Feeding Birds and Wildlife in Winter

Winter can be a difficult time for wildlife, particularly in Manitoba. Although we all want to help, feeding wildlife often hurts the animals more than it helps. Some of the hardships facing wildlife come from disappearing habitat due to urban development and expansion, which eliminate trees and shrubs that provide wildlife with food and shelter.

Rather than simply putting out food that can be harmful and make animals dependent on unnatural food sources, try to make your yard wildlife friendly with naturally grown food and shelter that will benefit wildlife for years. Plant trees that yield berries or evergreen trees and shrubs that give animals protection from wind and rain. If you have a larger property, brush piles also provide excellent winter cover for small animals and planting food patches of corn and millet gives numerous wild animals a good source of energy to maintain their body heat in our extreme winters.

Most birds are able to survive on only wild food sources, but additional food sources can help to supplement their diet, especially during severe weather. The flower stalks and shrubs in your garden can serve as natural bird feeders. Seed-eating birds, like goldfinches and juncos, will feed from the dried flower heads of black-eyed susans, cone-flowers, sunflowers and other wild flowers and plants when other food is scarce. Wildflower stalks also may house insects for insect eating birds and berries and other fruit on trees and bushes can feed a wide range of birds.

Putting out bird feeders with nuts and seeds is a rewarding way to more directly supplement birds’ diets during tougher times. The two most vulnerable times for birds are during severe winter weather and when young are being fed. During the winter, a well fed bird will be a warmer bird that is better able to survive harsh conditions. To feed birds in the winter, begin to put food out late October/early November when natural food is becoming hard to find and continue feeding through February and March when food supplies are lowest. Winter is also a time to switch to more cold-weather foods, as birds need rich sources of fat and calories to combat low temperatures and winter storms.

A wide variety of visible food is ideal and the best types of seed to use for feeding are a mix of black-oil sunflower, cracked corn, white millet, whole peanuts, nuts, and suet. It may take time for birds to discover your feeder(s), so do not worry if they are not immediately used. Once a bird has discovered a feeder, other birds are sure to follow and other species too! Please remember, even in cold weather, you should clean feeders regularly to prevent the buildup of bacteria that can cause disease. Make cleaning and refilling feeders in Manitoba winters easier in Manitoba by shoveling a path to them clear or placing them in a sheltered location that is easily accessible.

Safe Feeding Tips:

  • Do not put out food for animals, such as deer, rabbits, etc., because:
    • The food could be bad for the animal nutritionally, e.g., bread is hard to digest for ducks and geese;
    • Having too many species eating from one food source could lead to the spread of disease; and
    • When spring comes, deer and other wildlife will be used to a free meal and will not move on to find traditional food sources;
  • If you live in an area with bears, put feeders up only in the winter months and discontinue feeding in February;
  • Bird feeders and the ground must be cleaned regularly and any wet or bad food should be thrown away.


*Article originally printed in Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre newsletter.

For more information or to become a member and subscribe to the newsletter, please visit the PWRC website: http://pwildlife.ca/.

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