Dec 8, 2021 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, December 2021

It's Time for Winter Bird Feeding!

If you enjoy your backyard birds, safeguard their health by cleaning and sanitizing your feeders regularly—every week or two.

For much of the summer, wildlife authorities in about a dozen eastern and midwestern states issued advisories against feeding wild birds or even providing birdbaths in an attempt to limit the spread of a "mystery disease" that was sickening or killing birds in a wide area. West Nile and other familiar bird diseases have been ruled out, but the source of the mystery disease has not yet been determined. Even so, reports of dead and dying birds have decreased, and all advisories have been lifted. So, go ahead and feed the birds!

Obviously, those who do not live in one of the affected states were free to enjoy feeding and watering the birds all summer long, but I really missed it. I know I'm not alone! I hung my feeders the very day Ohio's advisory was rescinded. Blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, titmice, house sparrows (of course), and mourning doves found my offerings within hours! Making birds happy is such a satisfying hobby.

Even though wildlife biologists have not yet figured out what was sickening and killing blue jays, robins, grackles, cardinals, and other songbirds a few months ago, this disturbing situation reminds us of the importance of keeping our feeders clean. Dirty bird feeders provide ideal habitat for molds, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and perhaps other pathogens. If you enjoy your backyard birds, safeguard their health by cleaning and sanitizing your feeders regularly—every week or two. Dump out seed that is soggy or otherwise iffy. Provide only fresh seed and suet using only clean feeders.

White-crowned sparrow and chipping sparrow at a backyard feeder. Photo by Shutterstock.

If you can't commit to doing that, then please stop feeding the birds. Do no harm to the creatures that bring you joy. As Confucius (or maybe it was Birdsquatch) said: It is better to provide no food for the birds than to offer food that could sicken them. They won't starve if you don't feed them, but they might get sick or die if your feeders become disease vectors.

Mark your calendar right now, as both a reminder and a commitment, for days in the next few months when you will wash your feeders. Except during the worst possible weather, such as an ice storm, frigid temps, or after a hurricane, birds really don't need to be fed by humans. We feed birds to draw them closer to us, because we enjoy watching them, and because it gives us joy when they so eagerly accept our gifts.

An eastern towhee forages for seeds on the ground. Photo by Shutterstock.

I'm looking forward to adding yellow-bellied sapsucker to my yard list, attracted by my suet feeder. And certainly dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows will show up on my platform feeder, or on the deck railing, or the ground beneath my feeders. Welcome back to my feeders, winter pals, old friends whom I haven't seen for months! I'll prepare a generous buffet for all of them, and it will be safe for them. We will cheer each other through the months ahead of short daylight and cold temperatures.

Best wishes to you and your family—including "your" backyard birds—for happy winter holidays.

About Dawn Hewitt

Dawn Hewitt is the editor at Watching Backyard Birds and Bird Watcher's Digest. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald-Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.

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  • I am excited to have my daughter’s tree this year, since my landlord has removed the lovely yew next to my patio, which was the only shelter for birds at my feeder.
    by pmalcpoet, Mon, 20 Dec 2021
  • Goldfinches will continue as long as Swiss chard is available. I'm watching one eating chard right now (mid-November in Vermont).
    by Brian Tremback, Sun, 14 Nov 2021
  • Birds are on the decline though sunflowers are rarely touched and for weeks hardly .eaten. I'll try a few sparing nuts on the table and a fat ball broken for jackdaws and tits but mealworms were a summer favourite being my go to choice
    by Paul Harabaras, Thu, 04 Nov 2021
  • I’ve been enjoying goldfinches eating coneflower/ echinacea seeds in my new pollinator garden! I will leave the plants out all winter for them if the seeds keep that long? Or should I deadhead and put them in a dry area? Im in CT and thought they migrated, but didn’t know they put in winter coats! What do they eat in winter without bird feeders?
    by Anne Sheffield, Sat, 04 Sep 2021
  • Hi Gary, I will pass your question along to Birdsquatch next time I see him. He knows infinitely more about nocturnal wildlife than I do. Where do you live? That's pretty important in figuring out the answer. But the thief could be raccoons, deer, or flying squirrels. Do you live in the woods? Are there trees near your feeder, or must the culprit climb a shepherd's hook or pole? Dawn Hewitt, Watching Backyard Birds
    by Dawn Hewitt, Mon, 30 Aug 2021