by Liz Magnanti
As the days grow shorter and the temperatures begin to subside, birds are preparing for the winter months ahead. You may have noticed an abundance of birds recently at your feeders. Some of these birds are nestlings that have recently fledged. They usually appear clumsy, not sure about how to land on the feeder. Their feathers are ruffled, not yet in their adult plumage and sometimes they still accompany their parents, begging to be fed an easy meal. Goldfinches are a good example as they nest late in the season and their young will be some of the last fledglings you will see at your feeders.
The first year is the toughest for fledglings as they learn to find their own food and avoid predators. Some of these young will also migrate south for the winter. In order to make the journey successfully, they must store up enough fat to make the trip. If you are currently seeing flocks of grackles and red-winged blackbirds gorging themselves at your feeders, this is almost certainly the reason why. In contrast, hummingbirds will continue to visit feeders through the end of September. Their breeding range stretches north into Canada and as those hummingbirds travel south through our area, they will visit feeders like yours along the way.
That said; don’t ever be concerned about over-feeding this time of year. Keeping seed and nectar feeders out will not stop birds from migrating. Feeders are only a small supplement to their natural diets. Birds use light cues as a signal for when to migrate, and feeders can actually be important stopover sites for them, an important place to rest and refuel for their continued journey.
For the many birds that stay here all year, fall is an important time for scouting out food sources. Nuthatches and Blue jays are often seen taking seeds from feeders only to cache them away under leaves or in the bark of trees. They will seek out the cached food again once the natural food supply becomes scarce in winter. As temperatures fall and insect populations start to decrease birds will begin to switch their diet to mostly seeds and fruits. The colder the temperatures get the more you will find birds going to suet feeders to get the fat they need to keep their body temperatures warm.
So what does all this mean for you? It means that now is a great time to check feeders for wear. Make sure they are clean and the seed inside them is fresh. Most feeders can be taken apart for cleaning and should be cleaned thoroughly twice a year. Any mold or seed buildup in the feeder can be harmful to birds so maintenance is a must. Feeders can be cleaned in hot water with dish soap. Dunk them in a light bleach solution of 10 parts water 1 part bleach and rinse well. Once dry they can go back out for the birds to enjoy. Keeping your feeders clean and seed fresh is the key to having birds flock to your feeders all year long!
Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House on Monroe Avenue in Pittsford. She has a degree in wildlife conservation and has worked as a naturalist at various nature centers.