Biologists generally discourage the feeding of wild animals for a variety of valid reasons. In general, providing artificial food sources to wildlife has the potential to do more harm than good overall.
One notable exception to the "don't feed 'em" recommendations is the common practice of putting out birdfeeders for songbirds. Under most conditions, putting out seeds and other types of bird foods has very little downside to the welfare of the birds and can offer some benefits to them, especially in the winter. And backyard birdfeeders also provide hours of enjoyment while watching the antics and feeding behavior of the many feathered visitors that are attracted to your feeding stations.
I particularly like to spend time around birdfeeders this time of year for the many opportunities to photograph birds they present. I often do this from inside a camouflage one-man chair blind.
Not only does this portable blind allow me to get quite close to the birds themselves without being noticed, it also provides some shelter from the elements on cold and windy days.
Some of the species in our region that readily visit feeders in the wintertime are black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, goldfinch, cardinal, blue jay, mourning dove, house finch, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, American tree sparrow, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker and dark-eyed junco. Each species has its own food preferences, however, so the specific foods you put out will have a lot to do with the individual birds you will attract.
Black oil sunflower seeds are preferred by most species of winter birds and should be a staple in your feeding program. There are also all sorts of seed mixtures on the market that will appeal to a variety of birds.
Some are also blended to appeal to specific species. Blue jays and nuthatches like unsalted peanuts, while goldfinches are fond of thistle seeds. If you want to attract woodpeckers, you'll want to hang out a suet block or two. Chickadees, titmice and nuthatches also like suet.
Peanut butter is another special treat for many winter birds. You can simply dab it on the edges of a feeder tray or on nearby tree trunks or bushes.
Better yet is to make a simple feeder for a black of wood or tree limb about a foot long and two inches in diameter. Drill several shallow holes all over the piece and attach a screw eye to on end. Fill the holes with peanut butter and hang the feeder where the bird will find it.
While most birds are selective about what they eat and seem to instinctively know what is not good for them, there are a few things that you should not tempt them with. Avoid salty foods like potato chips or corn chips, uncooked rice and dried peas or beans.
Proper feeder placement is important, both for viewing enjoyment and the welfare of the birds themselves. Obviously, you'll probably want to locate your winter feeders in places where you can observe them from the comfort of your house.
Be careful, however, not to place them too close to large windows that the birds could accidentally fly into if frightened.
Birds also tend to find feeders more attractive if there is some type of cover nearby. Trees and shrubs give the birds shelter from cats, hawks and other potential predators as well as providing individuals with a staging area for going back and forth for their turn at the feeding station.
Some species, such as cardinals, juncos and sparrows, prefer to feed on the ground rather than from pole-mounted or hanging feeders and will often be seen cleaning up spilled seeds underneath elevated feeders. If you notice lots of these birds foraging below your feeders, it might be worth putting out a feeder tray or two on the ground to accommodate them.
When it comes to the winter feeding of songbirds, moderation is the best strategy. Putting out large quantities of food can not only become expensive in the long run but also creates the potential for problems for the birds themselves, especially if they have become dependent on your food source.
It is much better to put out modest amounts of food each day to attract birds regularly to your site and maintain that supplement throughout the winter.