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Garden Talk

robin eating holly berries

Winter Meals for Wild Birds

By Katherine Hale

Blomquist bird feeders

Winter is the hardest time of year for wild birds. Just when they need to eat the most to keep themselves warm, the cold drives the insects they depend on into hibernation. Even fruit and seed eaters aren’t safe, with unpredictable bouts of ice, snow and inclement weather cutting off access to their food sources.

Like support stations at a marathon, backyard feeders bearing sunflower seeds and suet offer birds a lifeline in stressful times, with quick and easy boosts of the calories and fat they need to survive. Feeding birds is a safe, easy and fun way to help local wildlife, and it also allows adults and children alike an up-close-and-personal opportunity to connect with nature.

Feeders aren’t the only way to help birds, of course. Native trees like dogwoods, hollies and wax myrtles provide welcome bursts of seasonal color—along with food and shelter for hungry fall migrants and overwintering residents alike. Withered seed heads of ornamental grasses and sunflowers can be left up after the frost for foraging juncos and sparrows. (You can cut them down in the spring to make room for new foliage or plantings.) Native plants also serve as hosts to caterpillars and grasshoppers, allowing insectivores like bluebirds and warblers to thrive. And of course brightly colored flowers are the best way to draw in nectar-drinking hummingbirds.

But the wonderful thing about bird feeders is that they are open to everyone—no land or garden required. For those who don’t have access to much outdoor space, or who are waiting for their plants to mature, bird feeders offer an effective and immediate alternative. As long as you follow a few simple rules—making sure there are bushes or other cover nearby for birds to shelter in; cleaning the feeders regularly to prevent disease; and keeping cats and other pets indoors—the only limits are your budget, imagination and time.

What birds frequent your feeders depends on the kind of offerings you set out. Woodpeckers appreciate suet. Chickadees and cardinals love black oil sunflower seeds. That said, part of the fun of setting up a bird feeder is that you never know who might drop by. Visitors to the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants frequently spy a pair of mallard ducks hanging out under the feeders, commuting from the pond nearby. Online resources like eBird, iNaturalist and Feeder Watch provide space for the scientifically inclined to share and document their findings.

The beauty of bird feeders is that they allow you the opportunity to watch wild birds up close, with a house or windowsill serving as a blind. Beginning and seasoned naturalists don’t even have to step outside to see the resulting antics, which speed up as weather conditions worsen. The result is live-action drama worthy of a reality show, as the dominant chickadee scolds its flockmates away from the choicest morsels, or a red-shouldered hawk shows up to try and snag a feathered meal of its own.

If you’d like to try making simple bird-feeders of your own out of pine cones, lard and other natural materials (no nuts or nut products involved), join us for our annual Winter Wonderland Festival, on Sunday, December 8, from 2-4 p.m. at the Doris Duke Center. The family-friendly festival is free for Duke Gardens members, and $5 per child for non-members. (Please register in advance at In addition to winter-themed crafts, there will also be storytelling, cookie decorating, festive music and our resident snowperson, Snowflake. Hope to see you there!

chickadee foraging for seeds

More Garden Talk highlights

Photos from top: An American robin feasts on native holly berries in the Blomquist Garden (Cathi Bodine); bird feeders stocked with sunflower seeds in the Blomquist Garden (Kathy Julian); a Carolina chickadee forages for seeds in the Piedmont Prairie (Cathi Bodine).