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Backyard Birding: Top Tips for Fall

Rose-breasted Grosbeak, male and femaile

Among the many reasons to love birdwatching is the fact that you can do it anywhere, including from the comfort of your own home. That’s especially true in the fall, when many resident species are actively preparing for the winter, and migrators are passing through. Just looking out your window with a pair of binoculars, you could conceivably spot up over 100 species.

With birds facing more threats from a changing climate and human activity, you can help birds by making your yard more bird-friendly. Follow these steps to make your yard more attractive to birds of all sorts:

1. Plant native species.

Landscaping with native plants ensures that birds have a consistent, year-round food source. Even if the plant itself is not eaten, the insects it supports likely will be. Add native seed-bearing plants, berry bushes and nectar-rich flowers, and you’ll have a veritable avian salad bar. Purple coneflowers, for instance, attract butterflies and other pollinators in summer, and in the fall their seedheads attract bluejays, cardinals and goldfinches. Conifers are also a good choice: they provide excellent shelter during cold weather.

2. Install bird feeders.

Consider using different types to cover all the bases—for example, a platform feeder for ground feeding birds, hanging feeders for perching birds and suet feeders for insect eaters. Position feeders near bushes (or even a hanging planter) to give shy birds a place to shelter if they get startled. For an excellent guide, get The Stokes Birdfeeder Book, written by our friends Lillian and Don Stokes. Try the eBook version for only $1.99.

3. Install nesting boxes.

Fall is a great time to hang some nesting boxes or birdhouses. But birds are picky about what kind of abode they will abide. Small birds like chickadees or wrens require an 8-inch tall house, with a base of 4–6 inches. Go slightly larger for bluebirds and sparrows, both of which are drawn to similar environments. But consider their behaviors. The house sparrow is aggressive and will attack both adult bluebirds and their chicks, even destroying their eggs. Owls might need a house that is up to two feet tall. Other considerations include the size of the hole, which direction the box should face, how high off the ground to place it, and even what color to paint it. The Cornell Lab’s NestWatch has tips on all of this.

4. Add a water feature or birdbath.

Birds need a place to drink, bathe and be social. If your yard does not have a pond or brook, just add a simple birdbath and fill it with water. Not so easy is remembering to keep it clean. Birds will not come to a dirty bath, so give it a good scrub every few weeks and replenish the water often. Adding a pump or drip will circulate the water and prevent algae or mosquitoes. Or consider a heated birdbath to keep the water from freezing in winter. They are inexpensive to operate and there are solar-powered versions.

5. Change up your bird food.

A basic seed mix is a good start for backyard birding, but specialized foods will attract a wider range of species. Black oil sunflower seeds are the best for songbirds. Safflower, millet, and nyjer will attract chickadees, finches, mourning doves and more. Jays, and titmice love peanuts and peanut butter. Suet blocks come studded with fruit that orioles, woodpeckers and other species love. Avoid mixes that contain milo, a large red seed. It is a common filler, but most birds won’t eat it.

6. Leave the leaves.

Before you rake and bag those fallen leaves, spread some around trees bases and under bushes and shrubs, where they will attract earthworms and other insects. These in turn will ring the dinner bell for robins, thrushes and many other species.

7. Don’t deadhead your plants.

Leftover seedheads provide plenty of food for fall foragers.

8. Let dead trees stand.

This is prime real estate for bluebirds, owls, nuthatches, kestrels, tree swallows, and many other fall house hunters. Woodpeckers, in particular, like the dead wood for drumming.

With your backyard sanctuary all set for fall, you can look forward to hours of autumnal avian entertainment. Want to add more meaning to your experience? Consider registering with Project FeederWatch, an annual citizen-scientist initiative sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. It is a continent-wide survey of North American birds that starts on the second Saturday of November and runs for 21 weeks. All you have to do is count the birds at your feeder on two consecutive days—no more than once a week. New participants can log in online and set up their count site on November 1.


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