It’s nice to admire the crisp outdoors of autumn or a peaceful winter wonderland from the warm indoor comforts of home. But as we stare out the back windows from our heated houses, our animal-loving hearts easily go out to our feathered friends and other wildlife left out in the cold, searching for food.

Seed head

Mature seed heads of many summer- and fall-blooming plants provide a natural food source for birds throughout winter.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Avett

Ironweed seed

Birds can feast on the white-tailed seed of New York ironweed.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Avett


A Carolina Chickadee perches on the “cone” of a tuliptree.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Avett

Wish you could do more for our flying creatures – and admire nature-in-action at the same time? Provide winter food for the birds in your garden by doing … nothing. (You read that right – nothing!)

Whether they’re year-round residents, winter guests or those just passing through, birds will enjoy a nutritious feast right in your back yard, provided there’s good seed to be found. All you have to do is leave the seed heads on your plants, allowing them to dry and mature. Then nature will do the rest.

It’s as easy as it sounds. Small seed-eating birds, like goldfinches and chickadees, feed straight from the plant, choosing the ones that are easy for them to perch. Finches are fond of the seed from composites (daisylike flowers) of every kind – from large sunflowers to small asters and coreopsis. Other plant favorites include coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, salvias, phlox, goldenrod, thistles and ironweed.

Larger songbirds, like cardinals and sparrows, prefer to feed on the ground. They’ll scratch and peck around under flowers that have burst seedpods. (Some good plants include tropical sages, evening primroses, coreopsis, grasses and mallows.)

The other nice thing about leaving dried seed heads on your plants is they add appeal to a winter garden that otherwise may lack interest. Dark stems rising out of a “dead” garden, topped with spiky coneflower heads or the fluffy heads of Joe-Pye weed and New York ironweed, lend texture and height to a winter yard.

If leaving dead-looking stems poking out of the ground seems too unsightly for you, an alternative is to cut the stems as if you were cutting a bouquet of fresh flowers, leaving the stems long. Tie the brown bouquet together and hang it on a fence, nearby post or tree. (The birds will know where to find it.)

Of course, the added bonus of leaving seed heads in the garden is that whatever seed survives your all-you-can-eat bird buffet will provide even more flowers the following year. So spend your time bird-watching instead of dead-heading the spent flowers in your garden. Leave those seed heads on your plants, then enjoy the view of a crisp garden full of wildlife – because winter’s for the birds!