Don’t take down your bird feeders just yet

blackburnian warbler
The blackburnian warbler is one of the birds that may pass through your backyard on its way to South America this fall. Known for its black and white feathers and bright orange throat, it may be a bit more yellowish-orange this time of year when it's not competing for mates. (Tim Daniel, Ohio Division of Wildlife, photo)

The saying that you should take down your hummingbird feeder by Labor Day is a myth. If you did, put it up again. Hummingbirds that are getting ready to leave this area, as well as those just passing through, need that extra energy for their long migration to Central and South America.

“It’s not true that they become dependent on the feeders and then won’t migrate,” said Andy Jones Ph.D., William A. and Nancy R. Klamm chair and curator of ornithology for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

In fact, if you leave the feeder up until the first frost, you might see a rufous hummingbird, he said. If you do, it’s probably a “vagrant” that got off course in its migration from the Rockies to Mexico. The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only one native to Ohio and is here from May through September.

As fall begins, “the jewelweed is still out and they’re feeding on it, along with lots of spiders and insects for protein,” Jones said of the rubies.

But they need that extra energy from feeders — four cups water to one cup sugar — for the long flight coming up.

Fall migration

Meanwhile, there are a lot of other migrants coming through the region that can use some extra energy, too. Chances are good that some of the more spectacular species will come to a bird feeder near you.

“In the fall migration, there are billions of birds moving through North America,” Jones said. “Warblers, sparrows and small songbirds are moving in such large numbers that they’re visible on weather radar.”

You can see that phenomenon on the BirdCast website.

Every night, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology produces a map that analyzes nocturnal bird migration detected by weather radar. Cornell and partner Colorado State University then produce bird migration forecasts on another map. You can see where different species will be moving, and when.

“There’s a little bit of everything moving through here right now,” Jones said.

There are more birds by number migrating in the fall “because they all had babies. Not all will survive migration and wintering, so there will be fewer coming back in the spring.”

So it’s good to keep hummingbird feeders up until they’re in danger of freezing, and to keep seed feeders full. Suet feeders can be added in October.

Jones recommends thistle and black oil sunflower seeds as the main items on the bird buffet. Thistle seeds are a favorite of all kinds of finches, chickadees and titmice, while black oil sunflower seeds provide “about as much protein as you can pack into a seed,” he said.


About 25 species of warblers will pass through Ohio, though they may not be as colorful as they are in the spring, when they’re in peak breeding plumage. The blackburnian warbler, which Jones spotted perching in trees in Cleveland recently, is a vivid black, white and orange in the spring, but more yellowish-orange when it migrates, he said. The red-eyed vireo, which is olive green and white, is one of the migrants that is more likely to be in your yard in September, Jones said. The rose-breasted grosbeak, recognized by its large, triangular bill, could appear at your feeder this month, along with thrushes and orioles. While the white-breasted nuthatch can be in your yard all year, the red-breasted nuthatch is more prone to hang out in Canada.

When the seed crops of pine, fir and spruce begin to dwindle, they will move south and switch to sunflower seeds and suet Swallows and swifts migrate in September and can be seen flying overhead during the day.

Purple martins, a type of swallow, like to gather at rest stops on their way south. “Nimisila Reservoir has about 20,000 right now,” Jones said in an interview during the last week of August. “They’ll be in the Amazon Basin by October and they’ll stay there till February and March.”


As we get into October and bugs become scarce, it turns to more of a sparrow migration, Jones said. That’s because birds that regularly eat seeds can survive a later migration better than warblers and other songbirds that rely on insects almost exclusively.

In November and December, hawks, golden eagles, osprey and falcons fly by. In November, we could see some nonresident woodpeckers passing through. The sandhill crane migration through Ohio goes into December, Jones said.

“The nice thing about the fall migration is that it’s so long,” he said. After all, the shore birds begin their migration in July. “It’s always exciting because they’re coming from the Arctic,” Jones said.

Farmers may see sandpipers, plovers and killdeer this month and next as they like to stop in short, muddy fields. Seagulls are more complicated because some of them don’t get here from the Arctic till November and December. Cleveland Harbor gets about 50,000 gulls each year, he said.

Then there’s the issue of whether birds migrate by day or by night. Warblers, sparrows and other small songbirds are night fliers, while swallows, hawks and others fly during the day. Shore birds fly day or night.


There is danger from glass for all of these groups. About 2,000 birds a year are found dead from collisions in Cleveland, not only around downtown buildings but homes as well, Jones said. If it’s cloudy or there’s low-lying fog, night fliers struggle to see the stars that they use for navigation, he said.

They can see lights on buildings, are attracted to them and collide. Some buildings must have lights so that pilots can safely navigate. But a program called Lights Out Cleveland has resulted in many buildings going dark between midnight and dawn, he said.

Day fliers may land in a grassy area to take a break. When they get ready to take off again, they may see grass, trees and sky reflected in windows and fly into them. One solution is purchasing Acopian BirdSavers, which provide vertically-hanging chords every 4 inches. Another is placing adhesive stickers on windows, which Cleveland State University has done with some buildings, Jones said.


Another Cornell Lab website, eBird — and their handy app, Merlin — can help identify the unfamiliar species you may see at your feeders and show where they migrate. And if you feel the urge to do citizen science, you can report the species you spot.

Cornell Lab also has a site called FeederWatch that encourages folks to “embrace the winter” and “count feeder birds for science.”

“Our yards, parks, and fields are important stopover sites for migrating birds to rest and feed,” Jones said. “Providing food, particularly by maintaining habitats with native plants and the insects that feed on them, helps sustain these migrating birds as they make their annual journeys across the hemisphere.”


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