For the Birds Radio Program: Fall Feeding

Original Air Date: Sept. 1, 1986

What are the best foods to provide during early migration? (3:30)

Duration: 3′26″


(Recording of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

A lot of people think they have to stop feeding hummingbirds by this time of year or the birds will stick around in the Northland longer than they should. Now I know that a Ruby-throated Hummingbird has just got a tiny bird brain, but believe me, it’s not that stupid.

Hummingbirds have such a strong urge to migrate as the days shorten that nothing can induce them to stay once they’re physiologically ready. By now, virtually all the adult hummingbirds have skipped town, leaving their babies alone and mapless. The juveniles need more time than their parents to build up fat reserves for the long flight ahead–but when they’re ready, they’ll know instinctively how to get down to Mexico or Central America.

This year, with all the rain we’ve had in Duluth, there’s a lot of jewelweed around–that’s one of a hummingbird’s favorite flowers. And unless there’s a sudden very hard frost, there will be plenty of flowers all month for the hummingbirds to feed on. But first thing in the morning after a cold night, these tiny birds need a quick fuel-up– that’s when hummingbird feeders can be literal life savers.

There have been hummingbird stragglers in northern Minnesota as late as the second week in October. Feeders attract them, but are not the inducement that kept the birds here in the first place. If you keep sugar water out for a few more weeks, rest assured that your visitors will light out for the territory as soon as they can–and that your hummingbird feeder may be helping to insure a successful flight.

This is a good time to start up other feeders, too, while local birds are investigating winter food sources. If you put out only one thing, make it sunflower seeds.

Both black and striped sunflower seeds attract Downy Woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, finches, grosbeaks, and many of our native sparrows. House Sparrows and starlings are not particularly fond of them, but jays stuff their throat pouches full to hide in caches for winter. Blue Jays are my favorite birds, so I enjoy watching their exuberant gluttony, but there are a few listeners out there, especially across the lake in Port Wing, who don’t feel quite so entertained by the sight of a pack of jays pigging out.

Mixed bird seed, like you can get in grocery stores, is a favorite of ground-feeding birds like sparrows and doves. Niger seed, which is sometimes called thistle seed, attracts goldfinches, siskins, and, once winter arrives, redpolls. But niger seed usually costs more per pound than a good cut of steak, and these finches all seem perfectly happy with sunflower seed, so I seldom put out niger. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, starlings, and even an occasional warbler come to suet. Special treats you might set out in bowls are grape jelly, at least while the catbirds are still in town, peanut butter, which chickadees love, and peanuts, which are the absolute favorite food of Blue Jays. And one day an entrepreneur may even come up with a feeder designed to dispense French fries–then you won’t have to go to fast food joints whenever you want to feed Ring-billed Gulls.

(Recording of a Ring-billed Gull)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”