The kaleidoscope of colors from oak, maple, birch, elm, and poplar trees in the Hudson Valley makes me a glutton for the outdoors. I can wear my favorite outfit—shorts and a long-sleeve tee-shirt—and take a hike to look for birds I might not normally see but are migrating and passing through.
Fall migration can be a genuine treat for birders. There are the hotspots you can visit. Audubon Magazine has its list. So does Smithsonian.com. But your backyard bird feeders can draw in travelers too.
You just need to know what and how best to feed them.
But first, why is it so important to feed birds during the autumn?
Why Should I Feed Birds in the Autumn?
Bird feeding in the autumn is all about birds putting on as much weight as their frames can handle; for them, it’s about getting fat. And the fattest birds usually win (by which I mean, survive the winter).
Whether they are migrating or are year-round residents, during the autumn birds need a diet of high-calorie foods to build up their energy reserves.
As the days get shorter and their internal clocks kick in, birds move into a phase of frantic eating. Scientists call this period avian hyperphagia and it’s during the weeks leading up to their departure that birds will eat almost nonstop.
While experiencing hyperphagia, some long-distance migrating birds will double their normal weight.
The ruby-throated hummingbird, for example, will grow from three grams to six grams, which is still less than the weight of three U.S. dimes. They rely on this extra weight to make it through their 500-mile trek across the Gulf of Mexico.
See also: Hummingbird Migration Patterns Explained
If these numbers aren’t enough of a jaw-drop for you, consider this—once these two species are over the ocean, both make their trips nonstop. And, these birds are not the fastest, nor the highest, nor the farthest migrators. Those titles belong to the great snipe, bar-headed goose, and Arctic tern, respectively.
Such trips are exceptionally taxing and dangerous for North America’s 350 species of long-distance migrating birds.
By offering a steady supply of high-fat, high-protein foods during the autumn months, you can help ensure long-distance migratory birds like the ruby-throated hummingbird, the blackpoll warbler, and others make it to their destinations.
And don’t worry… putting out bird feeders will not stop birds from migrating. Migrating is instinctual; it’s in their genes. When they feel the urge to head for warmer climates, there’s no stopping them.
Resident birds don’t migrate. They stay in their general areas from January through December. But resident birds, like the Northern cardinal, face their own challenges and need to prepare themselves for the cold winter ahead.
During the winter, resident birds face below freezing temperatures, cold winds, snow, and less daylight. The change of seasons depletes their natural food supplies. Insects are scarce. And snow-covered ground makes it difficult if not impossible to forage.
During the limited hours of sunlight, resident birds must constantly search for food if they are going to make it through the much longer winter nights.
What Should I Feed Birds in the Autumn?
To attract the widest variety of birds, including those passing through on their way to their summer retreats, you’ll want to offer an assortment of foods high in fat and calories.
This list, adapted from Bird Watcher’s Digest, includes some of the best food options and the birds they’ll likely attract.
You can also feed birds a limited number of foods from your kitchen. The benefits include less waste for you and a greater variety for your birds, which should keep them coming back to your feeders.
These foods, suggested by The Spruce, aren’t substitutes for a bird’s natural foods (seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, and insects), but as an occasional treat in small quantities, they’re fine.
Baked goods: Stale or dry bread, bread crusts, donuts, cakes, cookies, and crackers are all appealing to backyard birds. Soak very stale pieces in water before putting them out. Uncooked pastry dough is also suitable. Whole grains and less processed baked goods are preferable.
Cheese: Birds will readily eat stale, hard bits of mild cheeses like American and cheddar. Don’t offer soft cheeses like cream cheese or brie. And remember, nothing moldy or rancid.
Pasta and rice: Cooked plain pasta or rice is a great source of carbohydrates, especially for seeding-eating birds.
Vegetables: Scrap vegetables can be a welcome addition to your feeders. You can offer peas, corn, leftover baked potatoes or bits of canned vegetables. Thaw frozen vegetables before putting them out.
Meat: When insects aren’t available, offering scrap meats such as bacon rinds, beef grease drippings, beef fat trimmings, meat or marrow bones can help birds get essential protein. As with cheese, no rancid or rotten meat should ever be available to birds.
Pet food: Dry and wet food for cats and dogs can be as equally healthy for birds as they are for your pets. Moisten or crush dry food before offering it to the birds.
Fruit: Windfall or bruised fruit from backyard trees is always appetizing to birds. Consider collecting the fruit and chopping it up for your feeders. You could also leave it on the trees—the birds will find it. Other fruits, such as older berries, raisins, grapes, bananas, oranges, grapefruits, and the seeds of watermelons, honeydew melons, pumpkins, and cantaloupes are all options.
Cereal: Birds find stale cereal and oats, including rolled or quick oats, a tasty treat. For the best nutrition, offer birds cereal with lower sugar content and few artificial colors.
Eggs and eggshells: It may seem weird, but cooked eggs can be a popular feeder food. They offer many essential nutrients that birds need. Eggshells are also an important source of calcium for nesting birds and grit, which helps birds’ digestion. Clean and bake the shells for 15-20 minutes at 250°F to kill bacteria, cool, and then crush into small pieces.
Nuts: Try putting out a variety of whole or crushed nuts. Peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds… birds love them all. You can also feed coconut and use the shell as small feeders. Consider mixing peanut butter with other foods and smearing it on the inside of one half of the shell. Hang it up and voilà—instant bird feeder. Don’t offer any nuts with candy coatings or spice flavorings.
Keep these tips in mind when selecting table scraps:
- Keep wetter foods out of tube feeders since they may clog the feeding portals.
- It’s best to offer foods that don’t have a lot of added sugar.
- Minimally processed foods are good. Organic is great.
- Chop food into sizes your birds can easily eat or take away. About the size of a sunflower seed should do.
- Avoid providing leftovers covered with sauces, gravies, cheese, or spices.
- Never provide rancid, moldy, or rotten foods. When in doubt, throw it out.
The Importance of Water
Birds need water every day not only to drink but also to bathe. To you and me, bathing in the cold winter air sounds about as much fun as washing skunk stink off your dog. But birds bathe in the winter, just as they do in the summer, to keep their feathers in beak flying condition.
Birds take notice of water they can see or hear and providing a bird bath or fountain is a fool-proof way to attract them. Adding an attachment that drips, mists, or otherwise moves the water in the bath will entice even more birds to your backyard.
To keep the water from freezing, consider a heated bird bath or a water warmer. Under no circumstances put any chemicals in the water intended to keep it from freezing.
What Type of Bird Feeder Should I Use?
Like food selections, the feeder you use depends, in part, on the birds you want to invite. When selecting foods and feeders, it’s best to consider both if you’re looking to maximize your chances of attracting what you would ideally like to see.
A nectar feeder is a must-have if you want to entice hummingbirds to your garden. They come in different sizes to hold different quantities of sugar solution. Often, they’ll have varying numbers of food ports. Some have perches for hummers to rest while they feed. Others do not and, when using these types, hummingbirds will hover while feeding.
Large hoppers attract the most birds, and some will have suet cages attached to the sides.
If you want to discourage larger birders (jays, starlings, grackles) that can sometimes intimidate smaller birds, then a smaller hopper is your best choice. Larger birds won’t be able to perch comfortably on a small hopper. They’ll try, but likely move on.
Tube feeders are exactly what they sound like. They’re tubes, usually plastic, with perches and openings through which birds will feed. These feeders do a good job of keeping seed dry. They also deter larger birds because the perches are typically too small for them to rest comfortably.
The size of the openings determines what type of seed you should use. Larger openings can accommodate most types of seeds and seed blends, including those that have fruit and nuts. If you plan to feed Nyjer seeds, which is popular with finches, then you will need a tube feeder with smaller openings.
A platform feeder will, by far, attract the widest variety of birds. These feeders include a flat surface with a low border that you can hang or, if it has short legs, place on the ground.
You can place different foods in a platform feeder—chopped fruit, nuts, seeds, suet pieces, and more. Consider using dried mealworms in a platform feeder rather than live ones, which might crawl over the sides.
As you would expect, ground feeders like doves, sparrows, and juncos especially like platform feeders because they are wide, flat, open, and made to be on the ground.
When looking for a platform feeder, make sure there is plenty of drainage. You don’t want rainwater to collect and rot your seed.
You can find suet cages that fit a single suet cake and cages that will fit two… great for those people who don’t enjoy tracking through the snow every day to replace the eaten cake.
You can also find cages that force birds to cling to the cage and feed while hanging upside down. Woodpeckers have no trouble feeding in this position, but starlings have a tough time hanging on.
Squirrel-Proof and Squirrel-Resistant Feeders
Squirrels are clever and tenacious. I’ve watched squirrels work out elaborate schemes involving jumping, climbing, scooting, and hanging by a toe to get to a feeder. Every person who’s tried to outwit a squirrel has their story and, even if they won’t admit it, can’t help but admire their problem-solving skills.
Bird feeder manufacturers understand our frustration, and they have produced a variety of squirrel-proof and squirrel-resistant models meant to outwit these critters. Almost all of them rely upon a mechanism that blocks access to the food when a heavier weight, like a squirrel, tries to get to the food.
Help Birds Make it Through Winter – Feed Them this Fall
Birds have it rough. Predators, the strain of migration, the challenges of finding food, deforestation and pesticides that threaten their survival, climate change, pollution from plastics and other hazards, natural disasters… they all make the lives of birds precarious.
You’ll be helping migrating birds that, without enough food, won’t finish their long journeys.
You’ll help resident birds build energy reserves to get them through the hard winter.
And you’ll be able to attract birds you might not otherwise see that stop at your feeders to take a welcome rest and refuel as they pass through.