Attracting the Songbirds of Spring and Summer

In April I usually start changing the mix of bird foods that I offer in my back garden feeders. There are a few reasons for this. First off, I want to get ready for the neotropical migrants – orioles, grosbeaks, indigo buntings, etc. – that usually arrive in Chicago right around May 1. If you can snag these birds when they first arrive, they are likely to stick around for a while at least.

Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole

Also, spring tends to bring large numbers of grackles and starlings to the backyard feeders. I have nothing against these birds individually, but in groups they become Hordes of Giant Black Locusts that devour everything in their path. These birds love peanuts above everything else, and so in spring I stop offering peanuts (a good food for winter), both shelled and in the shell.

Here’s what I do offer:

Nutrasaff Safflower Seed. Safflower is popular as a substitute for sunflower because grackles and other bully birds don’t like it. However, safflower hulls can accumulate into a big mess just like sunflower, though safflower is not toxic to plants the way sunflower hulls are. Hulled sunflowers avoid the mess on the ground, but they’re expensive and will be scarfed up with alarming speed by the bully birds.

A Rose Breasted Grosbeak party on the platform feeder.
A rose breasted grosbeak party on the platform feeder. That mourning dove in the background feels so out of place.

Nutrasaff is a new hybrid safflower with an extremely thin hull that makes a minimal mess. It also has a higher fat and protein content than regular safflower. I’ve found it to be a good value because, though it is expensive, it lasts longer. While the bully birds give it a peck now and then, they just won’t scarf it down. At the same time, cardinals, goldfinches, house finches, and chickadees seem to like it just as much as sunflower or safflower.

Rose breasted grosbeak.
Rose breasted grosbeak.

In terms of migrants, safflower will attract rose breasted grosbeaks. It’s important to offer the seed on a platform feeder of some kind, because grosbeaks eat on the ground and are less likely to perch on tube feeders. The same is true of cardinals, as both are large finches. Grosbeaks seem to hang around for a month or so before moving on to wherever grosbeaks go.

Baltimore Oriole
Baltimore Oriole

Grape Jelly. This is what draws the Baltimore orioles. Orioles are more common in the Chicago area than most people realize, but they tend to stay in the tree tops. They will come down to earth, however, for grape jelly. There are oriole feeders you can buy or just put some in a little bowl. Oranges will also attract Baltimore orioles. Once the orioles arrive, we’ve found that they tend to keep visiting the feeders until September.

Nyjer Seed. For the goldfinches.

Northern Flicker
Northern Flicker helps himself to some suet.

Rendered Suet. You can buy cakes of this stuff, which will attract nuthatches and all kinds of woodpeckers. I use the plain suet rather than the kind that is mixed with ground peanuts and other ingredients, which is done to prevent melting. In my shady back garden melting has never been a problem even on hot summer days. Moreover, the peanuts in the suet attract the bully birds and house sparrows, which will eat far more than the woodpeckers.

White Millet. I spread this on the ground in late April and early May to attract indigo buntings. I’ve had limited success, though, as we’ve had only a couple of sightings.

Do you feed the birds in spring and summer?


34 Comments on “Attracting the Songbirds of Spring and Summer”

  1. We feed year round, almost exclusively suet and black-oil sunflower seeds, and we get many of the same birds that you do. I love the unusual ones that show up around this time of year – the occassional scarlet tanager, indigo bunting, and Oriole really get me fired up and paying attention to the feeder. The flickers and rose-breasted grosbeaks are still cool, but usually arrive in such abundance that they’re no longer the novelty they were the first few years I lived here in North Dakota.

    Happy bird watching during the Spring migration!!

  2. I love all these suggestions. I don’t usually see any of them around here (except the flicker), but I know they at around. Maybe I can entice them here as well. I gave up on summer feeding a long time ago because of large flocks of grackles and starlings. Perfect visual reference to their behavior.

  3. Gosh, your birds are very well looked after by you. We remove any suet feed and whole peanuts and just a mix of pinhead oatmeal, sunflower seeds and maize. Apples, pears and a separate niger seed feeder too, but only the goldfinches are interested in niger seed. You have more species visit you than we do, but I think I would visit your garden if I were a bird too! What is grape jelly?

  4. We can’t feed the birds here because of the black bears. They love birdseed and nothing will stand in their way when they’re hungry, so it’s best not to tempt them.
    When I was growing up we used to have Baltimore orioles nesting in the elm trees that lined the street. Then Dutch elm disease came along and I don’t see many orioles now.

  5. I am envious of some of the birds that visit you, they really are stunning, I especially like the Baltimore Oriole….wow!
    They are very lucky to have you, I’m not at all surprised you get such variety given how well you look after them

  6. Some great ideas! We tend to use the same mixes year-round–mostly Sunflower seed and Thistle. We use a squirrel baffle, too, which works well. The only time I cut back on feeding the birds is when there’s a Cooper’s Hawk hanging around. Then, I pull the feeders down temporarily, because it’s like advertising a songbird smorgasbord to the birds of prey. I never thought about it until someone mentioned it in the master naturalist class. I’ve also noticed that the birds seem to like the perennial seedheads as much as the seed in the feeders. But when that source is sparse, it’s nice to give them extra food. I love the shot of the oriole!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: