Fall is the ideal time to start taking an interest in feeding the birds for a few reasons:
• Migratory marathoners are on the move. Migratory birds are embarking on mega-missions, with some flying thousands of miles to Africa or South America from the U.S. But "human development continues to take the place of many of migratory birds’ usual 'rest stops,'" explains Deborah Martin, author of the new book Secrets of Backyard Bird-Feeding Success (Rodale, 2011). "When places that migrating birds are hardwired to visit for food, water, and shelter disappear, finding alternative places along their route is not as simple as driving to the next exit on the turnpike." A welcoming backyard or, even better, a welcoming neighborhood of yards that offer water, trees for roosting, and well-stocked feeders, can be very helpful to birds that need to "refuel" during their long flights, Martin adds.
• You can snag a rare seasonal delight. Turning your backyard into a bird feeder this time of year could yield months of magnificent bird-watching. Many colorful songbirds are considered short-distance migrants, meaning they breed and nest in Northern Canada, but might only fly south to New England or the Great Lakes for the winter months. If you attract them to your yard now, they may set up shop in binocular view until spring, increasing your backyard bird-viewing pleasure.
• Bird-feeding can shoo away winter blues. Maintaining feeders during the winter months when many birds are supplementing their natural foods with seeds and suet means going outside to tend those feeders every day or two. "Getting outside for just a few minutes on a winter day is a great mood-booster," says Martin. "It clears the head and stimulates the circulation, and even lets you appreciate being able to return to the warmth of your home once your feeder-filling tasks are completed."
Now that you know the benefits of bird-feeding, here are some secrets for success:
#1: Be a lazy gardener. When choosing a feeder location, Martin suggests picking a spot where you can put a sunflower seed feeder in a location visible from your window. "That way, you can get to it throughout the winter to keep it filled," she says. Add a suet feeder, too, to attract woodpeckers and nuthatches.
Also very important: Avoid perennial garden cleanup, and leave stems of coneflowers, asters, eupatoriums, and other tall plants. You'll provide perches, seeds, and overwintering insect treats for all sorts of birds.
#2: Plant bird food. Choosing native plants, trees, and shrubs that attract birds will not only offer more food sources—thus keeping your bird seed bill down—but will also offer shelter for birds during harsh winter conditions. Planting trees also increases the value of your home, an added bonus. Bird-friendly plant choices will vary depending on where you live, but there are groups of plants that include species for almost every region of North America, Martin says. Here are some species to look for, just make sure they're native in your area:
Fruiting Trees and Shrubs
These will be attractive to bluebirds, waxwings, robins, catbirds, thrushes, and other fruit-loving birds.
1. Dogwoods (Cornus spp.)
2. Serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.)
Irresistible Seed-Producing Trees
These trees don't just provide shelter (year-round shelter, in the case of the conifers), they also boast a big supply of seeds that birds love.
1. Maples (Acer spp.)
2. Oaks (Quercus spp.)
3. Birches (Betula spp.)
4. Conifers (Pines, firs, spruce, junipers, and hemlocks)
#3: Customize feedings to attract your favorite winged visitors. Martin's book is a handy guide, providing bird-feeder menu options for different birds. For instance, the Eastern bluebird likes to eat pine nuts and mealworms, especially from a table feeder. Want to attract a yellow-bellied sapsucker? Try apple bits on an open tray. A red-breasted nuthatch can't resist suet and sunflower seeds, while a wild turkey might visit if you offer cracked corn on a ground feeder.
The bird-by-bird breakdown in Martin's book includes natural foods that each species enjoys, along with favored feeder types, feeder fill-up suggestions, and trees, shrubs, and plants to attract those varieties.