pollination takes place. This is especially important for dioecious plants such as hollies, bittersweet vines, fringe tree, spicebush, and mulberries with separate male and female plants. For larger dioecious trees such as mulberry, willow, and ash planting more than one may not be an option, so determine (if you can) that your plant is female and will produce fruit and not a male that will only produce pollen.
  2. Include some conifers or evergreens to provide shelter for birds to roost and safely ride out winter storms.
  3. Avoid using invasive non-native plants that crowd out native plants and reduce landscape diversity. These include avoiding using Norway maple, Chinese privet, European buckthorn, Oriental bittersweet, white mulberry and purple loosestrife.
  4. Plant spiny plants (such as evergreen holly or thorny barberry) under feeding stations to deter predator animals. Also consider putting squirrel baffles on bird feeders to keep squirrels and cats away.
  5. Include a year-round source of water for birds to drink and bath in. During below freezing weather use a heater to keep ice from forming on top of the water. Place the water 10 feet away from dense shrubs that could hide predators, close to an electrical outlet and hose, and in view of your windows. If heating the water is not an option, don’t worry, birds can get their daily allotment of water from their food and snow, but this requires a lot of energy for them.
  6. Put out bird feeders to supplement natural food. Keep feed replenished in the feeder so that wild birds become accustomed to finding food there. Set up feeders (more than one will be needed to provide the different mixes of feed needed to attract several bird groups) in late fall and maintain them through early spring until natural food sources are plentiful again.
Red-headed woodpecker at the bird feeder

Red-headed woodpecker at the bird feeder

About Commercial Birdseed Mixtures …

There is a considerable difference between commercial seed brands – both in what they contain and the birds they attract. The season that you are feeding should also determine what food is provided since bird needs change with their activities. Watch for commercial brands that have been bulked out with fillers like beans, cracked corn, wheat, milo, red millet, dried rice, lentils and halved peas. Only some larger birds can eat these dry ingredients. Oats in the birdseed mixture are also a nuisance to clean up below the feeder. The better ingredients to have in birdseed mixtures are sunflower seeds, and corn or peanut granules which all have a high fat content.

Mix Your Own Winter Bird Feed

Instead of purchasing commercial pre-mixed birdseed which may have a lot of filler, you can custom mix your own. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology suggests the following make-it-yourself recipe:

25 lbs black oil sunflower seed

10 lbs white proso millet

10 lbs cracked corn

Mix in a clean garbage can with a broom handle. Cover tightly to keep out water and rodents.

In addition, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology suggests that birds will relish leftover squash, pumpkin or melon seeds even more than black oil sunflower seeds. Just spread the harvested seeds out on trays to air dry. Once dry, they are ready to put out for the birds. Smaller birds will have trouble eating the bigger seeds and so the seeds can be run through a food processor first to make them easier to eat. The Cornell Lab also suggests that “Birds such as robins, thrushes, bluebirds, and waxwings don’t usually show up at feeders because seeds are not a major component of their diet. But you can still tempt them to dinner with an offering of fruit. Soften dried raisins and currents by soaking them in water, then offer them at your feeding station. Mockingbirds, catbirds, tanagers, and orioles will also find sliced fresh fruit attractive. You can offer fruit on a platform feeder or simply on a plate on the ground.” For more in winter bird feeding, including a handy chart given the preferred and readily eaten commercial seeds that the common winter birds eat, visit

Seed eaters (siskins, sparrows, grosbeaks, redpolls and crossbills) will also eat suet but prefer unsalted sunflower seeds, black oil sunflower seeds, sunflower hearts or chips, thistle/niger (Nyjer) seeds, raw crushed peanuts, millet and wild grains.

Insect feeders (chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers) should have animal fats, peanut butter (mixed with melted animal fat and cornmeal or rolled oats to cut down on the stickiness) or suet. Don’t use a mesh bag to hang your suet (birds can get trapped in the mesh).

Fruit-eating birds (pine grosbeaks and bohemian waxwings) rarely visit feeders but when the snow covers their natural food source (highbush viburnum, blueberries or dogwood berries) they will resort to a feeder if grapes, apples, banana slices or softened raisins are present.

And lastly, don’t forget to give birds some grit. In the winter when snow cover is prevalent, birds still need to eat grit to grind their food. So frequently put out some crushed eggshells, course sand, or commercial grit.

What is Niger/Nyjer?

The shiny, black oilseeds that finches adore was originally called niger for more than 40 years (named for the area that the African yellow daisy (Guizotia abyssinica) plant that produces the seed originally grew). The name was changed to Nyjer (and trademarked) in 1998 by the Wild Bird Feeding Industry to help clarify the pronunciation. Purple finches, goldfinches, song sparrows, pine siskins, buntings, redpolls, juncos and mourning doves readily eat Nyjer, a seed that is high in calories and oil content.

The prolific flower is commercially grown in Africa, India, Myanmar and Nepal. It is heat treated upon arrival in the U.S.A. to prevent selfseeding and weed seed germination (this APHIS requirement was put into place in 1985 after a shipment was found to be contaminated with dodder, a Federally designated noxious weed).

Nyjer is around 35% fat, 18% protein, 18% fiber and 12% moisture and since it has such a high oil content it can go rancid quickly. If it has an off smell or birds don’t flock to it, it may have gone bad. Sunflower and safflower seeds and other nuts can also turn rancid if stored too long or in a hot location.

Nyjer feeders have very small holes to prevent the seed from running out and limit birds to just one seed per visit. The holes are often placed below the perch for upside-down feeding (an acrobatic feat that is easy for goldfinches and pine siskins). Mesh or socks are also popular inexpensive feeders. The thick mess made by the hulls under a Nyjer feeder can often choke out grass and perennials.

After 20 years of research, Glenn Page has developed two EarlyBird varieties of Guizotia abyssinica that have short maturation requirements and are now commercial crops that are being grown in Minnesota and other North American locations. These niger seeds are frequently sold live and are not required to be heat treated to kill weed seeds like the imported types.


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850, phone: 800-843-2473, website:

Wild Bird Feeding Industry, P.O. Box 502, West End, NC 27376, phone: 888-839-1237, website

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