The birds of winter: Tips on food, feeders for the birds that stay behind

House Sparrow Yellowstone Newspapers photos by Hunter D'Antuono
House Finches

By Dwight Harriman
Yellowstone Newspapers

They comfort us on bitterly cold and snowy days, and don’t leave when the gaudy, flashy birds of summer flee for warmer climes.
They are the birds of winter — the chickadees, house finches, Northern flickers, downy woodpeckers and a surprising number of other winter denizens that stick around when the going gets tough.

Lots of birds
These commonly seen birds — in addition, of course, to our ever-present black-billed magpies, crows and ravens — aren’t the only ones that can be seen in winter, according to local bird experts and enthusiasts.
Self-employed wildlife biologist Beth Madden, of Livingston — who worked most of her career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as Montana State University and the U.S. Forest Service — gave a sampling of many others in the area. Among them are some nuthatches, sometimes Northern finches (a general term for common redpolls and red crossbills), Bohemian waxwings, and several raptors — golden and bald eagles, sharp-shinned hawks, merlins and Cooper’s hawks, and rough-legged hawks.
Naturalist and birder Katy Duffy, of Gardiner — a retired National Park Service interpretive planner who also worked as a supervisory resource education ranger and is a longtime bird bander — added other birds to the list that can make an appearance in the local area, including Gardiner and Yellowstone National Park. Among the birds are mountain chickadees, song sparrows, cedar waxwings in some years, hairy woodpeckers, some Cassin’s finches, some juncos, sometimes pine siskins, Clark’s nutcrackers, gray jays, stellar jay, pinion jays, Townsend’s solitaires, most of the owls, as well as dippers and gray-crowned rosy finches.
But of course, not all these birds — such as species that eat dried fruit and juniper berries during the winter — come to our bird feeders.
For the ones that do, biologists and local residents offered a wealth of tips for what to feed them and how to maintain bird feeders.

What to feed?
First of all, what’s the best food?
“The best all-around bird seed hands down is the black oil sunflower seeds,” said Madden, who in addition to her experience as a wildlife biologist, is a bird watcher. “It’s a high-energy food. You get less waste than you get with the mixes. They have a high fat content, which is great in the winter.”
Suet is also a good food to offer — “those are great for chickadees and woodpeckers” — although they do get consumed quickly by magpies and house sparrows, Madden said.
She said a neat winter treat for magpies is peanuts in the shell.
“I really enjoy watching their behavior — they are very social,” Madden said, adding the birds cache the peanuts.
Dried meal worms are a tasty morsel for woodpeckers, chickadees and magpies, she noted.
She added that Nyger thistle seed is attractive for some birds. It must be put into a special feeder to be delivered properly.
“It’s very expensive, but it’s a big treat for our finches, especially,” she said.
Northern flickers, meanwhile, are fond of suet, Madden said, but they also like black oil sunflower seeds in tube feeders as well as peanuts.
Duffy puts out sunflower seeds. She said seed mixes are cheaper but finds that many birds scatter them to go for the sunflower seeds anyway.
“I just stick with the sunflowers — it works,” she said.
Bird enthusiast Steve DuBois, a retired wildlife biologist with the state of Alaska who moved to Fleshman Creek Road west of Livingston a little over a year ago, said he is still learning the birds in this area.
He’s using a much broader approach with bird food, offering a wide variety that includes thistle seed in a tube feeder, which has attracted some pine siskins and even, this winter, occasional American gold finches; sunflower seeds; sunflower chips; safflower seeds; suet; peanut butter; and white millet, which he puts on the ground to attract American tree sparrows.
“They like to feed on the ground,” he said.
Livingston bird lover Edie Linneweber, who is quick to point out she is not an expert, said among the birds she’s been seeing at her feeder this winter are downy woodpeckers. She added that Northern flickers and magpies go for her suet, one of the foods she puts out.
Like Madden, Linneweber is lenient with the gregarious magpie.
“I don’t mind the magpies,” she said. “… They are very smart birds.”
Madden said that not only the right food, but water in commercially available heated bird baths can also attract birds to feeders in wintertime, including birds that normally won’t come to a bird feeder, like cedar waxwings.
“Water can bring in more than your feeders sometimes,” she said, explaining the main attraction for birds is getting a drink.

Bird problems
While magpies are engaging, if they show up in large numbers, they can be a problem at some bird feeders.
“The black-billed magpies are just swarming our food, also the Eurasian collared doves,” DuBois said.
Eurasian collared doves — not to be confused with the federally managed mourning doves — are an invasive, unprotected species.
DuBois was surprised to see so many magpies when he moved to Montana from Alaska, where he said they are rare.
In Alaska, “they were a real big deal,” he said.
His solution for his big-bird problem was to buy tube feeders with wire mesh cages around them. The holes in the cage are small enough to let songbirds in but large enough to exclude magpies and doves.
He even crafted a cage himself and placed it on the ground to keep the large birds from seed he scattered for American tree sparrows, a ground bird.
Still, DuBois said he feels sorry for the magpies and doves, so he throws some cage-free seed on the ground for them, too.
He’s tried cages around his suet as well, but that excludes woodpeckers, so it’s a work in progress, he said.
One issue he’s had is raccoons climbing some feeder poles, but he’s installed raccoon excluders on them.
Another problem for bird feeders are house sparrows, which are also an invasive, unprotected species. While DuBois doesn’t get house sparrows at his location, and thus doesn’t have to deal with them, they can cause many bird lovers to cry fowl.
Madden said it helps to reduce tray feeders and not use seed mixes with millet. Also, using tube feeders, which allow for a more controlled delivery of food, and removing the perches from them, can help keep away house sparrows and European starlings, yet another invasive, unprotected species.
Another tool, Madden said, is upside down suet feeders designed only for birds that can hang beneath them, like chickadees and woodpeckers.
She said there is a folk remedy she’s found to be very effective: Hang a few strings of mono-filament fishing line across where birds access a feeder. For some reason, it causes sparrows to avoid the feeder but doesn’t bother other birds.
Sometimes nature does the work. Some species of hawks, like sharp-shinned hawks, hunt house sparrows. Linneweber said there is a sharp-shinned hawk in her neighborhood that comes in looking for them.
The house sparrows try to hide in her barberry bushes, but the hawk goes after them.
“I keep rooting for him,” she laughed.
Debi Naccarto, owner of Wildbirds Unlimited, a bird food and bird feeder store in Bozeman, said house sparrows are “a tough problem” but she had some tips:
• Since sparrows feed in groups, provide multiple feeders to spread them out and thus give songbirds a better chance at food.
• Use perch feeders, which sparrows are less likely to use since they are ground feeders.
• Don’t use seeds like white millet, a house sparrow favorite. Other birds will scatter it to the ground, attracting sparrows.
• Try striped sunflower seeds, as opposed to the smaller black oil sunflower seeds, and safflower seeds, neither of which house sparrows are crazy about.

Bird feeder maintenance
and safety
There’s much more to bird feeders than selecting the right food. You also need to keep them maintained.
“People that want to feed birds need to be mindful about keeping their feeders clean,” Madden said.
She advised cleaning feeders and baths regularly. She uses a mild bleach solution for the feeders and a mild vinegar solution for bird baths. This can help prevent the spread of disease, like the infectious eye disease that has hit some house finches.
Also, to avoid window strikes by birds, place feeders either right at the window, like on the window frame, or at least 10 to 15 feet away, perhaps farther, Madden said.
And very importantly, protect your birds from cat predation, she said.
“Cats are the number one killer of birds in the United States,” Madden noted.
She said to think hard about whether or not to feed birds if cats use the yard.

The joy of birds
The birds of winter can of course survive without us. As Madden said in a recent email, “I like to point out to people that it is not necessary for us to feed the birds — they were living here successfully way before we were!”
But she added, “We feed them to bring them in close to observe and enjoy them.”
And therein lies the joy of winter birds.
Beth Madden provided some useful websites and books on birds:
• Project Feeder Watch (, a Cornell Lab site that helps scientists track winter bird populations., to learn more about the house finch eye disease.
• Great Backyard Bird Count (
There is also an interesting book about how animals, including small birds like chickadees, survive in the winter. It’s called “Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival,” by Brend Heinrich.


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