(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 18, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
On a sunny October day the simple platform bird feeder hanging from the silver maple sways in the breeze while birds hurriedly fly to and from its edges. The chill in the air confirms that it is autumn in Illinois. Soon the leaves will be off the trees and flowers will sadly succumb to the cold, but happily the "winter" birds will return to the yard.
In autumn we say good-bye to Neotropical migrants but we also welcome back winter bird residents. Continental migrants make their way southward into the States as their food supply dwindles. Other birds like Downy Woodpeckers and American Goldfinch are in our area all summer, just now returning to the yard. Woodpeckers and White-breasted nuthatches pick up where they left off at the suet and peanuts. American Goldfinch, now in their winter plumage, continue their acrobatic eating at the upside-down feeders. The yard is abuzz again with activity.
Now's the time to ensure that these birds visit your yard all winter. As the colder months draw closer, birds will visit your yard to take inventory; What kind of food can they find? How is the water supply? Is there shelter? Make sure your yard is appealing to these birds that are scouting the area.
Take an inventory of your bird feeder collection. Using different feed and feeder types will help bring in a more diverse selection of birds. Stores replenish their shelves this time of year, so you're likely to find a great selection. While you're there, take a look the birdseed selection and note varieties attractive to birds in your area (see "What to Feed Backyard Birds").
Most importantly, give your old feeders a good cleaning, sanitizing them for use. Feeders that are unattended develop fungus and bacteria, which is easily spread by the communal feeding habits of birds.
Begin by filling a large tub or container with a commercially available cleaning solution for feeders or a bleach and hot water mix. Audubon recommends one part bleach or vinegar to nine parts water. Sink your feeder in the tub and allow it to soak from 30 to 60 minutes. Wearing protective gloves and eyewear, scrub all feeder parts. Specialty brushes are marketed for convenience and old toothbrushes work in a jam. After you are finished with the scrubbing, rinse each feeder thoroughly. Allow the feeder to dry before refilling it with fresh seed. Continue this practice twice a month for as long as you have feeders in order to maintain a healthy environment.
Now that you've got your feeders clean, time to check your storage containers. Make sure you have plenty for all the types of seed you will have over the winter. Clean the containers and any tools you use to fill the feeders. Check for rodent damage to any plastic storage bins.
Collect acorns and other wild nuts to offer larger birds and squirrels. Stock up on ear corn, which is plentiful as farmers harvest the crop. Feeding squirrels their own food often keeps them from raiding the bird feeders.
It's time to head outdoors and evaluate the landscape. Autumn is the perfect time to plant new bushes for the birds. They will benefit now and through the winter from the protection that such plantings will provide. Be sure to plant them a safe distance from the feeder so that cats can't hide in them and ambush the birds, but close enough that they can duck for cover from hawks and other raptors. You may want to choose fruiting bush species, which will provide food for your birds during other times of the year. Autumn is always an excellent time to plant bushes as the cooler weather and impending dormancy allow the roots to become established.
Put the pruners away! If you haven't already deadheaded perennials, resist the temptation to cut away the seed heads that birds enjoy eating. Coneflowers and sunflowers are a particular favorite of American Goldfinch. As a bonus, messy eaters drop seeds that will sprout next spring.
Birds love brush piles! Save tree and bush trimmings to make a brush pile near your feeding areas. Again, remember to place the pile at a favorable distance for protection. If you can, also position the pile in an ideal location for viewing. If you can leave this structure year round, you'll benefit by seeing more secretive birds looking for seclusion and tasty insects. There may be a bit of an art to brush pile construction, as Birdwatching.com reports. Birdwatcher's Digest also has some good suggestions for building a pile. (See links below.)
Prepare for spring
Insect eaters will be pleased to find a mulched area rich with bugs in the spring. Don't burn or bag your fall leaves. Instead, create an area for ground foragers by allowing leaf mulch to rest all winter. Throughout the winter and the spring, you'll enjoy seeing the leaves tossed in the air by insect eating birds.
Dave's Garden member "GrannyGrunt" uses wheat straw in her certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat as a mulched area for the birds. "They love it!" she exclaims. The straw, which does not compact, "...provides the birds with a place to scratch around, which they seem to enjoy doing. The afternoon sun hits this portion of the backyard and it is not uncommon to see 10 to 15 dove enjoying the straw in a variety of ways, from searching for seeds, sunning themselves, to just resting. Next spring when this straw is somewhat decayed, I cannot wait to see the action."
This autumn, take advantage of the remaining nice days of the year to prepare for your backyard winter birds. Creating an inviting habitat with food, water and protection will welcome them back for years to come. Your bird café is now open for business with the best eats in the neighborhood!
For more reading on the needs of backyard birds, review Dave's Garden articles "Winter Survival for Northern Birds", "What to Feed Backyard Birds" and "Attracting Feathered Friends with Backyard Birdfeeders".
Excellent Dave's Garden thread on landscaping for the birds.
"Why Start Feeding Birds in Fall?" Backyardbirdwatching.com
"On the Wing Observing the Fall Migration" Mark Leger, Orbitz Away
"Keeping Feeders Clean", Wild Birds Unlimited
"Birdfeeder Cleaning Tips", Melissa Mayntz, About.com
"Brush Piles for Birds", Birdwatching.com
"How to Build a Brushpile", David Donnelly, Birdwatcher's Digest