Feed the birds, please. One of the great persisting myths in backyard bird care is that feeders should be taken in during the fall season. Some well-intention bird lovers bring in hummingbird, seed, and suet feeders, mistakenly believing that providing food throughout autumn delays or stops migration, but this is not true. Shortened day light hours and changes in temperature are what trigger the departure of migrating birds. As they prepare for this lengthy trip south, birds need extra sustenance that our feeders can provide. If they are accustomed to a feeder throughout summer, taking it down may prevent building the necessary body fat required for their long journey.
All birds are gearing up for change during autumn. Non-migrating birds are also working to pack in calories and fatten up, preparing for the frigid midwestern winters. They frequent feeders more often and remain for longer periods of time, eating much more at one sitting compared to their summer feeding sessions. Migrating birds stopping by for a quick meal on their way to warm environs as well as non-migrating birds who have made a particular back yard home benefit from suet feeders, which provide food high in protein and fat. Soft fruits like apples and pears are also loved by birds, who are not the slightest bit picky about a wrinkle here or a blemish there the way children are!
Hummingbirds, too, need sustenance before their migration. Their feeders can be removed and stored for the winter, but it is important to wait until later in the season, when several weeks have passed without a sighting.
Provide fresh water, consistently.
A regular supply of water is integral to the health of birds in all seasons, but the temperature pendulum swings drastically here in autumn. With sweltering early season moments and freezing nights later on, providing a steady, clean water source carries particular importance. Moving water (made possible with a mister or bubbler) is especially attractive to birds and may draw unique passersby in for a dip or drink during migration—a great bonus for the armchair birdwatcher. Birdbaths should be placed in a safe, open place far from predators, if possible. And adding a birdbath warmer, available at hardware stores and garden centers, prevents water from freezing over when the mercury dips, keeping your permanent residents hydrated and happy.
Create a space that nurtures, naturally.
Seed heads from flowers and perennial plants feed feathered friends for months. Sunflowers provide nourishment from late summer to early fall, especially if planting is staggered from early spring to midsummer. Spent sunflower heads can be cut and placed in a dry area to dehydrate, then hung near feeders. Native perennials should be left alone until spring—their seeds will provide great nutrition. Black-eyed Susans, asters, coneflowers, goldenrod, and thistle are just a few of the flowers that provide helpful food well into winter. And they look beautiful dusted in snow!
Finally, autumn is the perfect time to plant end-of-season-discounted perennials. The cooler temperatures also make it a great time to put in native shrubs and trees, giving birds something to eat and shelter from predators and inclement weather. When planting and clean-up is complete, make a brush pile with the cast-offs, cuttings, and leaves, which offers birds and other critters foraging opportunities (not to mention great hiding and resting spots).
This natural shelter, along with consistent, nourishing food and fresh, flowing water, will keep our feathered friends healthy and give them reason to return, year after year.