For the Birds Radio Program: Feeding Birds in August, Part I

Original Air Date: Aug. 3, 2002 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Aug. 9, 2017; July 27, 2015; July 30, 2013; July 28, 2009; Aug. 27, 2007

Laura talks about the importance of keeping feeders clean, and the most typical kinds of food to offer when feeding our most common summer birds.

Duration: 4′00″


Many people who stop feeding birds in summer open up shop again in August. With so much natural food available, bird feeding isn’t necessary for survival this time of year, but setting out feeder fare often attracts exciting migrants that we’d normally never see in our backyards.

But first things first. Before we should even think about what food to give birds this time of year, it’s important to make sure the feeders are clean. It’s okay to rinse them in salt water or bleach, but if you do use bleach, make sure they completely air out before filling them with seed. This is a good time to give your bird bath a thorough cleaning too. Again, make sure it is VERY well rinsed out, because more birds use baths to drink than to bathe.

Once everything is clean, you can put in the birdseed. The single most important kind of seed for attracting the widest variety of native species is sunflower. Many birds prefer the black oil type, but studies have such widely varying results that this has never been authoritatively proven. Because of its higher fat content, black oil seed probably really is more nutritious during winter; unlike humans, birds metabolize fat efficiently, and the added fat gives them the extra energy they need for shivering when temperatures are low. But this time of year it probably doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. If you have a definite preference between the striped and the black oil sunflower, send us a note and tell us why.

Birds attracted to sunflower include cardinals, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, goldfinches, Purple Finches, and just about all native American sparrows. Chickadees, which require too much personal space to sit side by side in even a large feeder, each grab a seed and carry it off to their own branch to dine alone. Right now my own personal chickadees are mostly coming to a feeder that happens to be right next to a hummingbird feeder. The chickadees have been trying to figure out what the attraction is for the hummers, and I had one male hummer actually alight on the sunflower seed feeder momentarily, as if he were trying to figure out what the big deal was for the chickadees. A couple of times, hummers have actually chased off the chickadees, and a couple of times the chickadees have chased off the hummers. Of course, next to a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a Black-capped Chickadee looks like an oversized lunk, and hummers are a lot quicker and more maneuverable, but neither was stupid enough to actually bonk into the other, so the whole thing ended up like Shakespeare’s tale told my an idiot, signifying nothing.

Blue Jays are appearing ore and more at feeders now. Flocks of migrating jays passing through an area usually feed side by side at a feeder, hacking their seeds open in the manner of chickadees. Those Blue Jays that will remain in an area through the winter use feeders more like a grocery store, filling their throat pouches and then flying off to hide some of the food for later. And what they do eat, they prefer to take elsewhere. Those residents hide much of the seed, and prefer to consume what they do eat hidden from the view of possible predators.

Besides birds, sunflower seeds are extremely popular with squirrels and chipmunks. Some people do their best to keep mammals out, some make it tricky so they can watch the squirrels doing all kinds of silly things to get in, and some, like me, just set up extra feeders so everyone can be happy.

There are a lot more things to feed birds than just sunflower, so tomorrow we’ll look at some of the best alternatives.