For the Birds Radio Program: Mid- Late Summer 1997
There are more birds alive right now than at any other time of year even though they’re inconspicuous.
Two weeks ago, I did my annual Breeding Bird Survey for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Biological Survey. I try to do this at the peak of the nesting season, when the biggest assortment of males are singing, and did see and hear a lot of birds. In some ways, it seems to me as if summer is just beginning. But already birds are starting to gather in late summer flocks.
Swallows are lining up on telephone poles, shoulder to shoulder between insect hunting forays. Cedar Waxwings are feeding babies and catching airborne insects in their own flycatching way. Chickadee families are breaking up as chickadees join new flocks. Every baby will join a different flock from its siblings, a handy habit to prevent inbreeding and all the genetic problems that can cause. Right now chickadee family unites and newly-forming flocks are starting to cruise various neighborhoods, joined by other birds such as nuthatches, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, and wartblers. Now through the beginning of October, the best way to see warblers will be to listen for these little chickadee flocks.
This is the season for ripening fruits and a huge variety of insects, and even though the daylight lasts about 20 fewer minutes than on the solstice, there is still a lot of time each day for birds to be pigging out. Migratory birds are molting and starting to lay on fat deposits that will carry them through migration. Most Midwestern birds managed to keep their babies alive during the horrible storms that tore out trees and next boxes this year, and the abundant rainfall and warmer than usual temperatures associated with El Nino are growing food far faster than birds can eat it, so with luck, the birds that survived the tropical droughts and fires will reproduce enough to make up for the ones that didn’t make it.
This is a beautiful and rich time in north country, with lush vegetation and flowers brightening the landscape. And there are more birds alive right now than at any other time of year, even though they are growing quieter and more secretive now that the territorial imperative is easing up. We may have to listen harder to find as many birds now as in May or June, but to make up for it, we can get some intimate peeks into the family lives of the birds we do see. Even without migrants to add spice, there is a lot to see in summer.
Bird baths and lawn sprinklers are great places to watch birds this time of year, especially during dry times. Some people watch feeders as well. When it’s warm, suet grows rancid, so I never offer that during July or August. Sunflower seeds work well until the neighborhood grackles discover them. They’re so aggressive toward smaller birds that I refuse to make their lives easier by offering any food to them. When I do manage to keep feeders going without grackles, I try my best to keep the seeds dry and clean. The fungus that sometimes grows on wet seeds can cause serious diseases in birds. Hummingbird feeders are another summer staple. Again, it’s critical to keep the sugar water fresh and clean or you risk giving them diseases.
With so much ripe food right now, I don’t bother offering jelly to orioles and catbirds, but if you do, you might try screening the bowl to keep all but their beaks out, so they don’t get their feathers all sticky. And of course, never encourage birds to come to any yard that has been treated with chemicals or harbors a cat. It is the height of rudeness to expose birds to such dangers.
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Keep your birds healthy and happy and they’ll bring you happiness and a healthy world in return.