How to Attract the Most Desirable Winter Birds | Harrowsmith Magazine

How to Attract the Most Desirable Winter Birds

Mark and Ben Cullen share their tips for hosting birds at home all winter long.

It was seven years ago when we first got involved with Bird Studies Canada. We now know people like Jody Allair, a resident BSC biologist and science educator, who has forgotten more than we will ever learn about wild birds.

One very important fact we have learned is that birds do not need us to feed them. Many well-intentioned feeders of birds (versus “bird feeders”) believe that wild birds become dependent on us for food. Other than, perhaps, the coldest days of the year and the ones with the deepest snowfall, birds are very capable of finding food from natural sources. They are much like us in that they will take the easiest path to a meal, and if it happens to be at your feeder, then that is where they will congregate. The good news is that you are free to go on vacation without having to worry about keeping the bird feeders full. There’s no need to feel guilty.

Choosing the right birdseed

When it comes to feeding birds, be sure to use the appropriate seed. Consider what kinds of birds you wish to attract to your yard, and put out the appropriate seed in your feeders.

  • Black oil sunflower seed is the closest to a universally accepted birdseed. Cardinals and goldfinches love it.
  • Buckwheat and cracked corn attract mourning doves. Avoiding cracked corn in your birdseed mix will help to minimize the population of grackles and mourning doves at your feeders.
  • Quality canary seed attracts house sparrows. Song sparrows have an even stronger preference for it than house sparrows.
  • Safflower, in our experience, may be the last birdseed you will ever buy. Very few birds will eat it, but squirrels don’t like it either, which is why it is often sold as “squirrel-free.” Worth thinking this one over before you buy.
  • Black-striped sunflower seeds are preferred by most songbirds. The smaller the seed, the better.
  • Thistle is the number one choice for attracting finches. Goldfinches are brownish in colour this time of year but change to brilliant yellow in the spring.
  • Unsalted, shelled peanuts are candy for most woodpeckers and blue jays.
  • Quality suet—unsalted and full of nuts or meal worms—is an excellent way to attract woodpeckers to your yard.

One more word on birdseed. You will notice that the price for seed blends varies widely. It is our experience that most of the inexpensive blends contain cheap seed, including wheat, corn, cracked corn and inexpensive canary seed. For the most part, buying birdseed is a case of getting quality for what you pay. Experience will help to lead you down this path.

Finding the right bird-feeding technique

We have discovered the following techniques for attracting birds.

  • Upside-down suet feeders attract woodpeckers but discourage most grackles, which travel in herds like flying baboons, raiding bird feeders as they go. Grackles do not like to feed upside down.
  • A peanut feeder is the best way to offer shelled peanuts to birds. Similarly, a finch feeder provides the best access to finch food.
  • Cleaning your bird feeders regularly helps to minimize disease. When birds congregate around bird feeders, there is a greater propensity for the spreading of disease.

Providing birds with shelter

Birds need shelter to breed and for protection from cold, wind, snow and their enemies, such as hawks, falcons and neighbourhood cats. Especially cats. The best protection that you can provide wild birds is evergreens that grow tall and thick. Cedars, spruce, fir and the like all work like a charm.

Keep in mind that bird feeders should be located within a metre (3 feet) of a window or more than 10 metres (33 feet) from a window. Within a metre, birds cannot build up enough speed to hurt themselves too seriously if they hit the window, while more than 10 metres away provides them with an opportunity to veer away from the window when they realize it is not a thoroughfare to another part of your garden.

Growing plants for birds

Plants are a one-stop shop for birds, for food and shelter. Birds prefer fruits and seeds right off the plant, and most birds either build their nests in a tree, shrub or stand of grass, or they make their nests from pieces of it. Here are some suggestions.

Flowers such as asters, black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and coreopsis not only add colour to your yard but also attract a range of songbirds, from cardinals to colourful finches. Be sure to leave perennials standing throughout the winter. As these perennial plants go to seed, they continue to be foraged by songbirds. Cut them down in the spring.

Native ornamental grasses attract sparrows, finches and other small birds that forage for seeds. Robins and sparrows pick up coarse blades to construct the main walls of their nest, then revisit for finer-textured blades to pad the soft lining of the interior. We recommend planting big bluestem, little bluestem, northern sea oats or side oats. As with your perennials, leave these grasses standing through the winter to provide habitat for overwintering species such as dark-eyed juncos.

Robins, waxwings and cardinals build nests in shrubs, eating and singing like old friends at an East Coast kitchen party. Mulberries and serviceberries are two medium-sized, summer-fruiting shrubs that are especially popular with this crowd. Flowering dogwood bears fruit in the fall to keep them coming, as does crab apple, which also fruits in the fall but holds its fruit into the winter.

Trees are the bird equivalent of a tall condo building, bustling with life. White oaks provide nesting opportunities for woodpeckers, jays and even wood ducks, and unlike other oaks, white oak produces acorns every year. Generally, native tree species are found to support more bird life. If you have lots of space, we recommend red maple; black, red and white spruce; grey, white and yellow birch; or black willow.

Healthy birds, healthy planet

Our friends at Bird Studies Canada remind us that birds are an important indicator of the health of our environment: a healthy planet equals healthy birds.

Attracting the maximum number of birds to your yard and garden takes much more than a bird feeder full of seed. Water, carefully chosen plants and tall trees can all help these species succeed.

Mark & Ben Cullen
Mark & Ben Cullen

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, author, broadcaster and tree advocate
and holds the Order of Canada. His son, Ben, is a fourth-generation
urban gardener and a graduate of the University of Guelph and Dalhousie
University in Halifax. Follow them at, @MarkCullen4
(Twitter) and @markcullengardening (Facebook) and look for their latest book, Escape to Reality.

Follow them at, @MarkCullen4, and biweekly on Global TV’s national morning show, The Morning Show.

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Posted on Sunday, November 28th, 2021
Filed under Gardening | Projects
Tagged: Birds | gardens
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