birdnote q&a: 6 things to do for birds this fall (and 2 for yourself!)

Goldfinch on a sunflower seedhead, photo copyright Roger LynnYES, MANY HAVE FLOWN THE COOP—er, the local landscape—heading for milder spots to spend the offseason. But many other birds are arriving, settling in for the long haul alongside year-round garden residents. It’s time, says Ellen Blackstone of BirdNote, the daily public-radio show, for us humans to do a few bird-oriented chores—and also to engage with birds more fully. Here’s how:

In the Q&A that follows, Ellen’s answers contain green links to audio files from BirdNote’s archive that you won’t want to miss. A recap of earlier stories in our ongoing series is at the bottom of the page, along with information on how to get BirdNote daily.

fall bird tasks: my q&a with ellen blackstone

Q. Obviously nobody’s using my nestboxes to raise a family right now—should I take them down?

A. Yes, it’s time to take down your nestbox, at least temporarily, and clean it out. It’s a good idea to wear gloves and a dust mask while you do this. Use hot soapy water and a scrub brush, and rinse it with a pot of boiling water for good measure, to get rid of pests. (Please no pesticides or bleach.) Can you imagine the mess the little chickadee family in the photo below made before they fledged?

Chickadees inside a nestbox © Thomas LeBlanc

After the box is fully dry, tuck it into the garage or shed to protect it from weathering. Or you could put it back out for small birds to roost in during the winter. Listen to or read all the fall nestbox-care details.

Q. What about birdfeeder care?

Pine siskin on feeder © Ann McRaeA.  It’s time to clean up the birdfeeders for winter use, too. Snow may not be expected for a long time, but you want to be ready when it happens.

As with the nestbox, a scrub brush and some mild soapy water will do wonders; skip the bleach. (Elbow grease is often the very best cleaner, isn’t it?!) Rinse everything thoroughly.

On BirdNote, we covered the topic of responsible birdfeeding in this show—probably good to listen now for a recap.

And put a note on your calendar to sign up for the citizen-science bird-counting project called Cornell’s Project FeederWatch, which begins mid-November.

Q. My neighbor—a better person than I am!—has many bluebird boxes and monitors each one all breeding season, like this. Should I be doing that?

A. It’s easy to forget to take notes about what birds nested in the box, how many times, and whether they were successful—but it’s great information to have. You’ve probably been taking notes about your garden all summer long. Now’s a good time of year to catch up your bird journal. Here’s some expert inspiration.

Maybe next year, you can sign up for Cornell’s NestWatch; it’s another citizen-science project.

Q. Any other tactics for making the birds happier in our gardens in the offseason?

A. Perhaps this should be the year to spring for a birdbath heater (or if you have a larger garden pool, to keep a hole in the ice with a floating pond “heater” that birds will appreciate, like this). Unfrozen water in either case will keep your feathered friends happy and hydrated on a cold winter’s day and save you some trips in and out to provide needed water.

The way you clean up your garden can help, too. Leave seedheads on some flowers and other plants, and you’ll feed finches and other small birds long into the autumn. And quick: Take a good look at those bright little American goldfinches before they molt into their drab plumage, such as on that sunflower in the top photo (here’s how the molt process works).

If you have the time, space, and inclination, you could create a brush pile for the wild critters that share your outdoor space. Song sparrows and towhees will love you for it!

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection says: “Few wildlife management practices can provide a more important part of wildlife habitat for the amount of effort than brush piles.”  

Snags, too–that is, dying, dead or damaged trees left standing rather than cut down–are helpful to wildlife. Now’s a better time to *create* a snag than when birds might be nesting in the tree. We covered this on a BirdNote episode about the winter garden.

Also: It’s never too soon to start planning next year’s garden—and in fact, October is prime planting time for many wildlife-friendly plants. As always, consider the birds. If something worked particularly well as an attractant this year, maybe you can plant more. And don’t forget the hummingbirds! (That’s an Anna’s hummingbird, below.)

Anna's hummingbird © Daniella Theoret

learning more, getting involved

‘BACK TO SCHOOL’ season could be a good time for you to learn something new, too, says Ellen, since it’s the time of year when most Audubon chapters gear up with classes and field trips. Find your local Audubon here.

“Or do something good for the world by getting your hands dirty,” she says. Each September, for instance, is National Public Lands Day. (Listen to the BirdNote National Public Lands Day segment.) Take your family out to a nearby park or refuge to help with invasive-species removal, facilities clean-up, trail repair, or other activity. “Public lands benefit birds 365 days a year!” says Ellen. Take this one day, at least, to celebrate public lands.

how to get birdnote

birdnote logo

FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast anytime on the player below, or by visiting their website. Subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

past installments of our series

IN CASE YOU MISSED anything from my ongoing series with the daily public-radio show BirdNote, the whole archive is at this link or here are some specific links:

(Photo credits: Goldfinch on a sunflower seedhead, © Roger Lynn; chickadees nestbox © Thomas LeBlanc; Pine siskin on feeder © Ann McRae; Anna’s hummingbird © Daniella Theoret.)


  1. Shery says:

    I’m wondering if anyone else is having rat issues with their birdfeeders. I was so freaked out when I looked out on the deck and there were four big rats, with one of them scaling the feeder. I’ve quit feeding the birds because of this…but I still feed the hummers. Any ideas??

  2. Phillip Wilkinson says:

    I sprinkle a little cayenne pepper on my black oil seed in the feeder it keeps the squirrels from eating it. The bird have no taste buds but the squirrels do. That works for me.

  3. Lorie says:

    A couple of additional hints from my days working in a birdfeeding store. When people came in with filthy tube feeders and wanted us to re-hab them (the feeders :) ), we filled 5 gal buckets with hot water and a little Dawn and just let them soak for several days. It saved a ton of upfront elbow grease.
    You can’t pre-check if a birdbath heater is working because it doesn’t turn on till the temp is low. Put it in your freezer for an hour, take out and immediately plug in a house circuit. If it’s working it will be warm to your touch but not burn you hand.

  4. Hey, Shery, – One thing that will help you deal with rats is to 1) use feeders with trays to catch the seeds that get tossed, and 2) rake under the feeders frequently and dispose of the detritus. The only drawback of the feeder trays is that they get very messy very quickly, and can quickly turn damp and moldy. Not good for birds! We heartily endorse Lorie’s suggestion to soak a feeder for a while. (Ironically, cat litter buckets are perfect for that!) For diehard feeders of birds, including hummingbirds, you might find that you want to have two sets of everything and switch them out every few days. One set is soaking and drying, while the other set feeds the birds! Thanks for taking of them!

  5. Sharon says:

    My beautyberry shrubs will be denuded of their awesome purple berries by the time spring rolls around, but that’s OK, I planted them with the birds in mind. In fact, I added two more shrubs this year for a total of five. I’ve let my coneflowers go to seed and someone’s already snacking on them.

    I picked up some suet blocks and a feeder to put out during the winter months for the cardinals and chickadees that stick around.

  6. Diane WS says:

    Great suggestion on the cat litter bucket for soaking the bird feeder, both for the irony and the usefulness! Time for me to get my feeder clean and ready for the cooler months ahead.

  7. Rosemary says:

    Blue wren and a green finch together with two bees today visited in the garden
    Wonders will never cease.
    My garden has just started to bloom the borage, apple tree is blossoming and a few flowers so I am very pleased the birds and the bees have found my little garden.
    My cats are too docile to chase a bird and sit around me or in my lap soaking up the sun’s rays as the birds are happily chirping.

  8. Gail says:

    For bluebirds in particular, the nesting boxes need not be cleaned out in between broods or in the fall. In fact, I believe it was Cornell that ran a study that found leaving the previous year’s nesting material in the box supports the survival of parasitic wasps which attack blow fly larva — a major threat to bluebird nestlings.

  9. Amanda says:

    Your new email service is great. I actually receive the newsletter in my inbox; with the previous service I had to remember to look for it online.

    We have been advised to wait to set up birdfeeders until there’s snow on the ground and the bears are presumably tucked away for the winter. At least they’re now clean.

  10. Linda hall says:

    I posted last year, but I’ll just post as a reminder: for those of you who have bluebird boxes: I clean out after every fledging and at seasons end. This is important, as over the winter, I see 5 bluebirds fly out of the house in the mornings. They all roost in there together to keep warm!!

  11. Hillary says:

    Hi Margaret! Thanks for your work. I just found your website and it’s helped me start planning for next year.

    My question is about increasing bird habitat and cats. I’m struggling with whether it is irresponsible of me to think about improving the bird habitat in our yard when I know that there’s a cat that hunts that uses our garden as part of its territory (and its litterbox, argh)? Does the benefit to the bird population outweigh the risk?

    Do you have thoughts on this, or know someone who might?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Hillary. Tricky question; don’t know if there is a hard and fast answer.

      If this were happening here, I’d want to address how to discourage the cat for various reasons if possible. Is there an owner to talk about it with, first off? Or is it feral (in which case can it be live trapped and taken to a shelter or local vet who might aid in relocation)?

      I have had various strays over the years identify my place as good habitat, and have aggressively (but humanely) made them unwelcome, or helped (with one feral individual) to find him a new home. My former cat, now deceased, was not “into” birds, but loved rodents and rabbits and such, so I got lucky with him when he did go out. Most will just lurk under a feeder if it’s in a spot where they can do that.

      I wish I knew the right answer, but my overriding feeling is that if the cat has an owner, it’s that owner’s responsibility to keep the cat indoors to protect songbirds. The person may not know the issue. These conversations are always horribly nervous-making, but I guess that would be my first step: to try to modify the cat’s behavior for the greater good.

  12. Anna says:

    Wonderful tips on caring for your feathered friends and their needs! I haven’t established any bird houses yet around here, as we seem to have plenty of natural areas the birds enjoy nesting- but I do keep a plethora of feeders that could use a cleaning! Thank you for the reminder!

    I look forward to the winter season for many reasons, and the birds that stick around are one of them. I especially enjoy the invasion of the juncos- not a particularly pretty bird, but they are fun to watch and are symbols of the cold cozy season. Bright red male cardinals on snowy branches are also a sight I love to see. I keep a beef suet feeder out only during the freezing temperatures and I enjoy seeing all the types of woodpecker we have around here feed from that. I also make a home made peanut butter suet that I smear on a specific stump that they devour- so much that I make the 50 mile drive to a store that sells peanut butter in cheap bulk this time of year as I go through the stuff so fast!

    Happy winter season and enjoy planning for next year. November is always seed buying month for me, and my favorite seed seller puts out her new additions on Nov 15th each year which to me, is like a holiday. Excited here!

    Thanks for this wonderful post,

  13. Doris says:

    Hello Margaret, enjoy both your website and the podcast, appreciate all the info and guest speakers you share with us. I am wondering if you are still available on the Apple / I tunes site? Ive downloaded your podcast on my I pod and love to listen to your podcast while gardening or out for my walk and the last available one is on Aug 14 with Ken Druse, Overtime. My other podcast download properly, any info would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank You,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.