All About Birds Blog

Here’s What to Feed Your Summer Bird Feeder Visitors

By on Friday, July 11th, 2014 - 54 Comments

TTitmouse-Bryant

Sure, winter is a prime time for feeding birds—natural foods are less abundant and cold weather makes windowside birding that much more inviting. But birds flock to feeders in summer, too—especially in midsummer, after they’ve fledged a brood from their nest and they’ve got new mouths to feed.

Summer bird feeding can bring you different species, such as Neotropical migrants that aren’t around in winter. It’s also a fun time to try offering some different kinds of foods. Here are some tips for creating a summertime backyard buffet that might bring a few new faces to your feeders.

RTHummingbird-Click

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird enjoys feeding from a red hummingbird feeder. Photo by Kevin Click via Birdshare.

Nectar for Hummingbirds

Attracting hummingbirds to your yard can be as easy as hanging a hummingbird feeder and filling it with a sugar water solution (1/4 cup sugar per cup of water). There’s no reason to add food coloring to turn the water red; you’re providing a substitute for flower nectar, which is clear. Don’t locate the feeder in direct sun, as the sugar water will spoil rapidly. In the shade your sugar water should last two or three days, except for very hot days, in which case it’s wise to change your hummingbird feeder water daily.

Why are hummingbird feeders red? It’s not because hummingbirds are inherently attracted to the color red, because these peripatetic featherweights feed on flowers of many colors: white, purple, yellow, red, even ultraviolet colors that we can’t see. But the key here lies in the eyesight of nectar-feeding insects, not hummingbirds. Bees, wasps, and butterflies are better at locating pale-colored flowers than red flowers. In nature, red flowers tend to have more nectar in them, because they aren’t being visited as often by insects. So hummingbirds are indeed attracted to red, not because they can see it better, but because they have learned from experience that red flowers tend to have more nectar than flowers of other colors.

Orange & Orange

Baltimore Orioles have a sweet tooth for fruit like oranges. Photo by Dave LaDore via Birdshare.

Oranges for Orioles

Flashy orange orioles are even simpler to lure in for backyard viewing pleasure. Just slice an orange in half and set it on a platform feeder or skewer it on your feeder pole. Other fruits will work too, such as cherries or grapes. Orioles seem to prefer dark fruit and will ignore yellow cherries or green grapes. They also LOVE grape jelly. Put a spoonful of jelly on your platform feeder, and once the orioles find it, it won’t last long!

Why do orioles love fruit? It could be that they develop a sweet tooth while wintering in Central America, where they forage for a variety of wild fruits in tropical forests. Orioles sometimes use their slender beaks to feed in an unusual way, called gaping: they stab the closed bill into soft fruits, then open their mouths to cut a juicy swath from which they drink with their brushy-tipped tongues.

Sunflower Seeds for Grosbeaks

Grosbeaks are one of the best reasons to keep your seed feeders stocked in summer. The males are handsome, decked out in black-and-white formal wear with a pop of color (a red chest patch for Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, warm cinnamon–orange bodies for Black-headed Grosbeaks). Females of both species are drab mottled brown and may be confused with finches or sparrows. Grosbeaks are seed-eating machines. They’ll eat millet but their favorite is good ol’ black-oil sunflower seeds.

Why are grosbeak beaks so big? The better to eat large seeds with, my dear. Grosbeaks are one of the classic birds with beaks that indicate what they eat—big, sturdy beaks are best for crushing seed hulls. Those beaks are also mighty good at crushing insects and grasshoppers, another primary food source. A female grosbeak’s big beak is the first clue that you’re not looking at a finch or a sparrow, both of which have decidedly more petite beaks.

Insectivores like this Eastern Bluebird always welcome a mealworm snack.

Insectivores like this Eastern Bluebird always welcome a mealworm snack. Photo by Lindell Dillon via Birdshare.

Mealworms for Bluebirds

Many people entice bluebirds to take up residence on their property by putting up nest boxes (also called birdhouses). If you have bluebirds in your neighborhood, you can get an up-close look at them by setting a few mealworms out on your platform feeder. Bluebirds are insectivores, and an offering of a few mealworms—alive or dried—is a protein boost that’s hard to resist, especially during the energy-intensive breeding season.

What to do with leftover fishing bait? If you fish with wax worms, set them out for bluebirds. Mealworms and wax worms are interchangeable for bluebirds, and some folks even say bluebirds will pick through a pile of mealworms to eat the wax worms first.

Safety Tips for Feeding Birds Seed in the Summer

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks' big beaks make short work of crushing seed hulls.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks’ big beaks make short work of crushing seed hulls. Photo by Robin Arnold via Birdshare.

Dr. David Bonter has been studying feeder birds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for over a decade. In the course of his research, he fills and maintains more than a dozen bird feeders around Ithaca, New York. Here are his tips for safe bird feeding in summer.

  • Keep your seed dry. Hot, humid summer weather creates the potential for mold. “Some molds produce the byproduct aflatoxin, which is fatal to birds,” Bonter says. He suggests filling feeders halfway in summer and refilling frequently, instead of packing feeders full so the seed sits for long periods. If you find mold on your seed, get rid of it.
  • Move feeders occasionally. Concentrations of seed hulls and bird droppings under a feeder can lead to outbreaks of salmonellosis, a bacterial sickness that can affect birds (and people). Move feeders around the yard and don’t allow waste to build up in one area.
  • Put suet in the shade. Some packaged suet comes in no-melt varieties, but even these can spoil or become soft and foul a bird’s feathers in high heat. Keep suet in cool places. Or, switch to a hummingbird feeder in summer.
  • Clean your feeders regularly. Washing feeders roughly every two weeks with a 10 percent bleach solution will keep your feeders both attractive and healthy for your guests.
  • Be bear aware. Black bear populations are on the rise in much of North America, and the big bruins will absolutely go after your seed stockpiles. Please be aware of potential bear problems in your area and if necessary, take your feeders down during summer to avoid unexpected bear visits.

More resources for bringing birds into your backyard:

(Top image: Tufted Titmouse by Cindy Bryant via Birdshare.)

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54 Comments

  1. julie says:

    To keep the squirrels off my feeders which each have four sqirrel baffles on them…i put cloves white pepper and chile powder on the feeders….the birds are still coming…will they be OK or am I killing them?

    • jill witherell says:

      I mix cayenne pepper in with the bird food. It’s really solved our squirrel problem and has had no negative impact on the birds. I read up on this solution on line before doing it to make sure that birds wouldn’t be harmed, and all agree that it’s OK.

    • Perry Ellis says:

      Birds don’t have nearly as many taste buds as mammals and aren’t affected by the capsaicin in hot peppers. Peppers probably developed capsaicin and bright colors to increase the chance that their seeds would be spread by birds, as the capsaicin repels mammals (except for humans) and the bright color of the fruit attracts birds. When you mix firey spices with your birdseed, you’re mimicking the outcome of eons of evolution!

    • Anne says:

      Sriracha hot sauce also works well to keep squirrels away. It is thick enough to squirt onto suet seed cakes and the outside of feeders without running off.

  2. If you like birds you will like reading this!

  3. Diane Perrin says:

    As much as I would love to feed birds in summer, we’ve been asked not to because the feeders are attracting the bear population to our developments.

  4. Sally Vernon says:

    Some people say that birds should not be fed, since it interferes with their natural habits. For instance, birds being fed are sometimes thought to stay in northern areas longer than is safe for them. On balance, is it wise to feed birds, or do we do it selfishly in order to observe them without due concern for their welfare?

    • Hugh says:

      Hi Sally – Thanks for asking. Migratory birds have a very strong innate sense of when it’s time to migrate. Feeding them does not interfere with this. In addition, birds typically receive only a small amount of their nutrition from bird feeders. They get most of their food from natural sources. So feeding birds is generally not detrimental to them as long as feeders are kept clean and they are offered appropriate food. You may wish to check the Project FeederWatch site for more information: http://feederwatch.org/ Thanks! – Hugh

      • Angela says:

        I would like to add this important piece of information. Our yards and communities are being saturated with lawn chemicals and insecticides. Birds food sources (most rely on insects for food) are not as readily available. I feed birds year around and have forest foraging birds, such as the brown thrasher, not normally seen at feeders, visiting on a regular basis.

    • Mary M says:

      An ornithologist told me that if you are not going to feed birds all winter, stop,feeding them by Sept. 15 th so that they migrate in time

    • Mike says:

      I have thought about this subject as well and decided it’s not detrimental. Generally, people have done much to reduce bird numbers. Sprawling cities, malls, parking lots and etc have destroyed habitat. Birds have less places to nest and eat food, their numbers have decreased. Why shouldn’t we feed and support them? In a way I am atoning for human destruction of natural space for which I am indirectly responsible. Also, Hugh is right, birds know what to eat and when. Just like us, they need a balanced diet especially in warmer months. This is something I observed at my feeders.

  5. Great information, however, one component of any bird feeder is water. By simply putting out water, and cleaning this water every few days as needed, many more birds will be attracted. Ah, the drink that refreshes. secp

  6. Bill McClellan says:

    I had heard that feeding hummingbirds leads to liver disease in hummingbirds and that they should not be fed. Could someone give me the facts on this?

    • Hugh says:

      Hi Bill, clean, unspoiled, colorless sugar water is not harmful to hummingbirds. It is important to change hummingbird nectar before it ferments or spoils, and it is not necessary to use red food coloring, which may have adverse health effects. Thanks for asking – Hugh

      • Bill McClellan says:

        I have not found a hanging hummingbird feeder that is sturdy and attractive. Any recommendations?

        Bill

        • sue says:

          I use a 2 cup hanging saucer-type feeder from Wild Birds Unltd. It’s easy to clean and because it’s small, I clean and refill every 2 or 3 days. Use a pipe cleaner to scrub the ports as that’s where mold can start to build up. Wash feeder parts in warm soapy water and rinse well before refilling. http://shop.wbu.com/p/wbu-large-hummingbird-feeder-16-oz-red/hummingbird-feeders?pp=12 can’t spill and you can buy an ant guard–they work. good luck!

          • Jim Sproul says:

            I have never had an ant problem on my feeder. When I first hung mine years ago a friend recommended putting a drop or two of vegetable oil on my finger and lightly coating the hanger with it. I don’t even have to re-coat it when I wash the feeder. Once a month seems to be enough. However, I’m concerned that this method hasn’t been mentioned on the site. (But then, I’m new here) Might this technique pose a problem I’m unaware of?

        • Debbie says:

          http://shop.wbu.com/p/wbu-high-perch-hummingbird-feeder/hummingbird-feeders?pp=12

          This feeder is attractive and EASY to clean every few days. Built-in ant moat. No bee problems with this feeder. I have gotten rid of all of my pretty and fancy feeders in exchange for these feeders.

          • Angela says:

            Agree Debbie. I have two of these feeders and prefer the smaller one since I change out the nectar frequently, I also waste less. I also fill larger one with water and leave the cover off. The small song birds prefer this method as opposed to drinking from my ground bird bath.

        • I found the First Nature stackable feeders, while maybe not pretty, are much easier to clean and maintain. I think we got them as sets of triples for about $10 but that was several years ago.

          There’s no fiddly yellow inserts, the mouth of the container is wide enough to allow it to be easily cleaned (hot water and dish soap NO bleach!) And unlike other feeders, when hung in the sun, the nectar does not dribble out.

          Our orioles (we have them by the boatloads because they nest somewhere in the woods) also drain the hummer’s feeders, in spite of having their own jelly and grapes to eat! The occasional downy woodpecker has been known to stop by also.
          ksj

      • Cindy says:

        My sister-in-law wants to only put out commercial nectar for the hummingbirds as she’s “worried they won’t get their vitamins” with just sugar syrup. I retorted that I was sure they would get what they needed from the insects they consume in addition to the syrup. True, not true?

  7. M. Fortin says:

    Sugar water doesn’t seem very nourishing. Is there a healthier substitute? Sports drinks maybe? Fruit juice?

    • Hugh says:

      Hi – A 1:4 mixture of sugar water is all you need to provide for hummingbirds. Hummingbirds get most of the rest of their nutrients from eating insects, and so they don’t need (and quite possibly won’t take) liquids with other additives in them. Thanks – Hugh

  8. Tim Hurley says:

    We live in a northwest suburb of Phoenix, even though we use feeders that only allow small birds (finches) to get food, we have flocks of pigeons that swarm the ground waiting. When shoo’d away, they fly to my roof and my neighbor’s roof. This is causing them to have concerns about us feeding the birds. Can you help us?

  9. johana arnold says:

    after a bear got our feeders, including the hummingbird one, we hoisted the seed feeder up our big flagpole. So far so good, though if he learns to snap the rope, that will be that!

  10. Jane hunt says:

    I live in North Carolina and wonder if I put out 1/2 an orange in July, will I attract an oriole if I have not seen any around?

  11. Heidi says:

    Being close to protected woodlands, having a feeder brought too many unwanted visitors right up the food chain. Instead of gratuitous feeders I created an oasis (for me and the birds, a few other critters besides). Just plant more varieties of plants and let nature do the work! I attract hummingbirds with morning glories and royal bee balm (and honey bees and hummingbird moths which are also fabulous and weren’t anywhere to be found until I added things they love). I have flowering and fruiting plants and vines and trees of many varieties and also leave a few “weeds” around – there’s a gigantic thistle of some kind in a front bed that’s ugly as heck but the goldfinches and purple finches are enjoying it as a snack so it can stay a little while longer. So I have to pull some extra weeds…no big deal. Not having voles and carnivorous shrews, raccoons using my sidewalk as a toxic bathroom, a mangy fox come to eat the rodents and an over-abundance of squirrels (feeding them does encourage overpopulation, unlike birds) gnawing my garden up is worth the minor effort- and that is exactly what I had with feeders. The birds pay me back in kind- I now have a free blackberry patch and quite a few plants they’ve “dropped” in my yard, plus a free army of bug eaters.

  12. Ellen says:

    We live in the northeast and grow fuchsia on our deck in the summer. It attracts hummingbirds and we don’t have to worry with feeders.

    I did not know that I needed to move my feeder periodically. Thanks for the info.

  13. Jon says:

    Are there good recommendations for season long flowering plants that will attract hummingbirds?

  14. Anne Outwater says:

    Under your birdfeeding tips you suggest corn. But the corn that one is likely to get commercially in North America is genetically modified. There are huge issues around its safety for the environment and human health. Is it wise to suggest people put such things in their birdfeeders?

    • Eileen says:

      if gmos’ aren’t safe for humans why would they be safe for birds and animals? Foreign countries won’t take grain from the U.S.A. if its gmo.

  15. JoAn says:

    Here in central Florida we have much wildlife – birds, squirrels, snakes!

    Last year a very large diamond back rattle snake invaded our property. Numerous rattlesnakes on the beachside – watch your step!

    On the advice of wildlife trapper (he captures and moves wildlife), we put up a snake fence – no rattlers caught.

    We were told the bird feeders were attracting rodents which attracted snakes! So we took our bird feeders down. It saddens me not to feed and watch the menagerie outside my back door.

    I welcome your ideas and comments!

    • Mary says:

      My daughter lives on Marco Island in SW Florida. When I visited for the first time, I asked her what the shoebox sized metal boxes in her garden were for. She replied that they are boxes which hold rat poison to kill the rats that come off the ships that dock on Marco Island. Without them, this beautiful place would be overrun with rats. I think I would just let the birds find their own food, since there is an abundance of it in Florida!

  16. Adele Mouakad says:

    Since I live in Puerto Rico which of course is in the tropics, the birds attracted to the feeders are very different. Here we have bananaquits which are nectar loving birds. They come to hummingbird feeders in large numbers. The Venezuelan troupials visit the hummingbird feeders. This bird is a type of oriole. It loves it. Believe it or not the geckos (little lizards) come to the hummingbird feeder. They are there when I fill it.

  17. Jessie says:

    If we aren’t able to clean and sterilize our hummingbird feeders at least twice a week in the summer, we shouldn’t feed hummingbirds at all and yet I don’t know anyone who cleans their hummingbird feeders more than once or twice a year. Are all of these folks killing hummingbirds? Could be. How can we educate these folks without sounding like nut cases? Most feeders are very hard to clean as well, including “Dr. JB’s (supposedly) Clean Feeder” which I ordered last year and is now on a top shelf in the pantry. I’m still looking for a feeder that I can clean easily and preferably boil to sterilize rather than using chlorine bleach which is bad for the environment. Any clues?

    • Angela says:

      Please see Sue’s post earlier. She included a link to the most popular hummingbird feeder. I have two and I use only mild dish soap to clean it and rinse, rinse, with hot water. If you change out the nectar every 2-3 days and do what I do, there is no need for bleach. If you feel the need to sanitize it use diluted vinegar and rinse well.

    • LEE says:

      We wash our feeders weekly with only hot tap water and a mild (not heavily scented) dish-washing liquid. We use a brush to scrub the inner parts and our Droll Yankee window feeder came with a brush to clean the tiny feeder ports (but a pipe cleaner works too). Droll Yankee hummingbird feeders are a little pricier but they are made here in the US and come completely apart for EASY cleaning. We find the easiest to clean are the Perky-Pet® Planter Box Plastic Hummingbird Feeder with Hanger. They are also small enough that the “nectar” doesn’t spoil and the hummers remind us they need filling.

      For folks with nighttime critter issues…we bring our feeders from trees in and place in a large metal garbage pail(yes,every night), and since we have only racoons and skunks dropping by we are able to use a pole with a baffle for our “early morning” bird friend’s feeders.

    • gail says:

      I have found the Aspects 8 oz. High View Mini by far the easiest to clean. I threw out another hummingbird feeder the other day, after I cleaned and refilled the Mini for the first time. At the time I purchased, the best price seemed to be from JC’s Wildlife, but that may vary from day to day.
      Hummers are the only birds I feed, and I have three feeders, one far away from the others, as males won’t let their wives and children feed if they can see them, the bums!

    • Alicia says:

      A neighbor at my In-Laws cottage, where nearly every one had hummingbird feeders, just offered sugar water in a baby food jar sitting on her deck railing. There were always plenty of visitors to observe. What could be easier to clean than a glass jar? Since those Jars are no longer available, Just watch for a similar size one, or maybe use a short fat juice glass. Also, she had painted a ring of red on the top rim of the Jar. which nay have made it more attractive to the hummingbirds, Sitting it in a flower pot saucer filled with water would be an easy solution to create an ant moat. Not as attractive as commercially offered ones, but should fit the bill of easy to clean!
      I’d also like to comment on Flowers to attract these lovely creatures. Many years ago, my mother shared some of her Canna tubers, and they seem to be the favorite flower in my landscape. I have added just about every flower advertised as a “Humming bird Magnet” to my collection over the years, but when the Canna are blooming, it is the only flower they visit. They ignore all the other flowers (and feeders, too) and head straight for the Canna! I even observed them earlier this season scoping our rthe Canna planting as if they were hoping for an early bloom. Wish I had space indoors to give the Canna an early start so they could bloom sooner after I set them out. Bu, alas I would not have a strong enough ligh exposure for healthy robust plants, so I guess my feathered friends will have to be patient and keep checking back for bloom. Oh, yes, and I have tried several varieties of Canna over the years, and they ignored the larger prettier flowers, always visiting the species with the scape of small flowers.

  18. Felicity Broennan says:

    When I first filled my hummingbird feeders in the spring I had broad-tailed and black-chinned (Mostly peacefully) co-feeding. Then the rufous arrived and he’s been terrorizing the others ever since. I know it’s common, but is there anything I can do to lessen the impact? I only rarely see the others now when they happen to sneak in, briefly. Shall I just relax and let it be? Thank you~

    • Hugh says:

      Hi Felicity – the best thing to try is to get one or two more feeders and to put them up a fair distance from each other. This will better the chances that your territorial Rufous will focus on one feeder and leave space at the other feeders for the rest of the crowd. Good luck! – Hugh

  19. Deborah says:

    I stopped feeding the birds in the summer as someone mentioned it could interfere with natural foraging for new young birds?

    For hummingbirds suggest using a non gmo sugar alternative such as organic cane sugar.

  20. ralph konrath says:

    i don,t like most hummingbird feeders either because of cleaning problems. i like oriolle feeders that are easy to clean also my favoritare easier to clean but use some restricters. i also found wrapping crinkled foil over the glass prevents clouding and the food is entirely consumed. give it a try.

  21. Linda says:

    I live in New England and have been feeding bluebirds all winter and summer. I have about five bluebirds coming daily to the feeder of mealworms. If I am on vacation for two weeks and unable to feed them, will the bluebirds be ok and have enough food. Will they come back to the feeders when I return?

    • Hugh says:

      Hi Linda – Yes, the bluebirds will be fine foraging on their own while you’re gone. They will most likely return to your feeders once you start putting out mealworms again—although it may take a few days. Sounds like you have a great feeder setup, enjoy! Thanks for asking. – Hugh

  22. gail says:

    For a lot of reasons, mostly rodents, I have stopped feeding birds altogether. Yet we have more birds than ever. Why? The large trees have grown up near the house and provide nesting and roosting space, plus, judging from the activity in the willows, countless insects of all kinds. But the best thing we did was put in a “stream” running in and out of our small pond. We have seen tanagers, rose-breasteds, vireos, many warblers, waxwings, robins, catbirds, etc., etc. on a daily basis. We have nesting bluebirds, and they, like finches and flickers, prefer a bird-bath to the faux-stream.
    If you want to see birds, give them water.

    • Angela says:

      Yes, at a minimum, provide fresh water. Folks think giving water in the winter is unnecessary when it even more crucial.

  23. Clara Brown says:

    Do ruby-throated hummingbird males lose their throat color in the fall? I’ve had a male-female couple visit my feeders all summer, then in the beginning of September only two females or juvenile males. The ruby-throated male disappeared.

    Do males and females migrate separately? Yesterday Sept 21st about ten hummingbirds, all seemingly ruby-throated females, came to the sugar feeders non-stop all day long. Today Sept 22nd they are gone. Only the two regulars remain.

  24. Trysha r Hillman says:

    You seem to know a lot about bird feeders and birds. Maybe you can answer my question. The wild birds have started hanging out in my yard and almost seem to be waiting for me to fill the bird feeder. Should. Be concerned that they’ve become too dependent?

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