BIRDS ARE BEGINNING to migrate now, and while most people feed birds through the winter it’s not a bad idea to start a little early while they are migrating. They’ll appreciate the pit stop to be able to pack in more fat and calories, have a bath and a good long drink! Plus, a certain number will decide to stop and stay with you for the winter.
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I feed birds year-round, and I always credit them with keeping vegetable and flower pests under control. I know they also peck around through the grass eating fleas. Those starlings and grackles who march around on your lawn? They’ll happily eat fleas. Robins in the spring? Fleas don’t stand a chance. Songbirds that eat insects? Fleas are a natural part of their diet.
Right now, as the wildflowers of summer have begun to go to seed and insect populations are at their highest, natural foods are plentiful, one of the ways birds can survive thousands of miles of migration. If you’ve maintained a wild area in your backyard where birds can recognize their native foods, birds will find you, stop for a meal and a bath and a long drink of water like an avian B&B. Some of them will decide to stay.
Ways to feed
So put out your feeders early, while the migrants are arriving and natural food is still plentiful so they’ll settle in more readily. Use as much black oil sunflower seed as possible since it’s the universal favorite of birds which commonly visit feeders and gives the most energy for the energy expended to open the seed and eat it and it’s easily recognizable for birds just passing by. In fact, those silly “bird bells” you see in the grocery store, bell-shaped clumps of seeds made to hang outdoors, are highly effective to attract and feed birds. Place them either where you want a feeder to be hung later, or where you see birds gathering, and if you want to feed birds in a particular place, move it slowly to that spot.
Another way to feed without mess and give birds the most for their effort is to get a shell-less fruit and nut mix. These are not inexpensive but attract the greatest number of birds—you’ll see species you may have never seen or known visited your yard. I get a small bag of it, chop the nuts into smaller pieces and put out just a small amount, like one-quarter cup, in feeders where I can watch the birds arrive and eat.
Suet for extra energy and moisture
If they aren’t finding your feeders, or if you don’t want bird seed and empty shells spilling all over your yard just yet, try adding a suet cake to the display. Suet cakes aren’t just for winter feeding, but provide concentrated high-protein, high-energy food that’s easy to eat and easy to digest any time of the year. Birds not only need this to keep warm in the winter, but also while they travel hundreds of miles each day to reach their winter destination, often without stopping for more than an overnight.
In fact, a recent study of migrating Swainson’s thrushes shows that birds pack in the fat not only to sustain energy while traveling, but also to provide water without stopping to drink. Suet cakes won’t melt in warm weather, so don’t worry about a mess, but try to keep them out of the sun. If you can’t find suet cakes yet, or find they are a little expensive, I have a recipe for homemade ones, though these are made with lard and may soften if temperatures rise above 70 degrees or they are in direct sun for some time.
American Goldfinches are just nesting
These tiny brilliant yellow birds nest only in summer, June or July, they build their nests when milkweed and thistles bloom, using the down to line their nests, and fledging their young and beginning their migration as the seeds mature, along with other tiny seeds from native composite plants such as echinacea (purple coneflower) and asters.
It may seem that all birds are vegetarians because we feed them seeds, but most birds’ diets actually include a large number of insects and, thanks to birds keeping mosquitoes, gnats, fleas and other pests under control, those insects are protein sources. But goldfinches are the strictest vegetarian birds, only occasionally eating an insect, so high quality native seeds are important, hence the nyger or thistle seed sold along with feeders that dispense the tiny seeds to attract goldfinches. Adding a thistle sack or thistle feeder now while parent birds are trying to keep up with hungry hatchlings would definitely attract them to your yard.
Don’t forget hummingbirds
You may think hummingbirds are all gone by autumn, but really only the ones you’ve been feeding or simply noticing all summer began to migrate in August and are no longer visiting your feeders or flowers daily. But tiny delicate hummingbirds migrate huge distances and will continue flying through from areas farther north. With a need for high-energy nectar simply for daily needs, imagine what they need to fly every day to a new destination and find enough to replenish themselves from the current day and sustain themselves for the next day. And yet, like all birds, they can’t really “stock up” because they have to keep their weight at a minimum to be able to fly without weighing themselves down.
Keeping your hummingbird feeders out even into October can often mean the difference between life and death for the little ones. While other birds have plant seeds and insects they can eat, very little is out there producing nectar the hummingbirds can eat during their brief stops. Unlike other birds which migrate in flocks, hummingbirds are solo fliers and will visit feeding sites individually, further complicating their ability to find food promptly because they tend to be territorial. I often have more hummingbirds at my feeders in the fall than during the summer, and a couple of years ago I even had one visit in December when there was snow. I had read it’s not unusual for them to be weakened during travel, or even start out late and come through in winter, so I brought my feeder in each night to warm up before putting it out the next morning. This page on the Perky Pet website has maps and details of hummingbird migration, and this page on Hummingbird Central has even more.
The most important—water
But a water source is just as important as the food and even more of an attractant, since flowers and seeds and insects are everywhere, but water sources can be scarce especially in the dry heat of August and September. Keep your birdbath full until the temperatures drop below freezing, or if you have a special watering station you use in winter you can set it out now so they become accustomed to it.
Don’t worry that feeding birds will take away their interest in their natural diet—studies show that birds get only about 10% of their total food intake from seed feeders. Feeding them while migrating helps reduce mortality and keeps them overall healthier. And if insects are their diet, they’ll still happily devour any insect that visits your yard, including those that hatch on a warm day!
Plus, they’ll provide lots of entertainment for your cats, which might sound like a luxury but it’s a very important element in an indoor cat’s daily life.
For more information on naturally controlling fleas in your yard year round, read Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Fall Cleanup, Bird Feeding and Fleas, and also Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat: Begin in Spring to Control Fleas.
Backyard Wildlife Habitats
My backyard wildlife habitat was certified through National Wildlife Federation’s program in 2003, and their site is still one of my favorite references for information. Visit and read about it, and begin planning your own and be certified!
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Weekly schedule of features:
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