birdnote q&a: dawn chorus quiets, but what are birds doing in midsummer?

Bird seeking water, photo by Mike Hamilton.WONDER WHY the living alarm clock outside your open window—the one that’s been awakening you at 4-something A.M. since spring arrived—isn’t sounding? What suddenly happened to the insistent dawn chorus of birds; why isn’t everyone still singing? Turns out many of them are busy with other things, says Ellen Blackstone of the popular BirdNote public-radio show, our guide again for this latest installment in our collaborative series on understanding birds. What they’re up to–and what we gardeners can offer them right now:

“Like the week in Lake Wobegon, it’s been mostly quiet,” says Ellen. “For the most part, the birds have stopped singing.” Turning their attention away from establishing territories, finding mates and having families—what the songs were mostly about—they’ve shifted focus. “Some birds even lose the ability to sing after the breeding season is over,” she adds (learn more about that in this BirdNote show and transcript).

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 series is at the bottom of the page, along with information on how to get BirdNote daily.

the midsummer bird q&a with ellen blackstone

Adult and fledgling osprey (fledgling in background); photo by Mike Hamilton.Q. So what are the birds doing as we enter midsummer?

A. Many birds–wrens, robins, and others–may raise more than one brood in a breeding season. Depending on what part of the country you call home, your local birds may still be feeding fledglings, or those young ones might be completely independent by now.

Young raptors–those owls, hawks, and falcons–are learning to hunt for themselves, like this great horned owl family in summer. Osprey juveniles also hang around with their parents for a while. (Photo above of juvenile osprey in back, adult in front, © Mike Hamilton.)

Precocial birds (we talked about them earlier in the series) are off on their own, independent.

Some species are already moving: Shorebird parents are halfway to their wintering grounds by now, and their young will follow soon, finding their way to the same general area, purely by instinct. Here’s the shorebird migration story.

Happily, many migratory birds will remain for a while longer. So what’s the best time of day to look for them? Generally, songbirds are most active in the early morning, taking advantage of the abundance of insects at that hour. Mid-day heat sends people inside, and birds take a siesta, too. And then, both birds and bugs rev up again in the late afternoon.

You’ll see hummingbirds throughout the day–they must feed constantly to maintain that speedy metabolism. Gulls and those opportunistic crows stay busy, too. How birds spend hot summer days.

some birds are molting

Cardinals, from peak plumage to summer molt; photos by Aditi the Stargazer, Greg Page, and Such a GrokeQ. Besides sounding different, some local birds even look a little different suddenly—or am I imagining that?

A. It’s true! This is the time of year when a lot of birds begin to look shabby.  Crows are missing feathers, mallard males look almost like females, and Northern cardinals and blue jays can be positively bald!

Cardinals are probably the most disturbing, because they go from gleaming all-red to patches of missing feathers to totally bald or even worse.  Don’t be alarmed! It’s their annual molt. Or one of two or more for some birds. (Photos, clockwise from left above, © Aditi the Stargazer; Greg Page; and Such A Groke.)

Range of American goldfinsh plumage, by Tom GreyAmerican Goldfinches lose their bright summer colors in order to blend in with their dull winter surroundings. They’ll molt again in the spring to show off those vivid yellow feathers.  (Photo of American goldfinch range, above, © Tom Grey.)

offering water: birdbath 101

Q. Can we gardeners do something in particular for birds in summer? What would they appreciate most from us right now?

A. In some parts of the country, summer can be quite dry. With global climate change, droughts are becoming more frequent. Natural sources have dried up. Creeks run low or underground. Rain is scarce, and temporary puddles are gone. And birds need water–to bathe and to drink. The details on that.

Dark-eyed junco in birdbath, by Mike HamiltonQ. Any guidance on choosing a birdbath—I keep eyeing all the choices at the garden center.

A. A clean bath with sloping sides is a great way to start. Be sure to hose it out every day, otherwise the water will become stale and dirty, and mosquitoes may lay their eggs. OK, it’s a fact: birds poop in their baths. And a robin taking a bath can splash out half the water in one go. On a hot day, you may find yourself on frequent hose patrol, but the birds will love you for it. (Dark-eyed junco in birdbath, above, © Mike Hamilton.)

If you have the time and inclination, go one step further and offer two or three birdbaths. Larger birds need deeper baths, which might pose a danger to small birds. An inch of water–or even less–is ideal for small birds. A wide, shallow birdbath that deepens a bit in the center will suit a broad range of birds.

Some birds like to bathe closer to the ground. Certain shy birds will visit a birdbath set flat on the ground, but may shun a birdbath on a pedestal.  (Just keep an eye out for cats! When a bird is refreshing itself in the spa, it’s an easy mark.)

Rufous hummingbird in srpay of water, by Alandra Palisser

Want to really spoil your birds? Put out a mister, and watch the smaller birds–including chickadees, nuthatches, warblers, and especially hummingbirds–flit in and out. That’s your special treat for extending a hand to these tiny creatures. (Listen to, or read, about a magical warbler moment of this kind.)
(Top photo of bird seeking water, © Mike Hamilton. Rufous hummingbird in spray of water © Alandra Palisser.)

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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:

  1. Dahlink says:

    Great photos! We offer a pond with three connected pools, which the birds seem to appreciate. They usually prefer the middle pool for bathing.

    We recently returned from a trip to Australia, and it was awe-inspiring to see birds there which had migrated from as far away as Siberia and Alaska. Truly mind-boggling!

  2. Lorie says:

    What great information for the readers. Water is the magic. I offer a large pot turned water feature that bubbles (but has a false pebbly shallow surface),plus several small very shallow “baths”. Yes, one robin can empty the lot, and it takes time to keep them full….but the payoff is incredible. Very unexpected visitors come by; sometimes the whole family joins in; moms introduce the kids to shallow wading; it’s joy on the wing in every instance. Personally, I’ve found that shallow is better if you want return customers.

  3. Ann says:

    Beautiful pictures. I had some birds in a tree outside my bedroom window that sang and “talked” to each other all night long for a few weeks, but it’s been quiet lately.

  4. Olivia says:

    Haven’t seen many cardinals in my part of the woods/ north jersey but what a season for robins. American finches are jut showing up … Along with blue jays and wrens.
    Can we postpone fall for just a few more months …. Ah. Seems to come to soon …

  5. Carole Clarin says:

    HELP! Came home to Long Island and found 2 dead birds on my steps-devastating. I have glass on one side of my stoop that I have put decals on to help the birds see it but this has not worked. What else can I do, netting?

  6. Carole says:

    Can you please give me a clue why Wrens are building nests in my potted plants and hanging baskets? They build a nest, make a mess of the basket and then abandon it and move on to another one.

  7. Jayne says:

    How have I missed this series? Oh right, I’ve moved house! So glad to have a rainy quiet morning to catch up! And glad to find the answer to the cardinal with bald head problem, because I thought it must be some horrible disease! Just molting – good!

  8. Julie @ Southern Wild Design says:

    Thank you, Margaret! I do love watching the birds. In my former home, I had a birdbath and feeding station set up right outside the window of my office. So many wonderful moments spent gazing. I am eager to get my mess of hardscaping finished so I can get to the plant part in my new home! Inviting the critters in is the best part of a garden! ~Julie

    1. margaret says:

      Nice to “meet” you, Julie. I, too, spend many moments gazing, and it’s always something exciting, isn’t it? Even though many of the birds are familiar, I could just watch nonstop.

  9. Lorie says:

    Water is just magic, and shallow water is the best. I’ve found that sloping sides that have some “traction” will tempt even the most apprehensive birds. Sometimes it is discouraging that the robins are such thugs and empty containers rapidly with wild splashing. Sometimes, if you put a hose nozzle on shower, and aim it high at a distance, the hummers will come play in the droplets.

  10. What exquisite photos you have used to illustrate your points! I just delighted in them. Having spent many years as a volunteer with the Audubon Society, I learned the importance of keeping fresh water for birds all the time. And even though there are an abundant supply of bugs for the hummers, they need the juice too. As the article notes, that is another place where feeders need to be cleaned out with fresh water and fresh juice added. In hot weather, that sugar water grows bacteria very quickly!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Susie — the photos come from BirdNote photogs, and they are generous enough to let me use them for our collaborative stories. Nice to hear from you, and yes: WATER!

  11. Rhody says:

    Nice interview.
    These photos are particularly lovely, and the hummingbird one is superb. How difficult would it be to put the photo credit right under the photo.

  12. ln says:

    i did that. mister. i used to spritz the flower, and a humming bird came. so i spritzed it. and it simple enjoyed it. now i have two water baths in empty small apple juice every night i empty it. i read they like watermelons so i put a small water melon out. my water sugary water i don’t know if it is too sweet. i used purified water, with one tablespoon of sugar. and i clean it with vinegar, and then a lot of soap. they make my smile in a sad day. bless em and all animals that he created.

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