For those of us fortunate enough to have the space and the income to spare, clamoring birds at our garden feeders are a given during the winter months when hungry and cold birds can’t locate their natural food resources due to the frozen ground or snow cover, because plant and insect abundance is hugely diminished due to the low temperatures, or there’s simply just too much competition for what is available out there.
Millions of us across the planet do what we can to help out those resident species who don’t have that inbuilt migratory mechanism to seek out warmer climes across the waters and escape the bitter cold, or to welcome those migrants who come to our locale despite the cold, as the alternative is so much worse.
Then as the weeks finally pass and the temperatures shift into the double figures in the day and then eventually at night, Spring returns and breeding season goes crazy, one of the most hotly anticipated stages of the avian calendar for humans and birds alike.
Then — summer comes and everything’s in bloom, the vegetables grow and the grasses stretch up longer and thicker under the increasingly hot sun and the building afternoon storms; out come the wraparound shades, the ice-cold drinks and a healthy tang to the underarms. At this point, your feeders may very soon fall silent, seed untouched, the air still. Where did all the birds go?
This change in behavior is influenced by several factors that govern birds' natural needs during this time of the year, which we’ll go through here to help you feel better about their absence, and also give you a few tips to try to get to see them after all.
New chicks on the block
Some species will have started breeding in earnest as early as February, and you may have already noticed fledglings around April or May; but in those middle J months, the local populations have increased sometimes threefold if the adults have had a chance to get a couple more broods in.
Fledgling season is at its peak – and these birds have a thing or two to learn. Vital survival skills such as mastering flight and recognising predators are on the curriculum, as well as foraging for food. Many insectivorous bird species will have turned to your seeds and grains over winter as that’s all they can find, but dormant larvae are popping out all over the place in their own adult forms, and those hunting instincts are kicking right back in.
Mom and dad will spend many days and weeks teaching the new ones how to take down their prey, using the fresh abundance of millions of insects in the air to their advantage. Whilst your seeds may well be top of the range and pack a perfect protein punch, hunting live insects is an intrinsic part of a fledgling’s development and essential for their growth and strength, exercising those flight muscles and testing aerodynamic abilities.
Food, glorious food
Summer brings a bountiful supply of naturally available food sources for birds, what with all the berries, fruits, seeds, plus those insects emerging forth. This increased availability allows birds to meet their nutritional requirements more easily without relying on your supplemental feeders. This uptick in food availability also means that birds get to explore their surroundings and identify new territories, all part of the preparation for the next breeding season.
Plus, those species that permanently eat those seeds, grains, fruits and so on will be taking advantage of the serious reduction in competition now the insect-eaters are off doing their thing.
A change of clothes
The breeding season is one of the most energy-depleting times in a bird’s life, what with mating rituals, nest-building, egg formation, egg-laying, not to mention all the care and attention required to make sure the kids have enough to eat. Bird plumage may look spectacular to us, but just like our hair and nails, time wears feathers down as the keratin they’re made from erodes. Many bird species use this time of their life to go through a molting process – some species have to do it twice a year, too.
Molting involves shedding all those old and worn feathers, and gradually replacing them with new ones. Every single feather on a bird’s body has a role to play in ensuring that bird can function to the best of its abilities, and in the avian world, a feather that’s not up to scratch can literally mean the difference between life and death. Flight efficiency can be disrupted, meaning predators can have the upper hand in a getaway scenario, and just because the days are warm that doesn’t mean the nights are too or temperatures won’t drop at some point, or the weather won’t turn awful – feathers provide critical insulation to those internal organs firing away at an average core temperature of 40˚C.
During the molt, birds are more vulnerable to predators as they lose their protective plumage, which means they have to hide away in dense vegetation until it all grows back, rather than venturing out to garden feeders.
Eyes in the sky
In some places like suburban or rural areas, birds of prey will be using those thermals that build through the day to help them hunt, circling ever higher and watching the ground below for the slightest tiny movement. Small birds instinctively know to keep out of sight at this time, no matter how tempting your feeder may look across the yard. Also, the heat throughout the day will be pushing those birds into the shade anyway, or deeper into woods or shaded areas where the air is always cooler and moist.
Don't be a stranger
Now that you know all this, think about the things that you can do that can still give you that access to the birds that you may start to miss. After all, we know that watching and listening to birds is fantastic for our own physical and mental health – why should birds get to have all the fun and leave us staring at an empty feeder?
Let’s run through it:
- Some species love love love insects and other invertebrates and need to spend the summer teaching their kids to hunt them – leave out log piles, and plant native flowers, shrubs and trees to bring those insects to your yard. That way they’re happy and you get to witness a whole new set of behaviors to your garden birds, which will do wonders for your ID skills too
- Seeds, grains, fruit – again, do some research on your native plants and make sure your yard is a veritable marketplace featuring the freshest produce in town
- Molting – provide places where birds can seek cover and refuge whilst they renew their coat of many colors. You may still not get to see them for a while but if you’re keen-sighted and lucky enough, you may spot them heading out to eat at dusk or dawn, or just be there when they fling back the changing room door and parade about in their new outfit. Plus, there’s something to be said for just knowing you’re providing sanctuary to a small lifeforce that needs to hide up for a while.
- Predators and heat stroke - similar to the molting process, if you have some amazing places for birds to hide out either from sharp beaks or sun beams, the local birds would rather save energy than seek out somewhere further away if they can find it on your doorstep.
If your feeders are just hanging there all lonely and neglected, don’t take it personally – this is the time when birds go off and do all that bird stuff they have to do, which you have had a hand in too by helping them stay alive all winter. Take this time to give your feeders a proper clean and maintenance, do a stocktake on supplies and make ready for the weeks that are inevitably coming when we go through the whole process all over again.