Question from Michele in Hudson, QC

What do you think about maintaining my bird feeders over the summer?

Bird feeding is a very popular activity and one that certainly helps our neighborhood birds, especially in winter. The question of feeding through the summer is, to my mind, a personal one.

When we feed in winter, we support our local birds with high energy snacks. In doing so, we help birds to survive through very difficult times by adding to their caloric intake. The foods we offer do not make a complete diet and our backyard birds will still eat a great range of foods that they forage for in our gardens and surrounding areas. Most song birds are highly insectivorous for a great part of their lives, and are in fact, totally insectivorous when young. Research has even indicated that those species we thought of as herbivores have surprised us by the large percentage of insects they need to consume to ensure healthy growth. Once adult, they include a wider range of foods in their diets. So cedar waxwings will start to forage for fruits, hummingbirds will drink nectar and woodpeckers and cardinals will actively seek seeds and nuts. The most important part of their diet is still the wide range of insects they will consume over the course of their day. Insects provide the required level of proteins and fats to help maintain their health and high metabolic rate. The seeds and suet we offer are rather like the quick energy fixes we get from a chocolate bar. Neither is a whole diet, although I suspect some teens think so!

Summer feeding is not necessary for the nutritional needs of the birds we encourage in our gardens. Instead, it provides us with a source of pleasure. The opportunity to care for and observe the birds in our gardens at close quarters is a joyful one. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to feed our local chickadees, especially knowing that these ones are probably the great, great, great grandkids of the ones I was feeding years ago. They do not need the sunflower seeds I put out for them in summer, but the quick snacks mean they need to forage a little less for that energy source. They reward me with their songs and presence. A colleague told me this delightful story of an older gentleman in her region who fed the birds all year long and had done so for many years. He fell ill and was bedridden for several days. His feeders finally emptied. One enterprising chickadee flew through an open window into his bedroom and tugged on his hair. How is that for a reminder? Coincidence?

If you choose to feed your birds in the summer, seeds such as black sunflower and niger are good choices. A peanut feeder is also another useful food source, offering woodpeckers a summer snack to replace the high energy suet used in winter. Nectar can be supplemented with sugar solutions for the hummingbirds and orioles. One other consideration, if you need to stop feeding your birds, for instance you are moving, try to do so during the summer. This will have a minimal impact on your birds as they adjust their feeding routines accordingly. If you have to stop in winter, the calories you add to the diets of the birds will be missed and maybe at time of the year when every calorie counts.