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In midwinter, the bold red plumage of the northern cardinal is a welcome sight. Frequent visitors to bird feeders east of the Rocky Mountains, cardinals will feast on both sunflower and safflower seeds.
Unlike sunflower seeds, safflower seeds aren't attractive to bossy birds such as grackles and blackbirds, so they're a good choice if you want to invite cardinals to your backyard without the messy freeloaders. For cardinals, serve safflower seeds in a hopper feeder.
One of the cheeriest winter visitors, the black-capped chickadee often travels in small groups, showing up at feeders with friends and family in tow. Each chickadee will grab a sunflower seed and then fly to a nearby branch to devour it.
If you only have one feeder available, you should probably fill it with black oil sunflower seeds. These energy-packed seeds are a favorite of a wide variety of bird species. Chickadees are particularly fond of these small, tasty treats; offer the seeds in a tube feeder.
Bold and confident, blue jays will eat almost anything you offer them, including suet and sunflower seeds. But their favorite treat is probably peanuts, either in the shell or hulled. A cousin, the Steller's jay, will also frequent feeders west of the Rocky Mountains.
One way to keep blue jays from intimidating smaller birds is to serve peanuts in a separate feeder. The jays will focus on that feeder and be less aggressive overall. Buy shelled peanuts if you want less mess in your yard.
All three of the most common finches -- American goldfinch, purple finch, and house finch -- love Nyjer seed, often mistakenly called thistle seed. Offer it in tube feeders or net bags, and watch these colorful birds swoop in for a visit.
Besides finches, other species that enjoy Nyjer seed include juncos, sparrows, chickadees, and even woodpeckers. Because tube feeders have perches at several levels, be sure to keep yours filled to the brim.
In the winter, beef suet is an energy-rich substitute for the insect fare that downy, hairy, and red-bellied woodpeckers feed on during the summer. Other bird species such as jays will also eat suet, but it's the woodpecker clan you will attract the most by offering this fatty treat.
Suet is like catnip to woodpeckers and nuthatches. You can buy packaged suet cakes, often infused with seeds and fruits, or you can purchase raw suet from your local butcher. The birds aren't particular and will devour either form with gusto. Just be sure to offer it in a wire basket or suet feeder.
Mourning doves and other ground-feeding birds, such as juncos and sparrows, prefer their meals served on low platforms. Although they will land on elevated feeders, they are much more comfortable dining at a lower height. One of their favorite foods is cracked corn.
Cracked corn is the fast food of bird feeding -- high in calories and inexpensive. It's appealing to species such as mourning doves, but in some regions it could cause problems by inviting pigeons into your yard. Serve cracked corn on a low platform feeder.
Many birders consider English sparrows pests. This non-native species (it's not even a true sparrow) has a tendency to mob feeders in the winter and take over birdhouses in the summer. There's no way to keep them at bay, but you can reduce their numbers by offering high-quality seed mixes.
Quality counts when it comes to choosing a wild birdseed mix. Look for brands with a high percentage of sunflower seeds and peanuts. Don't buy cheap mixes that contain milo, wheat, red millet, or grain by-products, which English sparrows devour.
Fresh water is an essential element in every bird's diet. That's why it's important to always have water available near your feeding stations, especially during the winter when other water sources are frozen solid.
An electric birdbath heater is a great investment. It will keep a standard birdbath ice-free even when the mercury drops below zero. You'll be amazed at the variety of bird species that show up when you offer free drinks.