Summer bird feeding


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By Dave Titterington

Immature cardinal. (Dave Titterington) A dash of orange and a splash of red. A touch of blue with dabs of yellow. These could be the oils or pastels on an artist’s canvas, but instead they are the colorful pallets of our spring and summer birds in their breeding plumage. They paint our yards, fluttering between trees and shrubs, bird feeders and garden ponds. We not only enjoy their bright flashes of color but the melodic songs they sing after being absent or quiet during the long winter. These neotropical birds, intercontinental migrants and residential feathered friends remind us that spring is a season of rebirth. Some will court a new mate with choreographed aerial displays, while other loyal couples return as experienced parents. As they magically appear, it eases the sadness of having recently said goodbye to our winter birds.

More and more people are discovering that backyard bird-watching is more than a seasonal activity enjoyed during the winter months. It is a year-round participation with nature that is relaxing, even therapeutic for us, while providing substantial benefits for the birds. We busily go about providing the four components of habitat in our yards: food, water, shelter and space to share with songbirds and other wildlife. From a garden patio in an apartment complex to a home on several acres, and all sizes of backyards in between, the benefits for birds is well documented.

With habitat loss being a major factor in declining bird populations over the past 50 years, providing nest sites by either restoring native habitat, landscaping for wildlife or installing man-made nesting structures where birds can raise a family does make a difference. Members of Bluebirds Across Nebraska fledge tens of thousands of bluebirds every year, along with many other bluebird landlords fledging thousands more. One hundred percent of the Purple Martin populations east of the Rocky Mountains nest in man-made housing. This year alone Wild Bird Habitat has installed eight martin houses for individuals who are now Purple Martin landlords with multiple nesting pairs.

Chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers and wood ducks, along with screech owls, American kestrels and other native cavity-nesting birds benefit from people maintaining birdhouses. However, if you have installed nest boxes and bird houses, or are contemplating doing so, make certain you have the proper size house located in the right habitat for the birds you want to attract. It is always a good time to put up birdhouses as some birds have several broods each season, and others may re-nest if their initial attempt is destroyed or fails. Just be prepared to monitor the birdhouse and remove any unwanted guests such as house sparrows and European starlings, non-native bird species that aggressively compete against our native birds for nest sites.

It has also been determined that providing supplemental foods through spring and summer for our backyard birds is beneficial as well. Many natural food sources were consumed or destroyed over the long winter months, and it will take a full growing season to replenish those resources. Backyard bird feeding during the spring and summer can help reduce the competition between birds for remaining food supplies and long hours spent foraging for what little remains. Studies have shown birds nest sooner and more successfully when they have access to supplemental foods from well-stocked bird feeders. But don’t be mislead by the myth that feeding birds makes them lazy or dependent upon us. These creatures are opportunistic. They do not rely on any single food source and are only taking advantage of our generosity.

When it comes to spring and summer bird feeding, there are some additions as well as changes to consider. For instance, ruby-throated hummingbirds will be passing through during May and early June, headed north to their breeding territories. A nectar-filled hummingbird feeder will readily attract them. However, if you missed their trek north in the spring, don’t worry. They will begin a slow, unhurried trip back to the tropics by mid-August, and many folks report having them through September, even into October. Here are a few tips to successfully attract these little crowned jewels:

  • Have your hummingbird feeders out by Aug. 15.
  • Place hummingbird feeders on opposite sides of your house. A dominant male hummer cannot patrol both feeders at the same time.
  • Nectar only provides carbohydrates for energy. Hummingbirds eat small invertebrate insects and spiders. Avoid using pesticides or you may eliminate their source of protein.
  • Plants with tubular flowers produce a higher volume of nectar, so add these type plants to your landscape.
  • Homemade nectar, one part table sugar to four parts boiling water then cooled, should be changed every other day to avoid bacterial growth. Change commercial nectars every five to six days. Never add any artificial colorants to homemade nectar.

Baltimore orioles at feeder. (Birds Choice)Orioles begin arriving in Nebraska by late April and will be with us throughout the summer nesting period and while raising their young. Their primary diet is insects, but these colorful birds will readily feed on nectar, citrus fruit and grape jelly when offered to them. A woodland-edge bird, orioles are more common in rural areas or on the perimeter of urbanized areas where mature trees are available adjacent to open spaces. They can be found nesting in city parks, neighborhood commons areas or along riparian streams and hiker trails. If you attract orioles to a feeder with grape jelly, you may want to purchase a generic brand, as a number of orioles can consume several jars of this sweet treat weekly.

Another favorite neotropical bird that winters in Brazil and nests in North America during the summer is the rose-breasted grosbeak. They are attracted to backyard bird feeders stocked with sunflower seed or safflower seed. You may be lucky enough to attract a blue grosbeak, although they are more common in western Nebraska. The northern cardinal is another member of the family order of grosbeaks. Platform bird feeders, or seed tube feeders with a tray attached to the bottom, will accommodate these birds.

Many people who feed birds in their backyards consider suet to be strictly a winter food product for attracting woodpeckers. But these and other birds of the tree trunk zone will actually consume nearly 30 percent more animal protein from March through August than all winter long. During the nesting season, birds need to maintain a high energy level to defend territories and raise their young. It’s common for the downy and red-bellied woodpeckers to bring their fledglings to the suet feeder once they have left the nest. So keep suet available throughout the summer. If the European starling becomes a nuisance at the suet feeder, Wild Bird Habitat has numerous tips to resolve that problem.

But the woodpeckers are not the only parents to bring their young to the backyard bird feeders during the summer months. Look for young house finches, chickadees and northern cardinals. Cardinals that just hatched this year are easily identified. These youngsters will have a gray beak as opposed to the orange beak of the adult, and they all look as if they are female. If the young males were bright red when they emerged from the nest, the territorial adult male might possibly drive them off. Nonetheless, the male cardinal is a faithful father, assuming the duties of feeding the young as the female goes off to raise a second and sometimes third brood. By late summer you will be able to distinguish the immature male and female cardinals as they molt into their adult plumage.

During the spring and summer bird feeding seasons, it may help to adopt some different methods in your backyard bird-feeding program, particularly because of the blackbirds. These common grackles have adapted well to urbanization. They are more of a rural bird, but as the stately shelterbelts that crisscrossed the agricultural landscape was removed in the early 1970s, more grackles discovered the benefits of urban life: plenty of habitat, plenty of food and very few predators. They can overpower backyard bird feeders, keeping other birds at bay. Fortunately, by mid-October these boisterous blackbirds will have returned to the southern states for the winter.

Here are a few simple changes that will help to control grackles, as well as squirrels, from raiding your bird feeders. Use safflower or Nutra-Saff safflower seed on platform and ground feeders. These feeders with safflower will attract cardinals, grosbeaks, house finches, nuthatches and more. Grackles are not fond of safflower, and squirrels leave it alone. You can also use safflower seed in tube feeders to attract house finches, nuthatches and chickadees, or add a tray to allow cardinals to perch and feed.

Seed tube feeders protected by a cage and filled with hulled sunflower seed allows small birds to feed undisturbed and makes a great woodpecker feeder. The cage prevents squirrels and grackles from reaching the food. So don’t let the blackbirds dampen your summer bird-feeding enjoyment. Making a few simple changes from your winter bird-feeding program will help you attract your favorite summer birds.

The goldfinches that have been visiting our thistle feeders in the city will be drifting out into the countryside by late June, where they nest. These late nesters will continue to patronize thistle feeders provided by country dwellers. However, a few unmated goldfinches will remain in urban areas, so keep your thistle feeder stocked with fresh Nyjer seed. House Finches will frequent a thistle feeder in backyards all summer long.

Fresh water is always an important resource for birds to drink and bathe in. Keep your birdbath clean and filled with fresh water. A well-used birdbath will never become a mosquito hazard. Try adding a dripper to create motion and help maintain a constant water level in the bath. Create a small avian garden pond adding a rock bubbler or small waterfall for the birds. This would make a great weekend family project.

Inviting birds into our backyards and gardens during the spring and summer months is not only exciting and entertaining; they also provide us with a natural form of insect control. But don’t limit yourself to viewing the birds at the feeders or those nesting nearby. Look beyond your backyards. Enjoy the other summer birds. Chimney swifts who winter in the tropics are here to nest, as they perform remarkable aerial displays above our neighborhoods. Take a hike along a trail and watch for brown thrashers, a member of the mockingbird family. Listen for grey catbirds that sound like a kitten mewing for its mother. Enjoy the Eastern kingbirds, dickcissels and all our summer birds, because by late August the nesting season will be complete and some birds will have already departed south. The remaining summer birds will enter a restless period. Then, unannounced, they too will slowly begin to drift south, headed for their winter ranges. And the remarkable cycle of bird migration will repeat itself as we again bid farewell to our summer birds.


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