The Case for Summer Bird Feeding

Feeders help nurture our feathered friends during the warm months while providing hours of bird-watching pleasure

  • Laura Tangley
  • Gardening
  • Mar 11, 2013

SHOULD YOU TAKE BIRD FEEDERS DOWN for the summer? Conventional wisdom may say the only times of year to put out food for birds are fall and winter, when natural foods seem scarce. But feathered creatures will visit feeders all year long, and summer can be the most rewarding time of all to watch them.

“Some of my greatest backyard bird-watching moments have been in summer, when parent birds brought their fledglings to introduce them to my feeders and baths,” says Wisconsin naturalist George H. Harrison, the author of seven books about backyard birding. “I’ve seen fuzzy, rotund baby chickadees, red-capped downy woodpecker young and spot-breasted American robin chicks, many begging for food from overworked parents.” Summer is also the time to spot species not present during winter and to admire the birds’ colorful breeding plumage.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks in the East and black-headed grosbeaks in the West, for example, migrate to the Tropics in winter but are active at feeders in the United States during summer. Many hummingbird and oriole species—also missing from northern regions in winter—flock to sugar-water feeders across North America during the warmer months. Other seasonal regulars include bluebirds, American robins and some buntings and sparrows.

For the majority of these and other species, the natural food sources they find in your yard are the most important foods of all. “Feeders should be seen only as supplements to the natural habitat you provide by cultivating native plants,” says NWF Naturalist David Mizejewski.

During the breeding season, most birds nurture themselves and their offspring with insects—often only particular kinds of insects that eat only particular native plants. Chickadees and warblers, for instance, rely on caterpillars for 90 percent of their diet during spring and summer. University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy has found that the number and diversity of caterpillars and other herbivorous insects decline when nonnative plants displace natives, posing potential threats to some of your favorite backyard birds.

Don’t forget to provide water during the warm months. On hot, dry days, birdbaths, pools and ponds will lure a wide 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 just a handful of likely bathers that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away later in the year.

Keeping birdbaths and feeders clean is particularly important in summer. Be sure to change the baths and other standing water daily to keep it fresh and to prevent mosquito larvae from hatching. Switch to all-weather suet during hot weather so it won’t melt or spoil, and place suet feeders in the shade. Check all feeders regularly, and throw out any wet or moldy birdseed. Change the nectar in hummingbird feeders at least every three days.

Following these few simple rules should be a small price to pay for the pleasures summer feeding can provide. “Perhaps the greatest advantage of summer bird feeding is that warmer temperatures encourage up-close and personal viewing,” Harrison says. “If you have a patio or deck near the feeders or baths, birds will become accustomed to your presence and will eat and bathe only a few feet away while you enjoy the calls and songs masked during winter by windows and walls. In my experience,” he adds, “there is no better way to enjoy a summer day.”

UPDATE: Since this article was published, a reader pointed out that in areas where black bears are common, it may not be a good idea to leave feeeders up during summer. See our article "When Carnivores Come Calling" to learn more about coexisting peacefully with predators.

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