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Feeding Birds as Seasons Change


Fall is here and a young bird’s fancy turns to seed; at least that’s the way many of the birds that overwinter in our area survive until next spring’s insect buffet starts up.

Nectar-feeding hummingbirds have migrated to warmer regions to spend the winter, and birds that depend on the plethora of summer insects are also moving south. As it gets colder, woodpeckers and nuthatches will continue to patrol the bark of trees looking for grubby little taste treats, but they are the exception.  If you are a casual feeder of the birds, here are some things you can do now to prepare for the change of seasons.

If you have not already done it, take down your hummingbird feeder before freezing weather.  During warm weather, you should be changing the sugar solution as often as twice per week, and washing it weekly with a solution of one part white vinegar to four parts water, to kill bacteria and yeasts that grow in the solution. Thank you Audubon Society (click here for hummingbird tips from the Audubon Society).

While overwintering birds will find food without your help, you can make it easier for them by setting up bird feeders.  Start with high quality seed.  We offer an excellent selection at Behnke’s and each type attracts a different set of birds. As with hummingbird feeders, sanitation is important, since feeders are places where birds can transmit diseases one to another. I mean, you know, they walk on their food.  The “five second rule” flies right out the window when it comes to birds.


I would start by carefully cleaning any feeders you had up last winter and took down when you finally gave in to the squirrels. Brush out and discard any old seed or hulls remaining in the feeder (they get moldy), and then soak the feeder in a nine-parts-water-to-one-part-bleach solution (thank you again, Audubon; click here for Audubon’s feeder maintenance and hygiene tips).  A bottle brush is handy for cleaning tube feeders. Rinse carefully and allow it to thoroughly dry.  Never put seed in a wet feeder, as it will get moldy.

Audubon recommends you repeat this cleaning twice a month during the feeding season to reduce the chance of spreading disease from one bird to the next.

Birdbaths are also popular gathering spots year ‘round for birds.  To keep a birdbath going in the winter, you will need an electric birdbath heater.  Otherwise, remove the water and store the birdbath before winter, so that it doesn’t freeze and crack.

Audubon recommends changing the water on a birdbath daily, and brushing it out before refilling.  This should keep the mosquitoes from successfully breeding in the birdbath, plus, in dry weather like we have been having over the last month, the water gets dirty pretty fast.  (Many birds take “dust baths” to help control bird mites and other maladies and it washes out into the birdbath water.)  Since birds bathe and drink from the same water, along with the occasional incontinence, it’s best to keep the water as fresh as possible.  Audubon recommends the same bleaching procedure as above, twice a month.  I would suggest once a week because for my birdbath, I need to do that to keep the algae under control. I have a granite birdbath, and for that hard surface, I find a steel wool pad really helps clean up the algae.  Be careful where you splash or dispose of the bleach water; it’s likely to spot or kill the foliage on many of your plants, and of course rinse thoroughly before refilling the birdbath.

Suet feeders: these are great for woodpeckers and nuthatches.  Unfortunately, starlings like them as well and if they find your suet feeder, a flock of starlings can go through a suet cake in a day. (I don’t have a remedy for this.) On the other hand, I haven’t had a problem with squirrels eating suet.  Use fresh suet blocks, and only use them in cool/cold weather (so they don’t melt or turn rancid).  Behnke’s has various “gourmet” suet cakes that are intended for various types of birds.  Wash the suet feeder with the bleach solution between refills.

Mammals and feeders: luckily, we don’t have bears in most of our area, as they like birdseed and will actually go onto a deck to go to a feeder.  Deer will also go to feeders; if you have deer tracks under your feeder, it’s likely they belong to a seed-thieving deer. In that instance I suggest erecting a fence around the feeder from something with an open weave that is not too visually intrusive from a distance, like green-plastic coated chicken wire.


Squirrels and other rodents: I’m not an expert of squirrel-foiling feeders.  There are various types that spin around and flip the squirrel off, or administer a wee shock to the squirrel.  I hope they work; I’ve never been successful with baffles (too many nearby trees) and repellants such as hot pepper powder don’t seem to be effective for very long. If you have a rat problem in the neighborhood, I would suggest foregoing feeding entirely, except, perhaps, on those glorious days when we have a heavy snowfall.

by Larry Hurley, Behnke horticulturist

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. To deter clumsy starlings from eating all your suet, put the suet in the cage along with its plastic container, and thread the chain through the middle of the back of the cage so that the suet faces down.

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