Making a case for summer feeding
George H. Harrison
MANY PEOPLE THINK that the only times of year to put out food for birds are fall and winter when other food sources seem scarce. But feathered creatures will, of course, frequent feeders and birdbaths all year long, and summer may prove to be the most rewarding time to watch them. Some of the greatest backyard bird-watching moments in my life have been during summer when parent birds brought their fledglings into the yard to introduce them to my bird feeders and baths. I’ve seen fuzzy, rotund baby chickadees, red-capped baby downy woodpeckers and spot-breasted American robin chicks, many begging for food from their overworked parents. Summer is also the time to spot species that are not present in winter and to admire the birds’ more colorful breeding plumage.
Homeowners frequently feed birds only during cold weather because they believe that is the time when the creatures most need support. Some people even believe that birds become dependent upon their offerings to survive the cold. But experts have found birds can manage quite well without feeder food.
In a winter study of black-capped chickadees, for instance, University of Wisconsin biologist Margaret Clark Brittingham found that the birds obtained only 25 percent of their daily diet from feeders even when feeder food was readily available. “Chickadees are not the suburban wimps that some people think they are,” says Brittingham. “They are tough survivors that live close to the edge of life.” In fact, when the feeder was removed, the survival rate of birds in her study was the same as it was for the chickadees that had never been exposed to feeder food—except in cases of severe cold (below 10 degrees F).
Rose-breasted grosbeaks in the East and black-headed grosbeaks in the West are good examples of birds that are active at feeders in summer but migrate to the Tropics in winter. Many species of hummingbirds and orioles—also missing from northern regions in winter—are attracted to sugar-water feeders across North America during summer. Other more seasonal feeder regulars include bluebirds, American robins and some buntings and sparrows.
On hot, dry days, bird baths, pools and ponds can lure a great variety of summer-only birds for a dip, which is essential for maintaining healthy feathers. Indigo and Lazuli buntings, gray catbirds, brown thrashers, red-eyed vireos and red-winged blackbirds are a few such species that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away later in the year. (Be sure to change any standing water in your yard every couple of days to keep it fresh and prevent mosquito larvae from hatching.)
Another advantage of summer bird feeding is that warmer temperatures allow for up close and personal viewing. If you have a patio or deck near the feeders or baths, the birds will become accustomed to your presence and will eat and bathe only a few feet away, while you get to enjoy the calls and songs that are masked during winter by windows and walls. In my experience, there’s no better way to enjoy a summer day.
Field Editor George H. Harrison is the author of seven books on backyard birding.
Summertime Backyard Bird Activity
- Dawn is punctuated daily by a chorus of bird songs, and all of the crooners are dressed in their most colorful breeding plumage.
- Nest building, egg laying and bird rearing is at a fever pitch.
- Young birds leave their nests and discover feeders and bird baths.
- Hummingbirds, orioles and red-bellied woodpeckers sip from sugar water feeders.