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Invite Weary Winged Travelers to a Meal | Fall 2004 Out Here Magazine

By Georgiana Kotarski

Each autumn, when 5 billion North American birds migrate south, some unusual varieties — as well as a few old friends — likely will show up in your yard, hungry and tired.

You can ease the long journey for these frequent fliers, and enjoy seeing species uncommon to your area, by making your yard a hospitable place to stay and rest for a day or two.

The tiny travelers may show up unannounced, but they're hardly ill-prepared for the long flight.

Birds do not just suddenly leave one day, explains Dr. Margaret Brittingham, a Pennsylvania State University professor of wildlife resources. As they prepare to fly hundreds or thousands of miles, they'll store energy. "Many small birds double their weight," Brittingham says. "They start to feed quite heavily and put on a lot of fat just prior to migration."

Change in day length triggers migration instincts, she says. "The specific day they leave is dependent on weather conditions," Brittingham says.

Rain and fog, for example, might delay their departure. A cold front, however, could hasten migration, as the birds hitch a ride with the winds that accompany the front.

"That's the time to watch for big flights," she says.

Their internal genetic map helps point the way. "They can use the stars and geomagnetic field of the earth as a compass and also use familiar landmarks," she says. "People who net birds for studies will find they catch the same bird in the same net every fall."

Since monitoring began in the 1960s, bird numbers have declined because of habitat loss and migratory hazards, she says.
You can help by installing feeders. "Black oil sunflower seed is the best all around, and preferred by most species," Brittingham says. Other birds prefer fruits and berries right off the branch, while nectar-feeding hummingbirds need flowers or sugar feeders.

Brittingham recommends generous shrub cover, such as evergreen pines and hemlock.
"Water is also a big attractant, preferably very shallow and moving," she says.

Don't worry that feeding birds will keep them around and disrupt their migration, Brittingham says. "That could happen with waterfowl but not with smaller birds."

Helping these winged wanderers might get you a special bonus; next year, the birds might return and bring a friend.


Your local Tractor Supply store carries a variety of birdseeds and suet designed to entice particular species.

  • Chickadee: Suet, peanut butter
  • Dove: Canary seed, millet, hemp, cracked corn
  • Cardinal: Cracked corn, raisins, nuts, squash seeds
  • Titmouse: Peanuts, mulberry
  • Blue Jay: Peanuts, peanut butter, cracked corn, suet
  • Nuthatch: Suet, peanut butter, pumpkin and squash seeds
  • Mockingbird: Suet, dried fruit, nuts
  • Downy Woodpecker: Suet, peanut butter, nuts
  • Hummingbirds: 1 part sugar to 4 parts water

Georgiana Kotarski is a freelance writer in Dunlap, Tenn.