Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Feeding birds in summer may bring uninvited guests

By STACEY COLE May 18. 2018 6:42PM
A black bear visited a back yard and walked off with a bird feeder in its mouth. (UNION LEADER FILE PHOTO/NH FISH AND GAME)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Saturday, May 19, 2001.

WHETHER OR NOT to feed birds all summer is a question in many communities. The answer, of course, must be an individual decision.

John V. Dennis, in his book “A Complete Guide To Bird Feeding,” originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1975, wrote, “Once the last of your winter visitors has departed, you may feel justified in closing down your feeding operation. After the last snow has disappeared and the spring buds are beginning to open, the feeling of crisis is over and you may decide that birds are safely on their own. In most parts of the country one can discontinue feeding without causing hardship in May.

“When warm weather comes, it is important to use fewer high-calorie or heating foods. One way to do this is to eliminate or greatly reduce offerings of oil-rich seeds and nuts. Other energy foods like sunflower, suet and suet mixtures containing peanut butter are so useful that they may be continued. Birds are pretty good judges of their needs. During the summer most species turn largely to insects and other natural fare. As a rule, only the few that nest near us find it convenient to supplement their natural diet with some of our feeds.”

Summer feeding of birds often brings about unexpected results. Probably the main reason for feeding birds during the summer months is the expectation of seeing parents accompanied by their offspring. It can be a delightful experience to watch these juveniles pick at a piece of suet.

There is a downside to summer bird feeding as we find chipmunks, red and gray squirrels habitually visiting the area to pick up sunflower seeds dropped from hanging feeders. On occasion, when I put on the outside light after dark, I catch a raccoon scrounging for a meal.

We have heard from readers who told of having a red fox stop by on its nightly prowl. Then, too, a black bear might wander through the neighborhood. When bears find well-stocked bird feeders they frequently not only clean out the feed, but destroy the feeders in the process.

When continuing to feed birds into the summer months conscious thought should be given to sanitation. Feeders, as well as ground conditions beneath them, can become quite unsanitary. Three or so years ago there was evidence that certain so-called “winter finches” such as evening grosbeaks, pine siskins and the like, had been found dead at or near feeding areas.

Their loss appeared to be the result of some kind of infection caused by unsanitary condition of feeders or the ground below. As a precaution one should clean out and sanitize feeders at fairly frequent intervals and thoroughly rake and cart off the debris from the ground beneath them.

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One of our Barnstead readers recently wrote, “Your article on the mockingbird brought back a memory of a mockingbird that was singing when my brother and I were at the veteran’s hospital in Jamaica Plain, Mass. My brother had an appointment and we had some time before it had been scheduled so we decided to walk around the hospital. It was a beautiful spring day and we heard a mockingbird singing a beautiful song, but every once in a while it would say “Kitty, Kitty, Kitty,’ as plain as if a person was calling her Kitty in.”

The scientific name of the mockingbird is mimus polyglottos, translated as “many tongued mimic.” Within its rapidly fluctuating, long-continued lyrics that are frequently interspersed with periodic pauses, one can often detect selections borrowed from other bird’s songs, mammal cries and even mechanical sounds. Aretas A. Saunders said of its song, “The song of the mockingbird is a very wonderful performance. The quality is normally rich and melodious, but the bird can change the quality to weak, colorless phrases or harsh or chattery notes.”

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at

General NewsManchester

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