Should You Feed Birds in Summer?

Last Updated on July 18, 2021 by Nancie

Carolina Wren
(Carolina Wren)

Some people say you should not feed birds in the summer and yet many people do feed birds year round. So should you feed backyard birds in the summer? How do you decide? Here is how I think about it.

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

American Robin with a Caterpillar
American Robin with a Caterpillar

There are Three Main Positions on Whether to Feed Birds in Summer:

1) Some People Say NEVER Feed Backyard Birds

People who feel that bird feeders are not a good idea at all, will sometimes say wild creatures should be allowed to live their lives in ways that don’t alter their normal behaviors. They argue that feeders make birds dependent on people and/or that they make birds lazy. (My thoughts on this further below.)

And they point out that offering food in winter months may encourage them to stay longer than they otherwise might in a cold climate. And it is true that there have been changes in the ranges of some birds that may be related to the widespread availability to feeder foods in winter months. Northern Cardinals are often pointed to as one example. (See Nature.org’s post on Are Bird Feeders Helping Cardinals Expand Their Range?) But it is also possible that climate change may play a role in changing bird species ranges. (See Audubon’s article on Climate Change Could Cause Shifts in Bird Ranges That Seem Unbelievable Today) Is expanded range a good thing or a bad thing?

And the never-feeder folks will also often rightly point out that birds aggregating together can spread disease if one or more arrives sick. (It’s hard to explain social distancing to a bird.)

Finally, they often point to dirty feeders and birdbaths themselves can be a source of bird illness. Mold can be toxic to birds and feces mixed in with seed can make them sick. If you put up a feeder or a birdbath, you must take responsibility to keep it clean. If you can’t or won’t do this, then you should reconsider whether you should be feeding birds at all. After all, there are other ways to see and enjoy birds.

For more on this position, check out To Feed or Not to Feed Wild Birds. This is a US Fish & Wildlife article looking at pros and cons of bird feeding that leans towards NOT feeding them, but also includes guidelines if you choose to feed birds.

American Goldfinches on a Snowy Feeder
American Goldfinches on a Snowy Feeder

2) A Second Group Says ONLY Feed Backyard Birds in Winter

The folks who say that you should only feed birds in the winter usually point to the natural abundance of foods for birds in warmer months. Their argument is that there is no real need to feed birds in the warm months when they can find food on their own. But they point out that offering food in colder months or even just during a winter storm can help a bird make it through the winter. This is may be especially true during very cold weather.

Sialis, a site about bluebirds, has a really interesting pdf on their website from the National Bird Feeding Society that looks at The Dynamics of Feeding Birds; The Pluses and Minuses of Feeding Wild Birds, which includes some of the potential feeder benefits to birds in winter. It specifically digs into some scientific studies looking at birds like Black Capped Chickadees and Blue Jays. But it also hits potential downsides as well.

Note: We don’t get bears in my neighborhood, so I don’t have that issue. But if you do, the recommendation is to take your feeders down during the warm months when bears are active. Feeders can attract other critters too, including squirrels, raccoons, rats and mice, which may require additional strategies to keep them out of feeders.

But also consider that some people are just plain busy with other things in the summer months. It is often a time for vacations, hikes and outdoor socializing away from home. Not everyone has time to keep up with feeder and birdbath maintenance. Birds can usually find their own food in the summer months, so they say that not filling feeders makes sense to them. (It can also save you money in birdseed!)

Mother American Bluebird Brings Fledgling to Feeder
Mother American Bluebird Brings Fledgling to Feeder

3) Other People Say It’s Fine to Feed Birds Year Round Including Summer

For myself, I feed birds year round, so I’m writing this with an obvious bias (although I’ve tried to present other views fairly.) I have a lot of feeders up in my yard and there is something in them during every season. The exception would be hummingbird feeders of course, which are only up in warmer months. Also, in the summer months, I only offer no-melt suet. During colder months, my feeders tend to be very busy. In the summer, the feeders are quiet, with fewer birds visiting. Even flock species typically tend to stop by in smaller groups.

Even though I feed birds in the summer, I do agree with the folks who say you don’t NEED to feed birds in the warmer months. What I offer in the summer is a supplement to what birds can find naturally in my yard and neighborhood. It might be a quick bite for a busy bird mom or dad who has spent a long day hunting caterpillars for their babies. If I didn’t feed birds in the spring and summer, I would also miss out on bird parents bringing their fledglings to the feeders for the first time, which is always an incredible treat. Watching young birds figure things out is awesome.

For more on the joys of watching birds at summer feeders, also see my post on Summer Birds: Bird Watching and Feeding Tips.

Northern Cardinal on Branch
Northern Cardinal

Each Position on Feeding Birds Has Some Good Arguments

While I personally fill my feeders and birdbaths year round, I totally respect folks who choose to only feed birds in winter. To me, that argument is reasonable and frankly, birdseed can be expensive too. For myself, I would miss seeing the birds that come to my spring and summer feeders though.

And I can also respect folks who feel you should never feed birds, even if I don’t agree with their position. They firmly believe that it is best for birds. You can love birds and enjoy watching them without being obligated to put up feeders.

But that said, I don’t personally agree with all of their arguments. For one thing, I notice that feeder birds are often birds “of least concern” when you look up their environmental status. These birds in general seem to be doing ok coming to our feeders. Some of the articles linked to in this post cover scientific studies that found bird survival and weight were improved by access to feeders. But again, if people don’t keep their feeders and birdbaths clean and in good repair, birds can suffer. In that case, I think they should reconsider.

It also seems possible to me that offering food might fill a gap that people have caused with all of our cutting down trees and digging up farm fields and putting up buildings. Habitat destruction is a human-caused problem after all. Bird watching also often fosters interest in other birds that maybe are not doing so well in our current world. So groups working to help those birds get more support.

I also think anyone who has watched birds jockeying for status at feeders would be hard pressed to call them lazy. Being a wild bird is a lot of work, regardless of where you find food. And at least in my yard, even seed eating birds like finches, that spend the most time on my feeders, also spend a lot of time in the trees and flowers and bushes looking for seed away from feeders. Some of the studies mentioned in this post’s links also didn’t find that birds became dependent on feeders. Feeder food supplements their diet; it doesn’t completely fill it.

Cleaning a Tube Feeder
Cleaning a Tube Feeder

If You Choose to Feed Birds in Summer, Be Responsible:

  • Keep feeders and birdbaths clean.
  • Clean up under feeders if seed accumulates there.
  • Consider skipping offering seed directly on the ground. If you do, only offer as much seed as ground feeding birds will eat during a single day’s daylight hours (so it doesn’t rot or mold on the ground and/or become a draw for other critters.)
  • If you offer suet, choose a no-melt version that won’t dangerously melt and get into a bird’s feathers. Check suet very regularly for signs of mold, especially during hot damp periods when mold can develop quickly.
  • Be prepared to dump hummingbird nectar (sugar-water) and re-fill very often during hot weather, even daily if it gets very hot. (If you don’t like the waste, consider a smaller hummingbird feeder or fill it with less liquid.) If you are not willing to do this, consider planting hummingbird friendly flowers instead.
  • Provide shade for hummingbird and suet feeders to keep these foods cooler and safer.
  • Spread feeders out as much as possible to let birds spread out, reducing bird aggregation. (This is a good idea at all times of the year.)
Some of the Native Shrubs We've Recently Purchased
Some of the Native Shrubs We’ve Recently Purchased

Plant Native Food For Birds For Summer Feeding

But I do agree that an even better way to offer food to birds is to plant trees, shrubs and other plants that are native to our own particular patch of ground. Native really is the way to go. While it’s ok to have some non-native plants in your yard, try to get as many that are native to your area as you can. And especially work to remove and keep out non-native invasive plants. If you don’t have a yard, maybe consider thoughtfully chosen container garden plantings.

Why is this important? Native bugs eat native plants. Many of them specialize on particular native plants and many may not be ABLE to eat some of the non-native plants. Many backyard birds eat those bugs and especially feed thousands and thousands of native caterpillars to their young. So by providing plant food for these bugs, you are feeding birds too. And choosing plants that create things like acorns and berries, seeds or nectar can also be a wonderful way to feed birds. It’ll save on birdseed costs too!

Also keep bug-eating birds in mind when gardening. Read labels carefully and research best practices. Choose pest and fertilizer/soil enrichment products that won’t harm birds. Keep in mind that plants native to your area are likely to need fewer products to thrive. (Note: I live in Central Maryland. My husband and I have been purchasing native plants from Wakefield Valley Nursery over in Carroll County for the past few years. The owner is knowledgeable about what he stocks and specializes in natives. The quality of the plants make it well worth the drive for us and he’s had some things we couldn’t find closer to us.)

A Yard Full of Native Plants Is a Yard Full of Well-Fed Birds is an All About Birds article with a good explanation on why native plants support backyard birds. They use an example of the benefits to Carolina Chickadees.

Female Red-Bellied Woodpecker
Female Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Whether to Feed Birds in the Summer Is Up to You.

So, should you feed backyard birds in the summer? That is up to you. If you enjoy watching birds, can afford the seed and are willing to keep feeders and birdbaths clean, it’s fine to feed them in the summer. If you would rather limit your bird feeding to winter months, that is also totally fine too. You will likely be rewarded with many birds to watch from your window. But if you instead choose to skip feeders and instead offer native plantings to feed birds or simply decide to go in search for them on birding trips, that is obviously totally cool too.

Do you feed birds? If you do, are your feeders up all year round or seasonally? Please feel welcome to comment below.

Nancie

Learn More About Cleaning Bird Feeders and Birdbaths

I’ve touched on cleaning various types of feeders or birdbaths in past posts, often as part of reviews. Here are a few of my posts suggesting how to clean them.

How to Quickly Clean Tube Feeders

Hummingbird Reviews and Care

Birds Choice Hanging Platform Feeder Review

Squirrel Buster Plus Review

My Favorite Birdbath

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