Birds have it rough.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that of the approximately 11,000 species of known birds in the world, extinction threatens 14 percent, or about one in eight. Some are virtually on the brink of never being seen again.
But the picture need not be all doom and gloom. The fact is human activity is directly or indirectly the cause for most of what’s happening, which means we can reverse the trend.
And there are some success stories. In the past 100 years, conservation efforts fueled by political and social will have brought 25 species back from the brink.
Every effort to bolster bird populations contributes to the overall success of conservation.
All species of birds, not just those threatened, and especially songbirds, can use some help. The simple act of keeping your cat indoors can save the birds in your neighborhood. And providing a bird feeder will do the same.
Every time you hang a suet cake, freshen your birdbath, or put out some peanuts, you’re helping to lessen the strain felt by birds that visit your backyard.
And since every season presents a new set of challenges, year-round bird feeding is the best. But if you can’t do that, then autumn feeding is the next best thing.
Aside from the pleasure you can get from their beauty and antics, there are other very important reasons why feeding birds during the autumn months is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.
Feed Birds Now to Help Them Get Ready to Migrate
Would you ever take a long family trip and not bring along some snacks and drinks? If you’re a runner, would you ever skip loading up on carbs before a marathon? Would you hit the trail for a long afternoon hike and not take along water and something to munch on?
No, you wouldn’t. It makes perfect sense to have the nutrition you need for a long trip or extensive exercise.
The same is true for migrating birds.
Imagine a ruby-throated hummingbird that weighs only one-tenth of an ounce traveling 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. Or the tiny blackpoll warbler, weighing less than half an ounce, traveling between 1,800 and 2,300 miles in about four days.
And once these species are out across open water, they fly nonstop until they reach their destinations.
There is no way these and other long-distance migrating birds could make those kinds of trips without the proper energy reserves. Some birds must double their weight before taking off. Your willingness to feed birds during the weeks prior to their migration can make the difference between them making it or not.
Helping wild birds gear up for their long migrations is probably the #1 reason for feeding birds during the autumn months.
Birds know when it’s time to migrate, and they prepare by gorging themselves. For the few weeks before they take off on their journeys, long-distance migrating birds experience hyperphagia, a state that causes them to eat practically nonstop.
Their single-minded goal is to get fat.
For birds that fly over water, the fat they store prior to leaving needs to keep them going for hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles.
Here’s where you and your bird feeders come in…
This exit… food, water, rest
When a migrating bird is low on energy and finds a good source of food like a full bird feeder or hefty suet cage, its natural behavior is to stay put and eat. It may take several days for a bird to put back on the weight it needs to keep going. That’s good news for you because you get a visitor you may not otherwise see.
But, if this same tired, hungry bird makes a pit-stop where there is no food, it will continue to move on rather than waste what energy it has left foraging for food that isn’t there. It is still tired and hungry, but it pushes on… and that makes the job of migrating much tougher and more dangerous.
Your bird feeder can literally mean the difference between living and dying for the 350 known species of North American, long-distance, migrating birds.
And because birds remember locations where food is reliably available, migrating birds that stop on their way south will probably stop again when they return north. This will inevitably increase the size and diversity of the flocks that visit your garden… providing you with a nice bonus.
Dismiss the myths
I’m often asked whether putting out a feeder will stop birds from migrating. I get this question especially when hummingbirds seem to hang out longer than expected. I tell these well-intentioned bird fans they need not worry.
Many factors let birds know when it’s time to go, including hormonal changes, dwindling food supplies, the amount of daylight, and their own internal clocks. It’s an urge they can’t resist.
And while I’m talking about myths, that reminds me… don’t worry about birds becoming dependent on your feeders. Birds will continue to seek out natural food sources. Even when you offer seeds and other foods, you’ll see sparrows, nuthatches, finches, chickadees, and others continue to pick insects and small vertebrates out of the ground or air.
Feed Birds Now to Protect and Attract Them Later
Not all birds migrate long distances, so what about feeding birds that travel shorter distances, like blue jays, or that stay all year, like Northern cardinals?
While mid-distance or non-migrating birds don’t pack their bags for an arduous trip, staying put doesn’t mean they couldn’t use the help a bird feeder provides.
Long before winter begins, birds are scoping out the neighborhoods for some good eats and where they can roost during the cold nights. I know my red-bellied woodpecker has been checking out my feeders for at least two weeks. That said, he doesn’t visit every day.
Autumn is a time when birds are preparing for winter. In autumn, many natural foods are still available, but they’re checking things out. For this reason, consider filling your feeders only half way. Your seed won’t go to waste if birds aren’t visiting in large numbers. You can always fill it up if they empty it.
Even though resident birds have developed adaptations to help them cope, winter is still a perilous season for them. Snow, cold, ice, wind, shorter days, and longer nights mean food is always at a premium.
Adaptations aside, without enough food, birds cannot keep their metabolisms at levels necessary to stay warm during the long winter nights. Birds will use the fewer number of daylight hours to eat as much food as they can, as fast as they can.
It’s easy to understand how providing a reliable food source of high-fat and high-protein foods can supplement birds’ diets and increase their chances for survival during the leaner winter months.
But the trick is to put your feeders out now, during the autumn months, when birds are looking for winter food supplies.
Provided your feeder is in a safe location where they can see it (songbirds have very little sense of smell, relying instead on sight and touch), you’ll be able to enjoy birds throughout the winter months.