Utility Links


Feeding Birds in Winter - Early Childhood Edition

Survival can be difficult for birds in Illinois during the winter when their natural food supplies may be greatly reduced. They may also be unable to reach food that is covered by snow or ice. By providing food to birds at a feeder or on the ground, you can assist them while participating in an activity that is easy, fun and rewarding. Feeding birds may allow you to see these animals up close and watch their behaviors.

 Corn and Other Cereal Grains

Jan2017Corn.jpgCereal grains are grasses that are grown for their edible fruits. Corn (Zea mays), wheat (Triticum aestivum), millet (Echinochloa spp.) and rice (Oryza sativa) are examples of cereal grains. 
Corn provides energy for birds. Most birds will eat dried corn in some form: whole-kernel; cracked; corn meal; dried on the cob; and corn bread.
Millet is a small, spherical seed that is often the main ingredient in purchased birdseed mixes. While it is taken by mourning doves, blackbirds and some sparrows and finches, many birds will not eat it. Sorghum is another spherical grain included in commercial birdseed mixes. It is brown and much larger than millet. The mourning dove, blackbirds and some sparrows and finches will eat this grain.  

 Thistle Seeds

Jan2017Thistle.jpg“Thistle seeds” that are used to attract purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus), American goldfinches, pine siskins, redpolls and a few other small birds are actually niger (Guizotia abyssinica) seeds. Niger is a plant native to Africa that is grown for its seeds that are loaded with proteins, oils and sugars. Niger is grown as a crop in Africa, India and other places in Southeast Asia and sold all over the world. This type of food may seem more expensive than other packaged bird foods, but it usually turns out to be less costly because you do not have to replace it as often, and there is not as much wasted, uneaten food.


 Sunflower Seeds

Jan2017StripedSS.jpgSunflower (Helianthus spp.) seeds are eaten by any birds that can crack open the husk. The northern cardinal, chickadees, tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), nuthatches, sparrows, finches and other species are attracted to sunflowers. Black oil sunflower seeds (solid black shell) have high fat and protein content and a thin shell for easy cracking. Striped sunflower seeds have a large, hard shell and not as much seed per shell as the black oil sunflower seeds. Use only unsalted sunflower seeds for birds.



 Suet, Lard and Grease

Jan2017Lard.jpgSuet is the fat of cows (Bos taurus) and sheep (Ovis aries). Lard is fat from pigs (Sus spp.). Grease includes the remains from lard, oils, bacon or other fats after cooking. Beef suet is the most important kind of suet for feeding birds. Suet can be offered pure or blended with corn meal, peanut butter, stale bread crumbs and other items. Lard and grease are mainly used in suet mixtures for birds. Suet mixtures are high in energy and popular with all birds that visit feeding stations.




Jan2017Peanuts.jpgPeanuts (Arachis hypogaea) are loaded with protein and fat. Shelled peanuts can be distributed on the ground or strung together and hung between two branches. The blue jay, woodpeckers, tufted titmouse, nuthatches and common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) will eat peanuts in the shell.  Chopped peanuts are suitable for birds, too, and more small birds will be able to eat them. Peanut butter can be used in suet mixtures. Although birds will eat peanut butter that has been spread on tree bark, the ground or other surfaces, it may be difficult for them to swallow it. Use natural peanuts. Do not use salted peanuts!



​​Jan2017Popcorn.jpgWhen popped, popcorn will be eaten by the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), chickadees, common grackle and blue jay. Do not use salted or seasoned popcorn. Birds will not generally eat the unpopped kernels.







Jan2017Grit.jpgGrit is made of hard, small objects. It is important to birds for the minerals it contains. Birds also use grit as grinding materials in their digestive tract. In winter, especially when there is a lot of snow on the ground, birds may have trouble finding grit. Ashes, charcoal pieces, sand, egg shells or purchased grit from pet stores and farm stores can be used separately or combined as grit.




 White Bread

Jan2017Bread.jpgSmall pieces of fresh or stale white sandwich bread are readily eaten by nearly all birds that visit feeders. While the bread is enriched with vitamins and minerals, it is not as nutritious as other food sources and should be used sparingly. Birds do not readily eat other bread varieties.

 Additional Information

​Water is an important consideration when feeding birds. Be sure to provide fresh water for the birds each day, especially when many natural water sources are frozen.

Some foods can be harmful to birds. Peanut butter is better used in suet mixtures than as pure peanut butter. Birds can have trouble swallowing pure peanut butter. Millet seeds have been known to cause the death of brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) by blocking their trachea. Foods like coconut and dry oats that swell with moisture after they are eaten can lead to internal injuries. Any foods that are allowed to spoil and remain at the feeder are harmful, too.
There are other potential problems with feeding birds, too. Foods placed outside to attract birds may also attract unwanted mammalian visitors such as squirrels, Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana) , raccoons (Procyon lotor), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and others. With the exception of squirrels, they will most likely come to your feeder at night. Foods that will spoil should be removed from the feeding area before they do so. Spoiled food, like moldy bread, should not be used. Foods that are salted or seasoned with spices should not be used. Keep seeds, nuts and other dry food in air-tight containers that cannot be opened or gnawed into by rodents. 
Feeding the birds in winter can provide you with hours of bird-watching opportunities each day. Keep the feeding area and your feeders clean, provide food and water daily and see how many birds you can attract. Don’t forget the Great Backyard Bird Count in February. Take part in this citizen-science project. You’ll find the details on their Web site.

 Educator Suggestions

​1. Use the Illinois’ Natural Resources Trading Cards from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources or other publications to show the students photographs of birds that often visit bird feeders in Illinois.
2. Watch the video podcast that accompanies this month’s Kids for Conservation® topic.
3. Use the information presented above and the following suggestions to help you meet some of the Benchmarks of the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards. Please do not be limited by these suggestions or by these Standards. The information can be used in several subject areas.
Goal 11, Learning Standard 11.A: Develop beginning skills in the use of science and engineering practices, such as observing, asking questions, solving problems and drawing conclusions.
Students should be able to observe birds at your feeding station. Ask them to watch quietly. When you are finished, take the students to a location away from the feeding station and ask them to talk about what they observed. What questions do they have? Make a list of questions. If any of the questions can be answered by further observation of the feeding station, do so. Let them build models to represent their ideas. If applicable, let them test the ideas and collect data. Involve math and computations skills. Describe the results and provide explanations.
Students want to know why the birds have different types of beaks.
Have the students observe birds eating at the feeding station. Be sure that you are offering a variety of foods. Ask them to see how each type of bird eats and what each type of bird eats. See if they can make generalizations about the bigger birds eating bigger foods or the birds with thicker beaks eating bigger or harder foods that may need to be cracked open. Have them observe how each type of bird uses its beak.
Goal 12, Learning Standard 12.A: Understand that living things grow and change.
Goal 12, Learning Standard 12.B: Understand that living things rely on the environment and/or others to live and grow.
If possible, have the students observe birds at the feeding station. If it is not possible, show them a video of birds eating at a feeder. Let the students tell you what they notice about these animals. By watching these animals, students will be able to describe some of their basic traits and needs and learn to respect these creatures.
Goal 13, Learning Standard 13.A: Understand rules to follow when investigating and exploring.
Goal 13, Learning Standard 13.B: Use tools and technology to assist with science and engineering investigations.
If you are going to observe birds in person with the students, they should be aware of rules that must be followed. These are wild animals. They should not be fed. They should not be touched. You should stay far enough away to watch them without disturbing them. Talking should be in low tones. There should be no yelling or throwing. See the Field Trip Tips Web page for more information about taking students on a field trip.
Depending on what questions the students develop and test, they may need to use scientific and technological tools to help them discover the answers.