Not every bird species migrates, but good estimates say 40% of all birds will make that long and arduous trip, twice a year. Migration is triggered in birds by changes in the length of the day, the intensity of sunlight and changes in the weather.
As they are driven by instinct alone there is no risk that any ongoing availability of food will prevent birds from leaving, so if you’re worried about the birds not moving on as they normally would, have no fear – you don’t need to take down your feeders as the migration season begins.
It’s just not true that you can persuade a species to stay where they are just by leaving some peanuts out. What your feeders can do is provide much needed sustenance to any birds passing through on their migrations, plus don’t ever forget there are resident birds who no longer need to compete with their seasonal compatriots, and are just as hungry as they always are.
You don’t need to take down your feeders as the migration season begins.
It's easy to think that the chances of you being able to provide pit-stop fuel and a place to rest are slim, as after all, birds often fly at altitude to take advantage of rising hot air and strong winds to carry them over the miles.
But what goes up always comes down at some point, and many of these migrations are thousands of miles long. Birds will stop and take a break from all that flying for a few days at least, and when they do, finding food and water at their chosen stopover point will be simply amazing for them.
Birds are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to build up energy reserves again, and there are several things you can do to proactively attract migrating birds to your home.
H2O to go
Life is water, water is life – everything needs it to survive. Birds are highly attuned to the sound of running water, so if you live near a water source then keep an eye out around there for migrants, or better yet, install a water feature or pond in your yard if you can.
Motion is key so even if you just place one of those solar powered fountain devices in a large water bath, or attach a mister to your hose outlet, this should be enough to catch their eye. If you have any places of static water, make sure you refresh it daily, and if the receptacle is more than a couple of inches deep then place some large stones in it to assist anyone falling in.
Fallen leaves from trees actually help your lawn stay healthy.
Remember, hedgehogs are also on the move at this time of year seeking food to fatten up for hibernation, and they can easily drown in a deep-water bath with no way out.
Let it grow
As the seasons change and the harvest comes and goes, try not to be too tempted to pull up all those dead or dying plant stems and leaves, and let the vegetation go through its natural decaying process.
Fallen leaves from trees actually help your lawn stay healthy either by providing some ground cover that traps moisture from the weather and dew, which then prevents it from drying out during those rare but brilliant Indian Summer days, but as they degrade, they are consumed by the diligent caretakers of the underworld: worms, lice, beetles and other organisms will break down all that cellulose and convert it into nutrient-rich soil, perfect for next year’s growth, and birds can also dine out on those insects attracted by your offerings.
By leaving your lawn to develop this way you are also allowing the grasses and clovers to get longer and go to seed, providing superb food for the birds. If you can’t bear the thought of an “untidy” garden and have to have that grass cut short, then consider leaving even a square meter patch alone. This way you can at least provide some natural food as well as know exactly where to look for any passing visitors.
A clean house is a happy one
If you put up any bird houses earlier in the year, now is the time to get them down and clean them out. The frequency of storms in the later part of the year means two things – increased chances of migrants being blown your way, and them needing to find shelter when they are.
Chicks and fledglings can be messy little things so it’s highly likely there’ll be some old bird poop and food remains in there. Give it all a good scrub with a mild 1:10 parts bleach to warm water solution and when completely dry again, place some dry grasses or hay (never wood shavings, which retain water) in the bottom for some extra comfort, and rehang.
What better way to greet them than with some high energy protein snacks.
Likewise for any nest sites you have spotted during spring and summer: the core structure of the nest itself should be intact, and just needs some housekeeping to make it inviting again.
If you have taken your feeders in for the summer, don’t wait until the first frosts hit to bring them out again, and make sure you have plenty of food in stock. Migrants may not be familiar with your area or set-up and know to come landing down in your particular yard for your famed buffet on display, but were they to land nearby or even right there, what better way to greet them than with some high energy protein snacks.
Black sunflower seeds or hearts and plain, unflavoured and crushed peanuts are the name of the game here: black seeds have the highest oil content and crushed peanuts means the birds use less energy breaking them apart into edible chunks.
Putting out any suet, mealworms, or any wild bird food mix will be just great. Migration is exhausting and calories need to be consumed in large quantities if they are to even think about carrying on.
Look and listen
You may find that whatever you do, no one comes by, but that doesn’t mean you get to miss out on one of the natural world’s most amazing spectacles. Bird flyways – the overhead routes species take to get from one part of the world to another – are vast and cover many miles of width.
There are resources online to find out if there are any flyways nearby or maybe even directly overhead if you’re lucky. A few years ago, I happily discovered my house lies right under the flight path of hundreds of common cranes, and yet one thing that surprises me every year is my unerring ability to forget to look up come September.
Of course, we can’t spend all our days with heads tipped back in the vague hope of spotting some distant flapping things, but trying to be aware of your aural surroundings can bring some welcome surprises.
Common cranes make a wonderful racket as they fly overhead, and can be heard coming for a few miles. If you’re outside in the weeks after the height of summer, try to be alert to the sounds above, and keep those binoculars handy.