It's time to Prepare Your Yard for Fall Bird Feeding

I hope everyone enjoys this upcoming Labor Day Weekend. I usually take advantage of the extra day to do some fall cleaning in the yard. I want the birds that winter in Michigan to find a refuge in my backyard during the harsh winter months. I prepared a checklist to help you make sure your yard is ready too.
Preparing Your Yard for the Fall and Winter Checklist:
  1. Provide Roosting Spots - Nest boxes turn into roosting boxes in the winter for bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows, and other birds that might stay all winter in mid-Michigan. Clean out old nests from houses to allow birds the opportunity to roost in a warm, clean house when winter winds blow. You can also plant natural shelters like bushes or buy roosting pockets woven of all-natural grasses available at Wild Birds Unlimited to offer essential protection in the winter. 
  2. Prepare Bird Baths - Birds also need a source for water in the winter. In our area, weather can turn cold fast and freeze the water in bird baths. It is always good to cover ceramic bird baths or bring them in for the winter. It’s best to place a plastic or metal bath out with an added heater or a buy a heated birdbath. If you’re not sure what you need, Wild Birds Unlimited will give you accurate information on how to support our local birds. 
  3. Clean Feeders - Feeders should be cleaned at least once a month, year round. Wild Birds Unlimited - East Lansing - will clean your feeder for $5.00. Or you can purchase professional cleaners like Scoot or Poop-Off at Wild Birds Unlimited, or use a one part vinegar to nine parts water solution to clean all of your feeders. Disassemble feeders and immerse them completely for three minutes. Scrub with brushes (we have these too), rinse thoroughly, and let air dry. Also clean the area around the feeders to help eliminate the build up around the feeder.  
  4. Feeder/Hardware Maintenance - Check your feeders to see if there are any repairs that need to be done. Make sure feeders are hung so they are easy to reach and fill. If you are going to need a new Advanced Pole System to hang your feeders this winter now is a good time to get it in the ground before it freezes.  
  5. Fill Feeders - Wild birds are already making decisions about which back yards they will visit this winter. Even though natural food sources are plentiful right now, birds are definitely taking note of which yards have food available. What you do as the days grow shorter lets the birds know where to go when that first storm hits. And beautiful, hungry, thankful birds can brighten any dreary winter day. 
  6. Leave Gardens Standing - Don't cut off the tops of your Marigold, Zinnias, Cosmos, Coneflowers... Goldfinches and other birds love them. The birds make the flowers dance as they flit from flower to flower looking for seed heads.

Northern Cardinals Flock in the Fall

We have a lot of bluebirds here in Charlotte however this time of year it seems we are swarmed with Cardinals. ~ Donna Charlotte/Waxhaw, NC 

I so love it when people tell me their observations about what’s going on in their yard. I'm sure many people are very jealous. Northern Cardinals are the most sought after birds in the mid-Michigan bird feeding community.

Of course what you’re seeing foreshadows a change in seasons. By late summer, nesting is over and Northern Cardinals relax their defense of their territory boundaries. The birds sing less and flocks of cardinals begin to form. The Cardinals don’t migrate but can expand their range while foraging for food.

Young cardinals don’t have a set territory and can move around together freely in search of food. Older cardinals can join these young flocks for a time but drop out once it leaves their normal range.

These ever changing flocks can consist of about four to twenty birds depending on the area, time of year, weather, and available resources.

Southern states will see larger flocks, of course, because the population is higher in the Southeast. Flock size also increases in December and January when temperatures decline or there is snow on the ground. More birds can find food easier and look out for predators.

About 40% of adult cardinals die each year. Most die during the winter in February and March when food supplies are low. Death may not be due to starvation but a weakened immune system or being forced to search for food in more open areas where birds of prey and other predators can kill them.

Cardinal populations with access to a feeding station may be in better condition and more likely to survive the winter than cardinals without access.  The Northern Cardinal is often the first bird to visit a feeder in the morning and the last to stop by and grab a bite at night.

Cardinals prefer to feed on the ground so if you can "raise the ground" by feeding cardinals on tray feeders, hopper feeders or any feeder that gives them a comfortable feeding position they'll be happy. Their favorite food is oil sunflower, nuts, safflower and fruit. WildBirds Unlimited has a wide variety of cardinal friendly feeders.

The bright red plumage of the Northern Cardinals is a magnificent sight against the snowy backdrop in winter. Winter??? Did I say winter? Yes the signs are clear that that time is near, so put out a feeder now to enjoy the beauty.

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Cardinal Bird Feeders Made in the USA

Do "they" make cardinal feeders the birds will use but not put 95% of the seeds (black oil sunflower) on the ground?  I attached a screen to the bottom of my feeder and now only the little birds visit - and of course empty the feeder onto the screen looking for small seeds. ~ Jon

Birds look for the very best seeds. First, fresh and heavy seeds full of oil are chosen over the dried up older seeds. Blue Jays and other birds will shuffle through the seeds until they find what they are looking for. They'll pick a seed up in their bill to test the weight. If it's not heavy enough they'll pick up another to compare the weight of the seeds. It's not worth their while to eat or cache seeds that are dried out or bad. Wild Birds Unlimited has fresh seed delivered every week.

And we also have feeders that deter seed flicking. The Hopper and Fly-thru feeders are the easiest for the birds to flick seeds from. The tube feeders are the hardest for them to toss seed around. The Droll Yankees Whipper is built so the cardinals can sit and eat comfortably but the small feeding ports limit seed scatter. Wild Birds Unlimited also has the QuickClean Big Tube with feeding ports large enough for a cardinal but with a special non-scatter bar built-in. You can also add a tray to this feeder.

Or you could go the seed block route. Our large seed cakes and seed cylinders are made from high quality, high fat seeds and stuck together with gelatin. The birds can't scatter the seed because it's pack so tight together. It lasts a long time too.

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Thank you for your (amazingly) quick reply!

We have a tube feeder for the finches which works very well; the "Big Tube" sounds like it is worth a look.  One thing we pretty much insist upon is is the item be US made so as you might well guess, our options have been somewhat... if not limited, perhaps hidden amongst the chaff.  I had forgotten about your Coolidge Road location and looking forward to visiting. ~ Jon

All the feeders mentioned above and most of Wild Birds Unlimited feeders in the East Lansing store is made in the USA and have a lifetime guarantee. We can definitely help you in that area. Hope to see you soon. ~ Sarah
Store location:
Wild Birds Unlimited
2200 Coolidge Rd. Ste.17
East Lansing, MI 48823


Sunflowers Up-close: The Strange Journey of an American Plant

Native to Central America, the Sunflower was one of the first plants cultivated by humans for food, medicine, dye, and fiber for clothing and building materials. According to the National Sunflower Associationthe earliest known domesticated sunflowers north of Mexico were found in Tennessee, and dated to around 2300 BC. Over the generations the flowers were encouraged to produce bigger and bigger seeds.

Outside florets in bloom
In the early 16th century the plants beauty and usefulness was not overlooked by traders who took plants from the New World back to the Old World. In the 18th century Peter the Great of Russia discovered the sunflower in Holland and took seeds back to Russia. By the mid-19th century, sunflower oil was manufactured in Russia on a large and highly lucrative commercial scale.

It is thought that Russian immigrants took these sunflower seeds with them back to the New World and by the 1880s companies were offering the ‘Mammoth Russian’ sunflowers in US and Canadian catalogs.

Black oil sunflower seeds are almost ready
It took awhile for the United States to take full advantage of the sunflower and make it a cash crop. By the 1970’s, new technology and hybridization produced sunflowers with high yields of oil content and a seed easier to hull.

Then demand for the sunflower went to an all time high a couple decades ago when cholesterol-conscience consumers demanded the healthier choice of oil. Sunflower oil is high in the essential vitamin E and low in saturated fat. Food manufacturers started to use sunflower oil in an effort to lower the levels of trans fat in mass produced foods.

The bird feeding industry was also growing. One in three Americans feeds the birds and sunflower is the best seed overall for the backyard seed eating birds. As the demand for the seed grows, we are keeping a close eye on the crop reports. Because of the reduction in planted acres, the food industries' high demand, and all the floods, fires, and droughts, next year’s crop yield is questionable. The farm area planted to sunflower in 2011 is estimated at 1.76 million acres but the amount of sunflower in bloom in North Dakota is well behind last year. The video below shows the crops progress.

Fun Sunflower Facts:
Illustration of Vogel's formula  
of the pattern of sunflower florets

-The scientific word for Sunflower is Hellianthus. Derived from heliosmeaning sun and anthos meaning flower.
-Mature flower heads face east typically and do not move. The leaves and buds of young sunflowers exhibit heliotropism (sun turning)
-A model for the pattern of florets in the head of a sunflower was proposed by H. Vogel in 1979
-For 2011/12 Russia and Ukraine are the largest producers of sunflowers
-Sunflowers can be used to extract toxic ingredients from soil and were used to remove cesium-137 and strontium-90 from a nearby pond after the Chernobyl disaster, and a similar campaign was mounted in response to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
-A sunflower grown in the Netherlands holds the record for being the tallest sunflower in the world. It measured 25 feet, 5.4 inches.
-The largest sunflower head was grown in Canada and measured 32-1/2 inches across its widest point.
-The most sunflower heads on one sunflower was grown in Michigan and had 837 heads on one plant. (Source: 2004 Guinness World Records)

End of July and Fall migration

27 July- 27 Aug

The last week in July was busy with fledged birds. We handled 153 birds of 22 species in just two days as we sampled birds for ticks. Our first Orchard Oriole for the year was banded on 25 July, a hatch year of unknown sex.

The bird was captured with a group of Baltimore Orioles. Orchard Orioles are smaller than Baltimore's and are more yellow than orange. This bird presented with a nicely lined-up  growth bar in it's tail, a key that can help us age juveniles.

Another new species not handled yet this year was a House Sparrow. While many birders cringe at the thought of House Sparrows, there is no denying this youngster is high on the 'cute' scale.  

A young catbird was captured on 25 July with an extended upper mandible, a phenomenon we occasionally see on HY birds.
It appears the tip was broken off at some point and then grew back.

Fall migration monitoring began this year on 3 August.  Phoebe's nest every year under the eaves of the museum's outbuildings and it wouldn't surprise me if this wasn't one of the fledged young still in full juvenal plumage.

On our last net round a Nothern Mockingbird showed up , an adult female with a brood patch that was drying up,  

as well as our first HY female Ruby-throated Hummingbird, with her clean white throat.

Notice the buff feather edges on the top of the bird's head, indicating a young bird.

Two days later we caught our first HY male ruby-throat

Young males have streaked throats and eventually develop red gorget feathers.

On the 6th an adult male cardinal was showing signs of molt and possibly a case of head mites! 

Adult cardinals can pack a powerful bite so I tried to distract him with a stick for this photo.

This same day a HY American Redstart was captured and unlike the cardinal above was quite cooperative as I took his picture!

Northern Waterthrushes usually show up in our nets in August and our first one arrived on 12 August. They look similar to Lousiana Waterthrushes, but Northern Waterthrushes have more extensive streaking on their breast, and Louisiana's have a more extensive, white supercilium. 

We hear flocks of Cedar Waxwings almost every time we band on the island and it was only a matter of time before the young showed up in our nets.

The young have streaking on the breast and this bird still had a very short bill.

Young Towhees, of which we've had many this year, are progressing in their molt and are starting to resemble their parents. This young male below has almost finished his first prebasic molt.

We were delighted to capture a Chestnut-sided Warbler on the 18th, a rarity in our nets.

This young male had slight chestnut streaking to his flanks, not quite visible in this photo.

A surprise on 19 August was a Mourning Dove.  These large birds typically bounce out of the net.

This male had a long tail, bluish nape and pinkish feathers on the throat and breast.

We haven't had many flycatchers this month but did capture a Traill's Flycatcher also on the 19th.

Using measurements and calculations this is a probable Willow Flycatcher, but I will send it in to the Bird Banding Lab as a Traill's. Regardless it is always a pleasure to handle these birds.

We've been capturing numerous chickadees for the past week with pinkish breasts and very sticky feet!  

It appears they are munching on choke cherries that are found abundantly on the island.

Another warbler we don't often capture, maybe once/year showed up on 23 August, a HY female Canada Warbler. The eye ring is striking!

The indistinct streaking on the breast and very short wing chord (58 mm) led us to sexing her as a female.

More migrants arrived the following day, our first Yellow-breasted Chat for the year, 

another HY male American Redstart,

and a HY female Black-throated Blue Warbler.

The white patch at the base of the primaries on this bird is an easy identification mark for Black-throated Blues. 

We attempted to band on the 27th, the day before the storm, but rain was fast approaching and the nets needed to be well secured  in anticipation of the hurricane, so we closed by 8:30. We did end up with 45 birds, mostly catbirds and a few other species but we also captured our first HY Red-eyed Vireo for our fall migration season.

Hopefully, I'll be able to post more often as fall migration progresses. Many family obligations have gotten in the way this year! And we'll keep our fingers crossed that we will survive the impending hurricane without too much damage. Many thanks as always to the following for volunteering at the banding station during this time period: Judith Bruce, Jo-Anna Ghadban, Judy Keller, Carolyn Kennedy, Gretchen Putonen, and the Johnson family- Sheryl, Lauren, and Kristen.

 For those interested, the following is a list of birds seen, heard, or captured (with numbers) from the past month.  Robins appear to be doing very well this year. We've had more numbers of them this year than any year previously (58 in all so far).

Total birds: 796                          Total banded species: 37

Total species: 65                         Birds/100 net-hrs: 52

Great Blue Heron
Green Heron

Canada Goose

American Black Duck


Sharp-shinned Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Northern Bobwhite

Black-bellied Plover

Greater Yellowlegs

Spotted Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

American Woodcock

Laughing Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Herring Gull

Great Black-backed Gull

Common Tern

Mourning Dove

Great Horned Owl

Ruby-throated Hummingbird- 30

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker- 8

Hairy Woodpecker- 1

Yellow-shafted Flicker- 3

Traill's Flycatcher- 1

Eastern Kingbird- 4

Eastern Phoebe- 6

Tree Swallow

Barn Swallow

Blue Jay- 1

American Crow

Fish Crow

Black-capped Chickadee- 63

Tufted Titmouse- 12

White-breasted Nuthatch

Carolina Wren- 21

House Wren- 1

Eastern Bluebird

American Robin- 45

Gray Catbird- 280

Northern Mockingbird- 1

Cedar Waxwing- 8

European Starling- 5

Red-eyed Vireo- 1

Yellow Warbler- 13

Chestnut-sided Warbler- 1

Black-throated Blue Warbler- 1

Prairie Warbler- 6

American Redstart- 2

Ovenbird- 3

Northern Waterthrush- 2

Common Yellowthroat- 116

Canada Warbler- 1

Yellow-breasted Chat- 1

Northern Cardinal- 6

Eastern Towhee- 21

Song Sparrow- 93

Red-winged Blackbird

Common Grackle

Orchard Oriole- 2

Baltimore Oriole- 21

House Finch- 8

American Goldfinch- 5

House Sparrow- 2

Feeding and Raising Bluebirds

Two good questions about Eastern Bluebirds in late summer:

Two beautiful bluebirds nested and raised the babies on my back porch this late spring/early summer.  After the babies were grown and sent out into the world all the bluebirds are gone from my yard…where did they go?  I thought I’d be able to watch them grow and be around all summer. Billie

We had 15 healthy bluebird babies this summer. The last 5 fledged just 9 days ago. My concern is that we may be moving within the next few months and whether or not to continue feeding mealworms. Will they begin to migrate South? Last year we only had one brood but this year we had three! Hopefully the people who will purchase our house will take care of them but who knows! We are located 30 miles east of Philadelphia. Thank you. Judi

Congratulations on your successful nesting season! Once the baby bluebirds have fledged they move around in a family group. At first they depend on the parents but soon catch on to picking out objects that might be food. This is the best time to watch them at the feeders. Birds only supplement 10 to 20 percent of their diet at feeders. Most birds prefer to forage for food and eventually the parents take the young farther and farther from the nest site.
This family vacation or training period lasts for about 3 to 4 weeks. If there is enough time, and you clean your nest box out, they may come back for a second nesting.

After nesting season has ended, Eastern Bluebirds usually form large nomadic groups that roost at night in the woods. This will help increase their survival through the winter. These late summer flocks change their diet from mainly insects over to more fruit, nuts, and berries. If you have fruit trees, a feeder or a reliable source of water, you may host the bluebirds year-round.

You can contact your local Wild Birds Unlimited for specific information about bluebirds in your area. As I wrote before, they are considered partial migrants. In mid-Michigan and many other states, many bluebirds are year-round residents or move further south if the weather becomes too harsh. Scientists think it’s due to genetics whether they want to fly south or winter over. Some birds are compelled to move south and others are not.

It’s more important that you tell the new owner of your house to monitor your nest boxes next spring. Bluebirds may raise 2-3 broods in one season. Some studies have shown that about 30% of adult bluebirds return to previous nesting sites the following season.

Eastern Bluebirds prefer to nest in cavity holes excavated by woodpeckers with a grassy clearing nearby for hunting bugs. You probably know from the late 1800s to the 1960s, Eastern Bluebirds’ population declined almost 90% in part because of loss of habitat. However, since 1966 the population has increased 2.4% each year due to nesting boxes, better landscaping, and bird feeding practices.

It is very important to be a good landlord and monitor nest boxes so you will be alerted to any problems. And the nests should also be cleaned out after each successful nesting. By monitoring and cleaning out a nest box, you help deter parasite infestation and a predator’s ability to disturb a nest that is built on top of old nests.

Hopefully all nestbox owners across the country will help in the ongoing effort to promote and facilitate bluebird conservation.

For more information on Eastern Bluebirds flocking and everything else bluebird, visit It’s a great website that can answer all your bluebird questions.

Thanks so much Sarah.  This is very informative and interesting.  I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee and it is very hot and humid here until late September.  I’ll clean my nesting box and hope the bluebirds return.  Happy birding and thanks again! Billie

Thank you so much for getting back to me. I am continuing to feed the worms and will stop when they run out (just placed an order for 5000 more). I am also planning on planting some bushes with berries they prefer in the next month. We already have several in the wooded area next to our home but would prefer to have more. I am very sad to say good-bye to them but have many wonderful pictures and great memories. Here's wishing for another owner who will be interested in these wonderful, delightful birds. Keeping my fingers crossed! Take care. Judi

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