Feed the birds during the fall

A male goldfinch feasts on sunflower seeds.

Feed the birds, please. One of the big lingering myths in backyard bird care is that feeders should be taken during the fall season. Some well-meaning bird lovers bring hummingbird, seed and tallow feeders, mistakenly believing that providing food throughout fall delays or stops migration, but this is not true. Shortened daylight hours and temperature changes are what trigger the departure of migrating birds. As they prepare for this long journey south, the birds need extra food that our feeders can provide. If they’re used to a feeder all summer, taking it apart can prevent the build-up of body fat for their long journey.

All birds are bracing for change in the fall. Non-migrating birds also struggle to accumulate calories and fat, preparing for the freezing winters of the Midwest. They frequent feeders more often and stay longer, eating a lot more at one time compared to their summer feeding sessions. Migratory birds stopping for a quick meal en route to warm environments, as well as non-migratory birds that have made a special backyard, benefit from tallow feeders, which provide food rich in protein and fat. Red fruits like apples and pears are also popular with birds, who aren’t at all picky about a wrinkle here or a spot there like children are!

Hummingbirds also need food before they migrate. Their feeders can be removed and stored for the winter, but it is important to wait until later in the season when several weeks have passed without an observation.

A blue jay bathes in a cool backyard bath.

Provide fresh water, constantly.

A steady supply of water is integral to bird health in all seasons, but the temperature pendulum swings dramatically here in the fall. With sweltering times early in the season and freezing nights later, providing a clean and stable water source is especially important. The moving water (made possible with a mist or bubbler) is particularly attractive to birds and can attract unique passers-by to bathe or drink during migration – a big plus for the wheelchair bird watcher. Birdbaths should be placed in a safe, open location away from predators, if possible. And the addition of a bird bath heater, available at hardware stores and garden centers, prevents water from freezing when the mercury drops, keeping your permanent residents hydrated and happy.

Create a space that nourishes, naturally.

The seed heads of flowers and perennials nourish feathered friends for months. Sunflowers provide food from late summer to early fall, especially if planting is staggered from early spring to mid-summer. Exhausted sunflower heads can be cut off and placed in a dry place to dehydrate, then hung near feeders. Native perennials should be left alone until spring – their seeds will provide excellent nutrition. Black-eyed Susans, Aster, Echinacea, Goldenrod, and Thistle are just a few of the flowers that provide useful food into winter. And they are beautiful dusted with snow!

Finally, fall is the perfect time to plant end-of-season low cost perennials. The cooler temperatures also make this a great time to plant native shrubs and trees, giving the birds something to eat and safe from predators and inclement weather. When planting and cleaning is complete, make a brush pile with the scraps, cuttings, and leaves, giving birds and other critters great foraging opportunities (not to mention great hiding places and resting places).

This natural shelter, along with a hearty, nutritious food and cool, running water, will keep our feathered friends healthy and give them a reason to come back year after year.

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