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bird feeding

Lots of different bird species travel through Illinois while migrating in the fall and spring.

One of the ways we enjoy our garden in the winter is by feeding the birds. We were a little late in setting out our feeders this year, but the birds were quick to find them and give us a lot of activity to watch from our kitchen table.

Here are some tips that have kept the birds very happy and well fed in our backyard:

Our main bird feeding area is right outside our kitchen window. It’s sheltered from the wind and gives all of us a great view of our feathered visitors. Our second feeding area is a little further away from the house, near our vegetable garden. There is still shelter from the wind thanks to the garden fence and some shrubs and nearby trees.

We don’t cut down dead perennial foliage in the fall. We leave most of it intact for the birds to take shelter in and under from winter winds.

In the fall, winter, and early spring we feed blocks of suet mixed with various nuts, seeds and fruits. The suet gives the birds a concentrated source of fat calories and the different foods mixed in attract a lot of interesting birds to our feeders. Woodpeckers in particular flock to the suet blocks with peanuts at our house. Though there are “no-melt” suet cakes on the market, I find they still don’t hold up in an Illinois summer. We stop feeding suet once summer temperatures arrive.

We use a mixture of platform, tube and hopper feeders in our yard. Different birds prefer different ways to eat.

Wild bird seed mixes vary in price and quality. In general, larger quantities cost less per pound than smaller amounts. Also, pay attention to what seed is present (or not) in a particular mix. The best combinations are high in sunflower seeds and millet and have less cheap fillers like wheat, corn, and milo (a BB-sized round red seed that most backyard birds don't eat readily).

Once we start feeding birds in the fall or winter, we try our best to not stop until spring or summer. Although birds are very adaptable, they do become accustomed to visiting our feeders for food.

I do taper off feeding birds seed and stop most of it by summertime. I hate dealing with birdseed sprouting everywhere. I also hate that sunflower seed hulls inhibit other plant growth — like grass. My 2-year-old daughter was “helping” me fill our feeder with sunflower seeds last spring and spilled a few cups of seed in the grass. I scooped up what I could, and pulled the sunflower sprouts up as they emerged, but then I was left with a barren circle of soil in the lawn for most of the summer.

One way to feed birds in the summer without the irritation of sprouting bird seed is to feed hulless bird seed which will not germinate. Dried mealworms are another option. I bought some mealworms just to see what birds we would attract, and we had a whole new set of visitors at our feeder, including Eastern bluebirds and Indigo buntings.

Stale bread and rolls are OK to feed birds in moderation. Keep in mind that these carbohydrate-heavy foods are like candy to birds. While they supply calories, they're not necessarily nutrient-dense or long-lasting energy sources in the cold winter months. But, I’d rather have the birds enjoy the treat of my stale bread than throw it out.

We keep a “Birds of Illinois” book and a small set of binoculars handy near our kitchen window to help identify new visitors to our feeders. Lots of different bird species travel through Illinois while migrating in the fall and spring. My kids especially love spotting new birds and paging through our book to find its identity.

For me, you just can't beat an early morning hot cup of coffee or tea and easing into the day watching the activity at our bird feeders. The cycle repeats itself at dusk too. It's a gentle reminder to slow down and look around and realize that though our garden plants may be asleep for the winter, there still is a lot of life out there!

Jennifer Schultz Nelson shares practical ideas and information to bring out the gardener in everyone in her blog at

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