Avian Attractions

How to entice and enjoy birds in your yard this fall

  • George H. Harrison
  • Oct 01, 2003

IT’S NO SECRET that autumn brings dramatic changes in the bird life of any North American backyard. As most of the feathered residents that visit your yard during summer go south, migrants from regions to the north will pass through your area. Some will make brief stopovers while others will spend the winter. You can make the most of this seasonal avian passage by making some adjustments to your property that will help you attract greater numbers of different birds in the fall. Consider the following ideas.

Provide running water: The sound of running water in a birdbath or pond will be heard by migrating birds from some distance, and will draw them to the bath for a drink, and possibly a quick dip. Most migrants that visit birdbaths with running water eat insects. They normally would not stop at feeders filled with seeds. So the sound of rushing water can help you attract a whole new cast of birds that could include warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes and thrashers. In addition, the juveniles of summer resident birds are likely to spend more time at the pool before moving to more southern climes. Running water can be created in a single pool birdbath by installing an electric mister or bubbler, available from bird supply stores. A small pump will move water in a multiple-tiered birdbath, causing the water to make a splashing noise as it recirculates from top to bottom.

Cedar waxwing bathing 

Leave sugar water feeders out: Don’t take down the sugar water feeders as soon as the local hummingbirds and orioles start leaving your area in the fall. There are huge numbers of hummingbirds and orioles that have spent the summer farther north than where you live; as they migrate through your area, they will recharge themselves at sugar water feeders if they are available. Many of the individual birds that use the feeders in late summer and early fall may not be the same ones as those that were present all summer. In addition, juvenile hummingbirds, the last to abandon nesting grounds feed on sugar water long after their parents have gone south.

Baltimore oriole at sugar water feeder 

Clean out birdhouses: Early fall is a good time to clean out and make necessary repairs to birdhouses in preparation for hosting those species that tend to roost during fall and winter. The old nests usually attract insects and parasites, and should be removed before winter residents move in. In many areas, bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches and winter wrens may take up nightly residence in birdhouses to keep warm and safe. There are records of as many as 13 male eastern bluebirds roosting together in a single bluebird house.

Create brush piles: Save your fall clippings of branches and twigs and pile them in a corner of the yard (where they will be less intrusive) to create cover for birds. Most birds that prefer habitat on the ground—such as dark-eyed juncos, tree sparrows and white-throated sparrows—will use brush piles for roosting at night and for protection from predators. Fallen evergreen trees, placed along the border of the yard, create more cover that will last throughout the winter.

Plant evergreens: There is no better natural cover for birds in fall and winter than evergreens. Planted near feeders and birdbaths, they will attract migrants and provide cover (and thus increase the safety factor) for many birds after deciduous trees lose their leaves.

Increase the number of feeders: Autumn is a good time to double the number and kinds of feeders you put out for the birds. Starting with the first cool fall days, the consumption of bird food will increase and continue to increase as the average daily temperatures drop. To attract the greatest number and variety of birds, provide a variety of seed and suet feeders. Northern cardinals, for example, prefer tray feeders, where they can perch on a ledge, while chickadees are more adept at landing on small perches or clinging to wire netting that surrounds feeders. Other birds, including several species of sparrows, feed on or near the ground, while woodpeckers are drawn to suet hanging from tree trunks.

Red-bellied woodpecker and red-winged blackbird feeding on suet 

Move the action closer: One of the main reasons for feeding birds is so that you can enjoy watching their behavior in a natural environment. If you move your bird feeders and birdbaths closer to the house, outside your favorite bird-viewing windows, you can get close to the creatures without disturbing them. If there is not enough natural cover just outside the windows, plant some or place potted evergreens around the feeders and baths. The birds will adapt to being close to the house quickly.

American goldfinches at tray feeder 

Provide foods for insect eaters: Many birds that frequent backyards will not eat seeds, but they will eat insects and fruits. Cedar waxwings, American robins, northern mockingbirds, some woodpeckers, and migrating thrushes, thrashers and tanagers will feed readily on chunks of apples, berries and jellies from containers. Bluebirds, robins, mockingbirds and some woodpeckers will eat live mealworms (available at pet supply stores) served in a tray feeder.

Eastern bluebird eating mealworms 

Bring bird sounds indoors: With the arrival of cooler weather, people tend to close their doors and windows, blocking out the pleasant sounds of birds singing, scolding and chattering. If you like those sounds, consider installing a wireless baby monitoring device outside, and send the sounds of nature inside to a well-placed receiver. Not only will your family enjoy hearing the birds outside, but so will your indoor house cat.

Protect birds against collisions: More birds collide with windows during fall than any other season of the year. Often migrating birds that are not familiar with the terrain will see the reflections of a woodland in a windowpane and fly right into it. In my experience, only one in ten of these collisions is fatal, but nevertheless it is still important to fix a window that attracts flying birds. If the reflection can be removed or muted with soap, netting, screening or by hanging streamers on the outside, the birds will veer away from it. Whatever technique you use, do it on the outside of the pane. Pulling drapes inside will enhance the reflection on the outside. Pasting silhouettes of birds of prey, such as hawks and owls, may also help deter flying birds. Some researchers believe a plastic stick-on in the design of a spider web also serves as a deterrent.

Owl silhouette on window

Field Editor George H. Harrison describes one of his favorite fall bird-watching spots in this issue's article "Great Escapes." He describes another favorite in the box below. For more information about backyard birding and tips on how to attract wildlife to your property, see our backyard habitats page and www.wbu.com.


Web Exclusive 
Return to Hawk Mountain

As the sun in the Northern Hemisphere moves south and the hours of daylight dwindle, a primitive impulse is triggered within every migratory bird. It ends only with the bird’s death or its arrival at a wintering ground far to the south.

The ancient paths of migratory flight are chiseled into the face of the earth—coastlines, major rivers and mountains. For eons, raptors—hawks, falcons, eagles and vultures—have used the Appalachian Mountains both as a guide and as a place to catch a free ride on the wind. If weather and winds are favorable, the birds can coast for hundreds of miles on thermal currents, which are created either by solar heating of the valleys and slopes or the upward deflection of northwest winds. These raptors instinctively seek the favorable currents in order to conserve the energy they need to complete their autumnal journey of up to 4500 miles.

One such place to view this avian phenomena is Hawk Mountain Sanctuary a 2226-acre tract straddling Kittatinny Ridge in east-central Pennsylvania. During peak migrations, upwards of 1000 avid watchers equipped with camera, binoculars and spotting scopes may gather daily. Sightings of 20,000 birds of different species are not unheard of.

Though hawks pass Hawk Mountain from August through December, they pass in greatest numbers during the third week of September, when broad-winged hawks are migrating. That’s why this is one of my favorite places to be at that time of the fall. On one occasion I recorded over 3000 broad-winged hawks, plus sharp-shinned hawks, northern harriers, ospreys, American kestrels, several bald eagles, and many turkey vultures.

To get there, drive north of Hamburg, Pennsylvania, off Interstate 78, onto Highway 61; head north to Highway 895 and Drehersville, then east on Hawk Mountain Road. The sanctuary is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., year-round. For more information contact Hawk Mountain Sanctuary at www.hawkmountain.org.

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