Why to Start Feeding Birds in Fall


WANTED: BED & BREAKFAST - Family seeks winter lodgings, with regular meals; all-day buffet preferred. Central heating not required. Applications now being taken in your back yard.

No-no Cardinal Feeder

You might not see the above ad in your local newspaper, but as the days grow shorter, wild birds are already making decisions about which back yards they will visit this winter. Let them birds know that you want their busines. Invite them to come back when serious winter arrives.

Bird lovers sometimes notice that not many birds are coming to the feeder in early fall. They don’t need our offerings right now. Cardinals, goldfinches, and many other great birds are out in the fields and woods, feasting on seeds and berries and well-fed insects.

Nevertheless, they do drop by from time to time. They are noticing what you have on offer. In fall, birds scout their surroundings, taking note of supplies. When freezing temps arrive, those same birds will throng to your feeders. They remember where your feeders are.

Dark-eyed Junco

If we don't start feeding birds until winter, we could miss a lot of potential visitors. Frigid temps suddenly increase birds’ calorie requirements. Insects stop flying and wiggling. Snow covers seeds. Ice seals away tree buds and many wild fruits. Dark-eyed Juncos and other small birds might not have luxury of traipsing around the neighborhood. They need to go where they already know they can find food .  

That's why birds study their resources in advance, taking inventory of provisions they’re going to need. It's good to have our yards included in their inventories. When the first storm hits, the birds will show up. Hungry. Chirpy and chattery. Red and blue and black-and-white and yellow. Fun to look at on a snowy day. 

On the other hand, if we wait until hard weather arrives, some birds might not ever realize what we have to offer. And they might not be able to afford the luxury of exploring. They might not discover your feeder all winter, even though it is abundantly supplied. 

So start offering provisions in fall.

What foods to offer

American Goldfinches

Seeds are the mainstay of bird feeding. Our favorites are black oil sunflower, sunflower hearts, white millet, nyjer, safflower, cracked corn, and broken nuts. These are attractive to juncos and all species of native sparrows. Finches, cardinals, doves, and jays eat them also. 

You can get special nyjer feeders with tiny holes, like the 17-inch Spiral Finch Thistle Feeder. It dispenses the rather expensive nyjer seeds one by one, so they don't get dragged out onto the ground at one time. It's just right for goldfinches but inaccessible to big birds. In addition to goldfinches, nyjer feeders often attract Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and other small birds.

What the best kind of feeders to use? 

You can go simple or elaborate, depending on how much time, money, and space you have to devote to the project. We like to offer food at several heights and in several locations. Such altitudinal variety will bring you more species of birds than a single feeder, because each species will find its own preferred dining location. 

Fox Sparrow

Easiest is simply to toss birdseed on the ground or on a low stump. Many birds, including many of our native sparrows (like the gorgeous Fox Sparrow) enjoy eating at ground level. They'll pick up food dropped by other birds, and they'll scratch through leaves to find food you've scattered.

However, we don't generally throw a lot of birdseed on the ground. You can get a buildup of old and even moldy seed that way. Also, we find it attracts a few too many chipmunks. Chipmunks are adorable, but there is a such a thing as too many. So we offer most bird food above ground level.  

A porch railing can help keep the food cleaner. A feeder on a pole gives even better hygiene. If you add a baffle, you may escape the depredations of squirrels and raccoons. 

Hanging feeders are the most economical with seed. It’s ideal if you can place them under eaves, sheltered from rain. We especially like feeders with a built-in roof to keep the seeds dry.

One example is the No/No Cardinal Feeder. (There's a photo near the top of this page.) It got its name because it says "No-no" to squirrels, who can't chew through the all-metal platform, roof, or mesh. Cardinals, on the other hand, like it, because it gives them a wide landing platform that lets them feed without having to turn their heads. (Apparently cardinals don't find it comfortable to twist their necks to eat.) 

Whatever you use as a table setting, be sure to put your birdfeeder where you can watch the birds from where you live. Enjoy the company of the birds while you're having your own meals.

Another favorite food for birds here at Birdwatching Dot Com is suet. In years past we didn't like how the suet attracted big gangs of Eurasian Starlings. 

Suet Upside Down feeder with Red-bellied Woodpecker

 Then we discovered Upside Down Suet Feeders. These are designed so the suet can be reached only from below. Now the birds who can hang on from below, such as woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice, have access to the suet. But with no competition from starlings.

What if we have to go away

Don't worry about the birds if you have to be gone from your home for a while in winter. Birds are used to having a food source disappear. They won't starve because of your lapse. It might take them a while to rediscover your yard when you return, but they'll be back.