September and October Birding Tips

Birding Tips from Audubon North Carolina and from The Outdoor Bird Co.

Q. I’ve been seeing giant flocks of birds coming out of our neighbor’s chimney. What’s going on?

A. You’re probably seeing a flock of Chimney Swifts. Chimney Swifts used to roost in hollow trees or caves, but as those have disappeared, they adapted to chimneys. Sadly, populations are decreasing steeply as chimneys are capped or removed, leaving fewer places for swifts to nest and raise their young. To support swifts, you can keep your chimney open, report any nesting or roosting Chimney Swifts you see, or construct a Chimney Swift tower of your own.

Q. When should I take down my hummingbird feeder?

A. North Carolina hummingbird expert Susan Campbell now recommends keeping hummingbird feeders up all winter long. Some western hummingbirds winter in North Carolina, so you might get lucky and host one. Campbell says it’s a myth that keeping feeders up in the fall will prevent our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds from migrating; they will go when they are ready.

Q. What plants are bad for birds, and when is a good time to remove them?

A. Removing invasive plants is essential to creating a bird-friendly backyard. This fall, go on an invasive plant hunt and eliminate wicked weeds like English ivy, Japanese stilt grass, autumn olive, and Chinese privet from your yard. Re-introduce native plants like Shenandoah switchgrass, aromatic aster, and blue-eyed grass into the ground.

Q. Why do I see Seagulls when I live hours from the beach?

A. The term “seagull” is a misnomer because some species live inland. They are scavenger birds that go anywhere food is available. The name seagull means ravenous seabird in Greek. Dumpsters in shopping centers and landfills are some of their favorite places. Seagulls are actually helpful because they scavenge dead animals and other items that may be harmful to humans.

Q. Will birds in my back yard starve if I go on vacation and no one fills my feeders?

A. The birds will be just fine without you. They know how to adapt during the summer and most of the year there is plenty of natural food. Most people put out feeders for the pleasure of attracting and watching birds. They usually feed from several neighborhood spots and will also be around eating many of your insects, too.

Q. What is the most important thing to have to attract birds?

A. A birdbath or water is the most essential thing you can have for all birds as well as small animals in your area. Not all birds eat birdseed, but all birds need water and will jump in the bath for a splash. Birds need a bath to spread the oils from their bodies out to their wings, It also helps get rid of feather mites. The birdbath should be shallow for songbirds and water should be changed often and cleaned so mosquito eggs and algae are removed.

Q. How can I keep away Grackles, Starlings, and Crows?

A. Making a few changes when feeding will help discourage the problem. Using a platform feeder with a cover and avoiding feeding on the ground can be helpful. Removing any foods with milo or corn is another suggestion because these types of food are preferred by the birds mentioned. Using a seed without shells for zero waste will help ensure less food on the ground. Some say these “problem birds” alike safflower seed less than other seeds.

Q. Is there any feed for Robins?

A. Robins are not really feeder birds. they will however come to a flat feeder with live or dried mealworms. they also like apples or grapes from a fruit feeder and sometimes suet.

Q. Where do Goldfinches go in winter?

A. Goldfinches are permanent residents in many areas and stay all year. the drab olive color they turn in winter fools people as well as their predators. In the spring the mails will be bright yellow again. Some studies say goldfinches are attracted to yellow so many companies now make goldfinch feeders bright yellow.

Q. I have a nest of Wrens with one baby much larger and looking different from the rest. What could be going on?

A. You most likely have a Brown Headed Cowbird in the nest. The Cowbird species choose host birds for their eggs. These birds feed on large numbers of insects usually around livestock. Since the mother bird remains mobile, she will lay her eggs in an occupied nest. Most of the time she will continue to observe the nest of the host. If the host removes the egg, the Cowbird has been known to destroy the eggs and nest. Cowbird babies grow quicker and consume most of the food and as a result, many of the host’s chicks will die of starvation.

Q. Is it possible to see a Painted Bunting at my beach house?

A. The closer to South Carolina your house is, the more likely you are to see this type of bird. This is even better if you have thickets with dense shrubbery nearby. The cost of South Carolina is included in their breeding range. Occasionally, Painted Buntings can be seen as far north as New York.

Q. What feed do I need to attract a Pileated Woodpecker?

A. This type of woodpecker is usually not a feeder bird. Insects in rotten wood are their main diet. Carpenter ants are a favorite of the Pileateds. One of the best ways to attract this large woodpecker is to leave standing dead trees and downed wood. If they do come to a feeder, it will likely be for suet. They particularly like suet placed in a log feeder as it emulates their natural feeding sources.

Q. When should I take my hummingbird feeder in for the winter?

A. Our hummingbirds are in the midst of their migration south so we recommend that you keep your feeders out with fresh nectar at least two weeks after you see the last one at your feeder. The male Ruby-throats leave the area before the females. You may also get some of the late summer fledglings from further north passing through our area as they make their long journey to Central America, perhaps even until late October. Don’t worry about your feeders causing the hummers to linger any longer than they should. Their instincts rule as they migrate south.

Q. What’s happening to the goldfinches?

A. The American Goldfinch is one of the most colorful birds at our feeders during the warmer months. The male goldfinch, with his brilliant yellow plumage and distinctive black cap, begins to molt in late September. He will lose his cap and turn an olive-brown color, not unlike the female goldfinch. As spring approaches, look for the male to regain his bright yellow feathers and black cap. You will likely have goldfinches at your feeder throughout the year. They just may not always be yellow. Be sure to look for a goldfinch cousin to appear at your feeders as they migrate south—the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Remember, it is the male who wears the color in the species.

Q. Why am I seeing a slow-down of activity at my feeders?

A. Cooler weather often brings about a change in the abundance of natural food sources for the birds, especially when it comes to berries. When trees are loaded with berries, especially dogwood trees, they become an important nutritional source of food for many feeder birds. When the conditions are right, there may be a banner crop of berries and you will likely see fewer birds at your feeder eating seed. This is nature working as it was meant to be. When the berries are consumed, the birds will come back to your feeders in force. Instinct rules in the lives of birds.

Q. How do birds know when to migrate?

A. It is believed that the length of days and approaching weather fronts are causes for the start of migrations. Though almost all of the birds you see in your backyard in the summer stay here year-round, more than 80 percent of the bird species that breed in the U.S. make some sort of semi-annual pilgrimage. In our area, bid a fond farewell to the melodious wood thrush, the flycatchers, vireos, and the hummers. At the same time, look for some colorful transients at your feeders such as the indigo bunting and warbler species as they travel through area.

Q. What should I do to my birdhouses at this time of the year?

A. For sanitary reasons, remove old nests and debris from your birdhouses so the birds can use them for shelter in the winter (roosting) and for new nest sites in the spring. Wash out the inside of the nesting box and let it dry thoroughly before closing it up again. You may want to remove your houses from tree trunks and attach them to poles to deter bugs and flying squirrels from taking up residence in them.

Q. What changes will take place among our backyard birds during the fall season?

A. As the trees and plants undergo major transformations, birds also undergo changes in the fall. This year’s offspring cease dependence on their parents for food and protection. Individual territories established during breeding disappear and birds begin to increase their range and join flocks. Food preferences switch from bugs, worms and flower seed heads to a penchant for wild fruits and berries. Studies indicate that autumn triggers a metabolic change in birds, which allows them to better utilize the nutrients in berries. Keep an eye on nearby dogwood trees as their juicy red fall berries are a crowd favorite. Finally, most bird species molt at this time of the year. The most obvious color changes from molting can be seen in the American goldfinch as they trade their bright yellow plumage for shades of khaki for the fall and winter.

Q. I’m confused. Should I take my hummingbird feeder down or leave it out?

A. Leave it out for at least two weeks after seeing any hummers at your feeder. Hummingbirds, particularly adult males, begin to migrate south as early as mid-August. By September, you are likely seeing only the females or their recent offspring around your yard and feeders. Female hummingbirds typically stick around at least three weeks after the males leave the area and may wait until early to mid-October to begin their migration. It is important to keep fresh nectar out for them until you’re certain they have all left our area. They need to store a large supply of energy to be able to make their migration hundreds of miles to the south.

Q. Why have the numbers of birds at my feeder decreased?

A. During fall, nature provides a feast of nourishing food for the birds. In particular, birds feed on the abundant berries in the wild, especially dogwood berries when they ripen. It is believed that these berries may satisfy all of the nutritional needs of many species of birds. Summer flowers have gone to seed and become another favorite food source for many birds. But, don’t worry. Your feeders will be a desirable supplement to the backyard bird diet and when nature’s bounty is devoured, the birds will be back on your feeders in force.

Q. What birds migrate at this time of the year?

A. Most of your backyard favorites are year-around residents in the Triangle – bluebirds, cardinals, chickadees, titmice, and goldfinches. Besides the hummers, a few other varieties of birds leave our area at the end of summer – the wood thrush, tanagers, and some warbler species, to name a few. But look for some colorful migrating birds such as the Indigo Bunting or Rose-breasted grosbeak that might make a temporary stop at your feeder as they work their way to their winter habitat. Beginning late fall, many bird species will come into our area to spend the cooler months – juncos, pine and yellow-rumped warblers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, and the hermit thrush are some to watch for at your feeder. There are birds for all seasons. Enjoy the show.

Q. Why am I not seeing any hummers with red throats at my hummingbird feeder?

A. By now, many of the east coast ruby-throats have begun or already made their annual migration south and across the Gulf of Mexico to Central and South America. Males leave their summer habitat about 3 weeks earlier than the females and their recent offspring. Only mature male ruby-throats exhibit an iridescent red throat. The females and their young, including immature males, have whitish throats.

Q. I can’t have a bird feeder in my yard. Is there any other way to feed the birds?

A. Yes, there are other places one can place a bird feeder besides in a yard. You can hang a feeder (or feeders) from a deck pole, which can be either in the form of a swing arm or a vertical shepherd pole. There are also ‘arm attachments’ which can be added to your deck pole to allow it to hold multiple bird feeders. Most deck poles clamp onto your deck rail but some models can be screwed directly into your deck rail or onto the side of your house or window frame. The other possibility is to suction a window-style feeder directly on to your window. This allows for a closeup and personal view of the birds from inside your house.

Q. What should I be doing at this time of the year for our backyard birds?

A. When cooler nights usher in the fall season, it’s a perfect time to take down all your feeders and give them a thorough cleaning. Soak feeders in a solution of 9 parts water to 1 part bleach or vinegar. Scrub the feeders with a bottle brush, rinse well and let them air dry before refilling them with fresh seed. This is also a good time to clean out your birdhouses. Open them and remove any old nests and brush out any debris that has accumulated during the nesting season. Birds often go inside birdhouses for shelter and warmth during cold nights and stormy weather.

Q. When should I quit filling my hummingbird feeder?

A. By early September, many of the ruby-throated hummingbirds, those who have spent the summer anywhere from the northern part of the country down to the southern states, have begun their seasonal migration to Central and South America. The male hummers leave first followed a few weeks later by the females and the younger hummers. Some of the hummingbirds you’ll see at your feeder may be “passers through” as they stop along their migration route. Other hummers may be “your” hummers that spent the past few months in your neighborhood. You may see stragglers into the month of October, so don’t put away your feeders until at least two weeks after you haven’t seen any hummer activity. Having extra nutritional resources such as a hummingbird feeder containing fresh nectar will help fuel the birds as they make their long migration hundreds of miles south. Your feeder will never impede their migration; nature’s instinct to migrate will always prevail.

Q. How can I keep yellow jackets off my hummingbird feeder?

A. During late summer days, yellow jackets often swarm around the feeding ports of hummingbird feeders in pursuit of an easy source of sugar. Simultaneously, they may intimidate the hummers and fend them off the feeder. There’s an easy, non-toxic way to keep the yellow jackets off your feeders. Simply take some cooking oil and spread it around the feeding ports of your feeder. Skin So Soft also works in the same manner. The oil makes your feeder a little sticky, but it keeps away the pests and brings the hummers back to your feeder.

Q. Have the goldfinches gone away?

A. Even though the territories of local goldfinches may change throughout the year, they do not migrate out of our area. If by mid September you may no longer see the yellow ‘canary-like’ birds in your yard or at your feeders, be reminded that it’s this time of the year that the male goldfinch molts, losing its bright yellow coloring and its distinctive black cap. The plumage of the male then closely resembles the female for most of the fall and winter months. He’ll start to regain his bright yellow feathers and black cap as spring begins, and will be in his full colorful splendor in time for their mating season late spring or early summer.