Fall Bird Migration In The Yard

Now that Fall is upon us, you will notice a lot of changes in the birds visiting your yard.   Fall treesSome of these changes you’ve already noticed no doubt – like the disappearance of summer birds such as swallows, orioles, and grosbeaks – to name a few.  Depending on what part of the continent you live in, hummingbirds may be gone as well.

One reason for these changes is that nesting season is over, and birds leave the territories they staked out in the spring to keep rivals out.  This is also driven by changes in food availability.   By later in September, a lot of insect populations have either fallen way off or ended altogether.  And many birds shift their diets over to natural foods such as berries and seeds, which typically ripen in the late summer or fall.  This can cause birds to not show up at feeders as much.

But, another big trend in backyard bird populations now is driven by migration.  Many birds leave areas where they nested and head either south, or sometimes just to lower elevations where weather is milder and food is more available.  This shift can sometimes cover a few hundred miles or many thousands of miles.  Here are a few examples…

1.  Goldfinches typically move hundreds of miles southward into ranges where there may be less snow and weed seeds are easier to find.  So, birds from say, Missouri may appear in Texas during the fall (a state where goldfinches are not found in the summer).  Conversely, goldfinches from Ontario may winter in Ohio or Michigan for example.

2.  Purple Martins, the largest members of the swallow family will breed in a range extending from northern Michigan all the way to the Gulf Coast.  But, they leave these areas starting in August and migrate to spend winters in central Brazil.

3.  The king of all migrating birds, the Arctic Tern, (not exactly a backyard bird I realize!) leaves it’s summer nesting area in the Arctic and flies tens of thousands of miles to the waters of Antarctica!

In general, birds with specific diets that don’t adapt or change with the season, must migrate much further (usually to the southern hemisphere where the seasons are the reverse of those up in North America) than other more adaptable birds.  Birds that have 100% insect diets (like swallows) are good examples of this migration behavior.

So, getting back to your yard, if you keep a watchful eye, you are likely to see numbers of migrating birds coming through your habitat from now thru October/November.  These are usually birds that summer further north, but could also be “local-yokels”.    Warblers and sparrows are two groups of birds that are common migrants.  Most warblers winter in Central and South American, but some are found in the deep southern states all winter.  Sparrows generally winter further south in their range.  For example, song sparrows leave the far northern states, but can often be found in Ohio and Indiana.  In the west, Fox Sparrows are commonly seen in fall and winter, but not as much in the breeding season.

Some migrants will be attracted to bird feeders and birdbaths to stock up on fuel for the long trip south.  This is a good reason to keep them filled with fresh birdseed and water.  Other non-seeding eating birds will dine on fruit and seed bearing bushes and plants, or try to find the few remaining insects.  So, it pays to keep your binoculars handy this time of year.

Finally, in all areas, there are some birds that don’t migrate at all.  They are most often seed eating birds or scavengers/predators like hawks, crows, jays, certain gulls, and owls.   In the southern and temperate coastal areas, there are usually more year-round species.

One way to learn about the marvel of bird migration is took look at the range maps in your bird field guide.  These show approximately where each species breeds, and then spends the winter months.  This will give you insights into the behaviors and habits of each bird in your yard, and when you might see them again.

Keeping Your Bird Houses In Good Shape

Now that nesting season is over in most areas of the country, you can take down your bird houses and bring them inside.  Fall Bird House maintenanceThat will help them last longer by not exposing them to winter weather.   While you’re doing this task, it’s a great time to do some maintenance work on the nesting boxes.  Plus, it will be easier in the spring when you’re ready to put them back out.   So, here are some good tips on maintaining bird houses.

The most obvious thing to do is clean out all nesting material, droppings, bird feathers, etc. that may still be in the box.  This is best done right after the brood of birds leave.  Often you will need to scrub the box out with a brush and water.  I like to use a garden hose set on jet stream along with a stiff bristled brush.  You can also use a 10% bleach/90% water solution to disinfect the box if you’d like.  After thoroughly rinsing the box out, let it dry in the sun before storing it in the garage or basement.

In addition to cleaning, most nesting boxes will start showing signs of wear that need attention after several years outside.  By doing a little maintenance each year, you can extend the life of your houses.  Here are a few simple things you can do to keep nest boxes in tip-top shape:

   Tighten all screws that may have started to back out.  If nails were used to build the house, consider replacing some of them with galvanized or coated screws.  These hold the wood together better.
•   Dirt on the outside of the box can be scrubbed off and also sanded
•   If you find any holes from knots that fell out or woodpecker damage, fill them in with exterior grade putty or caulk.  You can probably even find colors that match the wood.
•   If the entrance hole has become rough at any point around the edge, use a round file or sandpaper to smooth it out.
   Extremely warped roofs should be replaced with new wood.
•   Make sure drainage holes or gaps in the bottom of the nest box have not become plugged.
   Cracks can be filled in with putty to prevent enlargement.  Cracks that have become too severe may require the piece of wood to be replaced.
•   You CAN stain or paint the exterior of the box to extend its life by using non-toxic, water based paints or stains.  However, do not apply these to the inside of the box.

That’s it.  Keeping your bird houses in good repair will help them last a lot longer and it’s better for the birds too.

Where Have My Backyard Birds Gone?

Tray bird feeder pole mountedWhen I used to run my birdfeeding store, a common question I used to hear in August was “Where Have My Birds Gone?”  In the traditional “dog days of August” it IS not uncommon to see and hear a lot less birds.  Why is this?  Here are some of the main reasons….

  • The nesting season has ended.  So, young birds and their parents have dispersed and left their nesting territories (your yard).
  • Natural food is more plentiful.  As late-summer berries and seeds ripen, birds have many more sources of food.  So, they come to feeders less.
  • Migration has started for some species.   Backyard birds with long migration routes (like swallows and orioles) will start leaving this month in more northern areas of the country as insect populations start to fall off.
  • Midday heat will make birds more inactive.  Summer temperatures will often cause birds to be less active during the middle of the day.  So, they won’t come to feeders as much.
  • Goldfinches may be busy nesting.  These birds are unusual in that they nest in mid to late summer.  So, they may not be nearly as common at feeders as they were in the spring.

Although this may seem sad to see your favorite birds of summer around any more, it’s actually part of nature’s wonderful year-long cycle.  As we transition into fall, you’ll see your regular birds more active foraging for food as days get shorter and the weather cooler.  Some birds like nuthatches and jays will cache food for the winter by hiding it in cracks and crevices in trees or even your house siding!

So, the good news here is that the birds WILL come back.  But, it’s still important to keep feeders and birdbaths filled.  Migrating birds will often take advantage of them for an easy meal or drink as they head southward.  This will provide you with an excellent opportunity to watch for some new and exciting species of birds that may wander through your yard.


The Great Hummingbird Nectar Myth

As I have talked to many people over the years about birdfeeding, I often have to dispell many myths, old-wives tales, and other 1/2 truths.  Hummingbird feeding at red flowerWhere these stories and supposed facts have their origins, is hard to tell most of the time.  But, it’s obvious that once something “gets out there” among the general public and is accepted as fact, it takes a long time to reverse that thinking.

One of those myths is that hummingbird nectar in feeders “must be colored red or the birds won’t be able to find it”.  This is and has always been “a bunch of hogwash” as my dear departed Dad used to say.

This myth probably got its start based on the fact hummingbirds are often seen feeding at a lot of red colored flowers.  Although it’s true that hummingbirds like to feed at red flowers, they also feed at other colored flowers – yellow, orange, pink, and purple.  So, color is not at all critical to them in finding food.  And since flower nectar is basically sugar water anyway and is not dyed red, then color of the nectar in the feeder shouldn’t matter, correct?

That being said, it IS true that the color red can help attract hummingbirds to a new hummingbird feeder since color does help them find flowers.  But, most if not all hummingbird feeders have some red parts on them already.  This is more than enough red for hummingbirds to see the feeder.  Even the small red tip on the end of the small red feeding glass tube found on some feeders is enough to attract them.   And even if the feeder doesn’t have any red, you can tie a red ribbon to the feeder to attract the hummingbirds.   So, having red nectar is NOT necessary.

But, there’s an even better and more important reason not to use red-dyed nectar solutions.  Research has shown that hummingbirds can not digest the red dye and it just passes right through their systems.  With all the bad health effects seen in humans in the past when red dyes were used in food, why risk your hummingbirds’ health by using dyed nectar?

OK, you’re probably thinking if all this is true, then why do I see red-colored hummingbird nectar for sale in stores?   Very good question.  The most easy answer is simply PROFIT.  Companies know people will buy it.  And since it’s basically sugar water, it’s extremely cheap to make and therefore very profitable.   But, I think part of the reason goes back to this false belief that nectar MUST be red to be effective in attracting hummingbirds.

Full disclosure here – I myself DID sell hummingbird nectar (non-dyed only) for years when I owned a birdfeeding specialty store.  However, this was ONLY because some people just had to buy it and would actually get upset with me if I didn’t stock it!  And this was after I told them directly they didn’t need it, it was a waste of their money, and I tried to give them a handout that explained how they could make it themselves (see below).   As they say, “you can lead a horse to water, but…..”

So, I ask everyone who reads this post to join the “Dye-Free Hummingbird Nectar Revolution“.  Save yourself a lot of money by going out and buying an inexpensive 5 pound bag of table sugar, and then find a fruit juice bottle you can clean out and use to store your nectar in.   Unless you live in parts of the west, a 5 pound bag will probably last you most of the season.

EDIT:  There is a new product that came out from Kaytee called ElectroNectar which is a non-dyed liquid product with electrolytes added to it.  The company claims that research shows hummingbirds need additional electrolytes when feeding on sugar water to replenish what their bodies use up in processing the extra water.  I will check into this claim and report back.  But, if you are one who wants to buy a pre-mixed nectar, this may be a good option for you.

And one last very important tip:  make sure to change your hummingbird nectar in the feeder every 3-5 days.  After that it starts to ferment and grow molds that can be harmful to birds.

Hummingbird Nectar Recipe

Backyard Birdwatching At The Cabin

I just came back from a trip to my wife’s family cabin in northern Wisconsin, where I went with my 2 daughters and father-in-law.  Northern cabinWe only get up there every handful of years, but always love to do lots of birdwatching during our short stays.  This cabin is in the middle of the north woods (literally) amid all kinds of pines, spruces, firs, birches, and other trees.  But, there’s also lots of water, including a spring-fed pond with trout in it right next to the cabin.

One of the most exciting parts of every visit to me is what new wildlife or bird sighting we are going to see.  Every visit yields some really interesting bird or animal sighting.  One year, a family of river otters entered the pond from the creek and cavorted in the water for several hours.  Another year, a mature bald eagle landed in a tree next to the pond.  Yet on another trip, an unusual Black-backed woodpecker was sighted near the cabin.

What does this have to do with backyard birdwatching?  Many times, our vacation cabins are just smaller versions of our own yards back home – but with different habitats nearby and different birds and wildlife.  So, it gives us a chance to observe and learn about a whole new and exciting world of wildlife up close.

At our cabin, we always put out bird feeders when we arrive – usually a sunflower feeder, tray feeder, thistle tube, and hummingbird feeder.  Despite the fact people are seldom there, the birds usually find the feeders amazingly quickly.  The hummingbirds in particular will arrive in short order, often in less than half an hour.  Here is one of our visitors – a female Ruby-throated hummingbird:

This year was different.  Maybe it was the heat that has plagued much of the country this year.  Or maybe it was because almost no one had visited the cabin this year up until our arrival.  But, it took almost 3 hours for the hummingbirds to show up.  And after 2 1/2 days, we still had seen no birds at the seed feeders.  This was despite hearing and seeing chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, goldfinches, and mourning doves close by.  Oh well!

However, the chipmunk family that lives under the cabin never disappoints!  They were making frequent trips back and forth for sunflower in no time.

That brings me to this year’s exciting bird sightings.  After a short time, we started seeing a Black-billed Cuckoo flying back and forth between short trees in front of the cabin.  Cuckoo’s are hard to spot almost everywhere because of their shy, “stay out of the limelight” nature.  But this bird was unusually accomodating at letting us see him/her land on open perches nearby.   Here is more information on Black-billed Cuckoos.

Sometimes, seeing really cool birds in the yard is simply a matter of patient watching and being in the “right place at the right time”!  While watching the pond one of the afternoons, a large bird glided across the water and landed on the opposite shore.  After grabbing the binoculars, I saw a large bird of prey getting a drink in the shallow water.  The grey plumage, size, and eye-stripe shouted out Northern Goshawk!  This was a “life bird” for me – one I had never seen.  Goshawks are fierce predators of the north woods that don’t venture very far south in the U.S.  In some winters however, they’ll appear in the northern states in search of food.  Here is more information on Northern Goshawks.

The purpose of this post is to point out that there’s a really exciting world of birds beyond the species that visit our feeders, nesting boxes, and bird baths.  And it doesn’t matter whether you’re in your primary home or get-away cabin.  Once you create a diverse habitat for birds at your home or cabin, lots of wonderful birds will appear!


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Cornell Lab of Ornithology