Nine Things You Should Know About Feeding Birds in CNY
By Diane Emord
9. Birdbaths Should Not Be Placed Near Bird Feeders
All birds need clean water year-round for drinking and bathing. Adding a water source creates a new dimension to your backyard sanctuary – you will get birds visiting that would never come to your feeders.
There are a lot of ways to provide clean water to birds; birdbaths are the easiest and most common. Moving water acts like a magnet to birds; they see the motion and are highly attracted to the sound of dripping or running water. Baths equipped with misters or drippers or fountains are even more of an attractant.
Birdbaths come in many styles (ground, pedestal, hanging) and are made of a variety of materials (ceramic, concrete, metal, plastic, resin, natural stone). They range from simple to ornate, but all must keep the safety of the birds primary. In selecting and placing a birdbath, please consider:
• Cleanliness is imperative. Droppings, feathers, leaves, seed hulls and algae quickly foul the standing water in a birdbath. Standing water becomes a breeding site for mosquitoes. The water must be changed at least every 2-3 days, daily is better. Scrub the bath with a stiff brush, rinse and refill with clean, fresh water
• Place the bath at least 15 feet away from your feeders. This will help minimize seed hulls and bird droppings contaminating the water. Drinking fouled bacteria-laden water can be harmful to the birds.
• Baths on the ground may be more natural for the birds, but it makes them vulnerable to cats. An elevated bath is better. Birds cannot fly well when they are wet, so there should be a bush or tree nearby in case a quick escape is needed. The ground beneath the feeder should be open or only loosely vegetated – there should be no hiding places for cats.
• Placing the bath in the shade can slow the growth of algae.
• The bath should be 1-3 inches deep, with a gentle slope so that birds can wade in. They bathe by standing in shallow water and dipping their wings to splash water over their bodies. They will not enter water that is too deep or water that they can’t judge the depth of.
• The bath should have a rough surface – too smooth is too slippery. Placing rocks in the bottom can help provide more secure footing and can help with depth perception.
• Hummingbirds, especially, visit misters placed in shaded areas with perches nearby.
Consider placing out a winter birdbath. Birds can use snow as a water source, but they expend precious energy melting it to drink. If you can provide some reliable source of open water during the winter, you may get as many birds coming to it as come to your feeders. There are many styles of winter birdbaths. A submersible heating unit can be placed in some existing birdbaths. Single unit heated baths can be placed on pedestals or on deck railings. Just be sure to use an outdoor-rated extension cord. Cleanliness is just as important in the winter, so be sure to place your bath where it is easily reached for cleaning. Baths with removable trays are the easiest to keep clean in winter.
8. Hummingbirds are Easy to Attract.
Everybody loves hummingbirds and feeding them is easy, inexpensive, and very rewarding. These little gems eat nectar for energy and eat tiny insects and spiders for protein. They can eat greater than their weight each day so are always in search of food sources and have good memories for food sources they used in the past. All that you need to start feeding them is a nectar feeder, some sugar solution and the willingness to clean and re-fill the feeder regularly.
When you shop for a hummingbird feeder, the main feature to look for is ease of cleaning. There are many decorative feeders that look nice in the garden, but many are difficult to clean. Get a feeder that comes apart easily for filling and cleaning. Feeders with tubes hanging down tend to leak in winds and with changes in temperature – this attracts bees and wastes nectar. Yellow bee guards also attract bees and should not be needed on a good feeder. Saucer feeders with the holes on the top tend to stay bee-free.
Many have built-in ant moats that you keep filled with tap water so that ants can’t reach the nectar (otherwise ants fall in and drown and foul the nectar). If the feeder does not have a built-in ant moat, you will have to add one separately (use a water-type and not a pesticide-type).
Many saucer feeders have perches – these are not necessary but they do allow you to view stationary hummingbirds and allow Baltimore Orioles and Downy Woodpeckers to reach the nectar. Keep the feeder small. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the only common species in NY State. They are very territorial. You will never see 8 of them at a feeder at once, so there is no need to get a large, 8-port feeder; that will only waste nectar.
Hang the feeder where you can see it. Hang it apart from other feeders and out of the reach of cats. Since the hummingbirds are so territorial, it is better to space several small feeders apart from each other than to hang one large feeder. Try to place them in shade or partial shade. Feeders in the sun tend to get used more often, but the nectar must be more frequently replaced.
You can purchase commercial nectar, but it is very easy to make your own using nothing more than table sugar (sucrose) and water. Make more than you immediately need and store it in the fridge. If you boil the solution, it will last a couple of weeks.
• Mix 1 part table sugar to 4 parts water (1 cup sugar to 4 cups water, ½ cup sugar to 2 cups water, etc).
• Heat, stir and boil for 1-2 minutes. Boiling kills fungal spores and drives out chlorine.
• Cover and allow to cool. Use what you need and refrigerate the extra. It will keep for a couple of weeks.
• DO NOT use honey, brown sugar, molasses, or artificial sweeteners. Only use table sugar (sucrose).
• DO NOT add red food coloring – most feeders have sufficient red on them; if there is no red color on your feeder, then tie a red ribbon or cloth near the feeder.
• DO NOT add vitamins and minerals
When you fill your feeder, avoid spilling or splashing the nectar. This will only attract bees. Sugar water ferments in the heat. It is imperative that you keep your hummingbird feeders clean.
The nectar should be changed at least twice each week; this is easiest if you keep prepared nectar in the fridge. The feeder should be taken apart, cleaned in hot water and re-filled with fresh nectar. If the nectar becomes cloudy, or you see black spots in it or around the ports, also clean it with a mild vinegar solution. Small brushes are available to scrub out the ports. Be sure to rinse it well. If you are not willing to frequently clean out your hummingbird feeders, then please do not feed them at all.
Keep the feeders out until you no longer get hummingbirds. The birds may disappear for a couple of weeks, but be patient and keep the feeders out. Females are busy feeding tiny insects and spiders to their young. You must continue to change the nectar frequently during this inactive time. Once the young fledge, your feeder will be busier than before. It is a myth that feeding hummingbirds in the fall will keep them from migrating. Late feeding, into early October, may help straggling migrants. Any bird seen after mid-October is becoming likely to be a rarer, western species such as a Rufous Hummingbird. Late season and winter reports of western species are occurring more frequently, so keeping one feeder out may have its rewards. Please report any unusual hummingbirds to eBird or Oneidabirds.
Learn more about hummingbirds at: http://www.hummingbirdsathome.org/
7. Birds Can Be Fed Year Round
Bird feeding is just a convenient way for us to enjoy wild birds up close. When to start and stop feeding is completely up to you, it won’t have much impact on the birds. Even for birds that regularly visit our feeders, feeder food makes up only 10-20% of their diet; most of their diet comes from natural food sources. Feeders are most helpful to birds when their natural food is scarcest and their energy demands are greatest – during extreme cold, after snow and ice storms, during migration.
If you are enjoying the birds in your yard, then feel free to continue feeding them year round. Feeding birds during the summer does not make them dependent or lazy. Most birds that feed on seed all winter switch to a higher protein insect diet in the warmer months.
Summer feeding has many added enjoyments. You see the birds in their breeding plumages, you see species you would not see in winter (Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Chipping Sparrows, Indigo Buntings, Baltimore Orioles), you see adults bring their young to the feeders, the longer days allow more observation time, bird baths get heavily used. As they raise their young, birds have a high need for protein. While you can still provide a high quality seed like black oil sunflower, consider cutting back on your seed feeders and varying the menu:
• Cut up fruit (orange halves, sliced bananas, diced apples) and plumped raisins or currants might attract Gray Catbirds or Baltimore Orioles;
• Mealworms, dried or live, are consumed by many birds including Eastern Bluebirds, House Wrens and White-breasted Nuthatches; they will also feed mealworms to their young;
• Grape jelly is a favorite of Baltimore Orioles;
• Peanut feeders and suet will continue to attract woodpeckers, nuthatches, Carolina Wrens, Black-capped Chickadees.
• Nectar feeders are visited by Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Baltimore Orioles.
While highly enjoyable, summer feeding comes with its own set of responsibilities:
• Good hygiene is still essential. The feeders may not be as heavily used, but they still must be kept clean. Food must be frequently replaced, it spoils more quickly;
• Try to keep feeders out of the direct sun;
• Only fill peanut feeders half way – peanuts may turn rancid in heat;
• Do not use raw suet in summer. Use commercial suet blocks made from rendered suet and keep them out of the direct sun. You can also use commercial ‘no-melt’ suet blocks that contain less fat;
• Be extra vigilant for cats lurking around your yard – fledgling birds are easy prey for cats;
• Other pests may visit more frequently; if you get raccoons, the best remedy is taking your feeders in at night;
• Food must be stored properly – it must be kept dry, cool and safely sealed from rodents and moths;
• Birdbaths should be cleaned daily.
Do not worry about stocking your feeders while you are on vacation. The birds will do just fine.
6. The Ground Beneath Feeders Must Also Be Kept Clean.
Decomposing hulls, feces build-up, and spilled seed can all be sources of contamination for ground-feeding birds. They can also attract vermin. The ground beneath a feeding station should be raked regularly to prevent this build-up. Not only will you be providing a cleaner, safer feeding area, but also your lawn will thank you. Black oil sunflower seed has a mild toxin in it that can be harmful to plants. If raking is not possible at your feeding station, then consider switching to a seed or seed blend that has no shells. These are more expensive, but there is no waste. Please keep in mind that once a seed is removed from its shell it will spoil more quickly; these seeds must be kept dry.
5. Bird Feeders Must Be Kept Clean.
We like to think that we are helping birds by feeding them, but if we don’t take the responsibility to regularly clean our feeders, we may be doing the birds more harm than good. Bird droppings can spread infectious diseases, decomposing seeds and shells that build up in trays and on the ground can make birds sick. The winter’s cold is not enough to kill off pathogens: bacteria can cause salmonella and avian conjunctivitis; fungi can cause aspergillosis; viruses can cause avian pox; protozoans can cause trichomoniasis. These pathogens are spread when birds’ feces comes in contact with their food or when birds rub against contaminated feeder surfaces.
Feeders must be cleaned at least twice each year; four times each year is better, once each month is even better. Empty the feeder and discard the seed. Take the feeder apart, clean it with warm, soapy water. Clean all parts, inside and out, all perches, lids, bases, weather guards and trays. Use a stiff brush; use a toothbrush on the harder to reach parts. Rinse everything, then fully immerse all parts for several minutes in a mild bleach solution (one part bleach to 9 parts water). If the feeder is too large to immerse, then put some of the bleach solution in a spray bottle and spray it well. Rinse all parts thoroughly, allow them to completely dry overnight; reassemble the feeder and fill it with fresh, dry seed. The birds will thank you.
Some people don’t like to interrupt their feeding while cleaning, so they keep extra feeders and rotate them. Cleaning a well-designed feeder is not difficult – ease of cleaning should be a major consideration when purchasing a new feeder. Tube feeders with pop-out bottoms, tray feeders with removable trays, hopper feeders with drains and removable bottoms all facilitate cleaning. If you need tools to disassemble a feeder, you are less likely to clean it often.
If you should see sick birds, stop feeding immediately. Clean or replace all of your feeders. Remove spilled seeds and hulls from the ground under the feeders. Wait at least a week to resume feeding. If you are unwilling to keep your feeders clean, then please do not feed the birds.
4. Your Feeding Station Might Attract Hawks.
Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks are common backyard predators; if your birds suddenly disappear, you may have one in the area. We provide feasts for the songbirds, which in turn provides feasts for these accipiters that naturally feed on birds – they will be attracted to all of the activity at your feeding station. You may not even see the hawk until it swoops down and nabs a songbird.
It may be disturbing to witness the loss of a songbird to a hawk, but try to accept this predation as part of a natural cycle and part of the enjoyment of bird feeding. Birds are very aware of the presence of predators – they will feel safest when there is adequate escape cover for them in the form of trees and shrubs around the feeders. They will be very reluctant to come back out into the open for a while after a hawk has appeared. The hawk will move on, the birds will return. If you feel the need, stop feeding for a week or so to ensure the hawk has found another hunting ground.
3. Food Must Be Fresh And Properly Stored.
Just like our own food, birdseed does not last forever; you really should not buy more than you can use in a couple of months. Seed needs to be properly stored – it must be kept dry and away from high heat. Steel containers like clean garbage cans work best as they also keep out rodents. If seed has been sitting in your feeder a while, it has been exposed to sun and humidity and has probably lost some its nutritional value. Wet seed can mold; all seed dries out. Seed shells should look shiny and dry; immediately discard any musty, wet or moldy seed. Nyjer seed has the shortest shelf life – it dries out quickly and cannot be used from season to season. Watch your finch feeder – do you see an American Goldfinch or a House Finch take a seed from one seed port, hop to another port, take a seed and fly away? That bird does not like your seed; the seed may look fine, but it has probably dried out. Don’t think that if you just purchased the seed it is fresh – it may have been sitting in a warehouse for unknown periods of time, maybe even since last season. Buy from reputable sources and make sure it is new crop. Seed should not stay in a feeder more than 2-3 weeks; so if your bird activity has slowed or stopped, replace the seed. Put out only a small amount of fresh seed until the activity resumes.
2. It May Take A While For Birds To Find A New Feeder.
Birds locate food strictly by sight – they see the food itself or they see the activity of other birds at a food source. When you place out a new feeder, birds might find it right away, but, depending on the location, it might take a while to find; a month is not unusual. Birds can eventually be attracted to almost any site, but they will generally find a new feeder in a wooded location sooner than they will find one out in the open. Be patient. Do not fill the feeder all the way – the food will only spoil. Put out a small quantity of seed and change it frequently until the seed is found. Sprinkle some loose seed on the ground beneath the feeder to make it more visible. If the feeder is well placed, the birds will eventually find it and include it in their daily routine. Do not move the feeder around – that will only cause more disturbance. Be patient. If there are a lot of other feeding stations in your neighborhood, it may take a change in seasons for yours to be found.
1. Activity Levels At Bird Feeders Fluctuates.
Bird behaviors change seasonally, so much of the activity at your feeder is seasonal. Birds are always on the move, frequenting places where food is abundant and vacating places where food is scarce. Activity at feeders will vary depending on the availability of natural foods. Feeders provide an easy source of food, but even birds that regularly visit your feeders get as much as 80% of their food from natural sources. These natural sources (insects and other invertebrates, seeds, cones, nuts, fruit, berries, nectar, buds) vary with the seasons and bird diets and behaviors vary with them.
When natural sources are more plentiful, feeder activity will slow down. Most birds that eat seed at a winter feeder will switch over to insects and fruit when these become available. We provide nyjer seed to American Goldfinches all winter, but they still prefer thistle and coneflower seeds and will switch to these natural foods when they can. When their preferred natural foods start to decline, birds will return to your feeder.
Feeder activity also fluctuates depending on:
• Time of day: Birds are more active toward dawn and dusk and less active mid-day;
• Temperature: Birds tend to eat less in warm weather when their energy requirements are not as great. Feeders are usually most active during very cold weather because birds can get easy food without expending a lot of energy;
• Other weather conditions: You will see fewer birds in rain and high winds.
If you have a stocked, established feeder that the birds have stopped visiting, then consider:
• Your seed may be spoiled or dried out – discard it;
• Your feeder may be dirty or plugged. Clean the feeder and partly refill it with fresh, dry seed. Fully refill it only when activity resumes;
• Your feeder may be broken or defective. Squirrel-proof feeders with moving parts may need adjustment. Perches can break or fall off. Squirrels can cause damage. The feeder may be poorly designed; some feeders are designed to be more decorative than functional. Purchasing a well-designed, easy to clean feeder is a worthwhile investment.
• There may be a predator in the area – search for cats or hawks;
• There may have been a disturbance. Did you change your seed or change your feeder? It may take a little time for the birds to adjust.
Be patient. Were there any recent landscape or habitat changes? If a tree was recently cut, there was construction in your yard or a neighbor’s yard, the birds can be temporarily upset. Be patient, they will return.
Birds have wings. They move, they migrate, they follow food sources. They form feeding guilds, they form family groups, they die. There will always be fluctuations in activity at your feeder. If the activity happens to be low, use this as an opportunity to clean your feeders and provide fresh food. The birds will return.
By Diane Emord