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Feeding Birds

Spring and summer bird feeding

Q: Is it OK to keep feeding birds in the spring and summer?

A: Yes, it is. Some people prefer not to feed birds in the spring and summer when there is abundant food. However, during migration in the spring, a bird feeder might be a very welcome source of food for a bird that has already come a long way from its wintering grounds and still has a long way to go before reaching its breeding grounds. In the summer, even though there is a lot of food available for birds, their energy requirements are high because they must feed their young. Here at the Treman Bird Feeding Garden at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we keep our feeders filled year-round for the benefit of the birds and the pleasure of our visitors. Whether or not you do too is up to you!

To ensure a safe bird-feeding environment, change hummingbird nectar every three days. Dispose of wet or moldy birdseed. Change water in birdbaths daily. Remove suet in hot weather because it may spoil quickly.

Unwanted visitors

Q: My feeders are being overrun with pigeons and blackbirds who eat all the food and keep the other smaller birds away. What can I do? 

A: You can consider switching the type of seed you are using, and setting up a feeder that is difficult for these larger birds to use. For tips, please read our page on "Feeder Pests and Predators."

Hungry Hummers?

Q. I have been told that I should stop feeding hummingbirds in the fall so that they can begin their southern migration. Is this correct?

A. That's actually a myth. A number of factors trigger the urge for birds to migrate, but the most significant one is day length. When the days get shorter, the hummingbirds will move on, regardless of whether there are still filled feeders available for them.

We do, however, encourage people to keep their hummingbird feeders full for several weeks after they have seen the last hummer just in case there are stragglers in need of additional energy before they complete their long journey south.

Learn more about feeding hummingbirds by visiting our pages on feeding and attracting birds.

Hawks at Feeders

Q. We have a hawk that comes to our yard on a regular basis, and yesterday he got a Mourning Dove. How can I get rid of him and keep the songbirds and doves?

A. Like the other birds, the hawk is coming to your yard because there is a source of food. If you want to discourage the hawk, you'll have to take your feeders down for a few days to disperse the hawk’s food source--smaller birds. In the wild, birds face constantly fluctuating food supplies, so songbirds, doves, and hawks alike will survive by finding food elsewhere. Try putting your feeders up again in a week or two. The songbirds and doves will come back but, with luck, the hawk will have found better hunting grounds somewhere else. You can learn more about feeder problems and solutions at our Project FeederWatch web site.

Birdbaths

Q: What should I do if I find algae in the birdbath?

A: We recommend cleaning off the bottom of the bath immediately if green algae starts to form. Just use hot water and a good scrub brush. In order to delay the formation of algae, you should change the water in your bird bath frequently. It also helps to keep the water moving. You can purchase a small aerator that not only helps prevent algae but also works to attract birds. You can learn more about our recommendations for birdbaths on our page about attracting birds with water.

Hummingbirds

Q: Every summer most of my hummingbirds disappear for a few weeks, then come back in good numbers. What's going on?

A: When the females have young to feed, they spend most of their time looking for tiny insects rather than sipping nectar. Insects contain protein, which the nestlings need in order to grow as fast as they do. Once the young have fledged, the parents still continue feeding them for a few days until the youngsters have figured out how to catch their own food. That’s when you’re likely to see them at your feeders again.

Missing birds

Q: There aren’t any birds at my feeders. I’m used to having lots of them. What’s going on?

A: I wish I could tell you that there's an easy answer to your question but there isn't. Bird populations normally fluctuate seasonally and from one year to the next. One way to find out whether others are reporting a similar lack of species is by visiting eBird. A joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird enables bird watchers from around the continent to record what they’re seeing and share their sightings with others. You can check reports for your county and go back four or five years to see whether you notice any kind of decline in the data.

Although I can’t tell you exactly what's going on in your neighborhood, there are several common causes for bird population fluctuations.

  • Habitat changes affect bird populations. If there has been a change in your neighborhood, such as trees being cut down or new houses being built, that could be the reason you are seeing fewer birds.
  • Natural food supplies—such as cones, berries, seeds, and insects—fluctuate from year to year, causing birds to shift ranges to take advantage of food surpluses or to compensate for food shortages.
  • Weather patterns often cause birds to shift ranges, especially in winter.
  • Birds of prey sometimes move into an area, causing the local birds to feed elsewhere until the predator moves on.

Let's both hope that your birds return soon.