For the Birds Radio Program: Summer Feeding
Is feeding birds in summer a good thing? Only if it’s as good for the birds as it is for us.
One of the questions I hear a lot this time of year is whether or not people should keep their feeders going in summer. People who feed simply to sustain birds through the winter don’t give the question a second thought–they automatically shut down their feeders in April or May and don’t open them up again till December. But some people feed birds for personal pleasure–they simply enjoy watching birds at close range. They don’t want to keep feeders going if they’ll make birds dependent on humans or if it leads birds to eat a less nutritious diet, but if it doesn’t harm the birds and doesn’t bring in bears, they’d just as soon keep the feeder going year-round. Anyone who feeds hummingbirds during summer understands how much pleasure we can get from watching birds even when the birds themselves don’t really need our assistance.
Feeders simply don’t make healthy birds dependent on humans. During summer, when adult songbirds have hungry mouths to feed, most of them spend just about their entire waking hours searching for insects to feed their babies. Even hummingbirds feed their babies tiny insects rather than nectar. If any bird takes a quick break at a feeder, it’s simply to stave off its own hunger and give it enough energy to keep searching for insects for its babies. Once baby birds fledge, they sometimes accompany their parents to feeders.
It’s great fun to watch a flock of Evening Grosbeaks bringing babies to the feeder. Grosbeaks believe in the concept of extended families–any adult in a flock is happy to feed any baby who asks. The babies, which are full grown when they leave the nest, can tell the difference between adults and other young birds by their bill color. This time of year, adult Evening Grosbeaks all have green beaks, quite distinct from the chalky white bill of the youngsters.
To attract grosbeaks and most other seed-eating birds in summer, I just use sunflower and Nyjer seed. Sunflower seeds are attractive to an enormous variety of birds–even Mourning Doves enjoy it. Nyjer seed is delicious fare if you happen to be a goldfinch or Pine Siskin. Mixed grocery store seed is too popular with starlings and grackles for my liking, and it sometimes germinates on lawns into rather persistent weeds. Suet is unnecessary and often becomes too goopy or rancid for a healthy diet, unless you buy rendered suet cakes or render it yourself. I’d rather spend the limited time I’m in the kitchen cooking for my kids.
The most important caution in maintaining summer feeders is to make sure they’re clean. Moldy seed can spread lethal fungal diseases to birds. Hummingbird nectar can get moldy, too, and just as bad, it ferments, leading to serious liver damage for the tiny hummers. During hot spells, change the sugar water every day or two, and during cool Northland weather change it once or twice a week.
Other dangerous hazards for birds at feeders are cats and lawn poisons. It is unconscionable to attract birds to a yard that is being laced with toxic chemicals, or a lawn with a cat lurking about. I keep my yard free from cats with my secret weapons–Betsy and Photon the Wonder Dogs. Whenever a cat appears, I send them out to chase it away. When it comes to cats, I prefer to speak softly but carry a big dog. When it comes to dandelions, my lawn mower does just fine.