Birds Around the Fall Feeder

Birds in fall

September is a peak month... 

   With the first hint of coolness, it’s time to look to the air and the backyard bird feeder. Although fall migration in Lake County begins in July, September is the peak month for seeing interesting warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, and thrushes as they stop off on their journey south. Fill your bird feeders for those birds that are coming and going and also for the native birds that overwinter in our area. Keep an eye out for blue jays, cardinals, black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, juncos and pine siskins, as well as screech owls and woodpeckers. For every one of them, surviving winter means getting enough food to offset the energy they must spend to keep warm. Feed them… they’re hungry!

Birds to Watch for at backyard bird feeders this fall and winter... 

1. Blue Jay: The Blue Jay averages 11 to12 inches in length. It’s a relatively large bird with blue & black feathers and a blue crest. White feathers are present in the wings and tail. It’s a permanent resident of Illinois. However, some blue jays migrate within Illinois counties or move from the northern to the southern parts of the state in the winter. Peanuts in any form—whole, shelled, or even peanut butter—are their favorites at backyard feeders. Or, tempt them further with a seed mix with berries!

2. Dark-eyed Junco: In winter, flocks of gray and white Juncos can be found around woodland edges and in suburban backyards, feeding on the ground and making ticking calls as they fly up into the bushes. They tend to forage on the ground under a bird feeding tray, looking for seeds and berries in winter. The Dark-eyed Junco is a common migrant and winter resident statewide in Illinois. Fall migrants begin arriving in August. They are nicknamed the ‘snow bird’ because they seem to bring snowy winter weather as it migrates to our area.

3. Northern Cardinal: One of our most popular backyard birds, the Cardinal, is the official state bird of Illinois. It brightens winter days with its brilliant red color and its recognizable song. it readily comes to bird feeders, seed trays or feeds on the ground. Attract them with their favorite seeds: Safflower, black oil sunflower seeds, and white milo. Northern Cardinals have a strong, thick beak, which are perfect for large seeds and other hearty foods such as crushed peanuts, cracked corn, and berries. If you see a bright red male, the pale brown female with reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest isn’t far away.  

4. Red-headed Woodpecker: This is a medium-sized woodpecker with a large crimson red head and a big chisel-like bill; the back is black with white wing patches; the belly is snow-white--without streaks. Red-headed woodpeckers occasionally visit feeders in winter, especially for suet or a nut mix. They will eat seeds, corn, acorns, pecans, and many kinds of fruits (including apples, pears, cherries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, grapes and mulberries). This beautiful bird has declined severely in the past half-century because of habitat loss and changes to its natural food supply. You can help them to keep their numbers up over winter by keeping feeders filled with nutritious treats.

5. Hairy Woodpecker: It’s a small but powerful bird and is the larger of two look-alikes, (the Hairy and the Downy Woodpecker). The Hairy woodpecker searches for food along trunks and main branches of large trees. It has a much longer bill than the Downy woodpecker's almost thorn-like bill. Hairy Woodpeckers look like soldiers, with their straight-backed posture perching on tree trunks and their clean, striped heads. They visit backyard feeders filled with sunflower seeds, special woodpecker seed mixes and suet feeders. They like peanuts-only feeders, too. Listen for their call from woods, parks, and forests.

6. Downy Woodpecker: The smaller Downy woodpecker is a familiar sight at backyard feeders, where it joins in easily with the chickadees and nuthatches, barely outsizing them. This little woodpecker has a short bill, white belly, white & black wing feathers and a spot of red on the back of its head. It’s at home on small shrub branches or suet feeders. Downy woodpeckers are the most likely woodpecker species to visit a backyard bird feeder. They prefer suet feeders, but are also fond of black oil sunflower seeds, millet, peanuts, and chunky peanut butter. Because of the similarities, the Downy and their larger lookalike, the Hairy woodpecker, are hard to tell apart for beginning bird watchers.

7. Black-capped Chickadee: It's a hardy, all-season bird in Lake County. It's easy to identify this smart little bird with its black cap and bib; white cheeks; gray back, wings, and tail; and its whitish underside with light tan sides. In autumn, they quickly stash their winter food all around their territory and hopefully, their good memories will help with finding this food when winter days arrive. At bird feeders, Chickadees like black oil sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower seeds, and shelled peanuts offered in tray, tube, or hopper feeders. Treat them to suet or peanut butter for extra energy in cold weather.

8. Nuthatch: The Nuthatch is a permanent resident in our area and statewide. There are two varieties: the white- and the red-breasted nuthatch. Both are compact, active little songbirds with a pointy bill, no neck and a very short tail. They climb tree trunks with beak down and tail up. Easy to identify! The white-breasted Nuthatch has distinctive white cheeks and a blue-gray back. The red-breasted nuthatch has a black crown with a blue-gray back and cinnamon coloring on the belly. When insects aren’t around in winter, the nuthatches go-to foods include sunflower seeds, peanuts, suet, safflower seeds, and mealworms. Choose high-quality food and try to avoid mixes that contain milo or other grains, which won’t be eaten by nuthatches (or most other songbirds).

And.... Screech Owl: The eastern screech-owl is a year-round native in Illinois. These owls live in woodlands, residential areas, city parks and orchards. Although you won’t see a screech owl at your bird feeder, you can spot them in the trees or flying late at night. The eastern screech-owl is a small owl, averaging 7 to 10 inches in length, with gray-black or brown/red coloring and tufted ears. As with attracting any birds, the key to attracting owls is to provide their four basic needs: food, water, shelter, and nesting sites: 

Food: Although owls will not visit bird feeders, it is possible to provide a steady food source for these hunters. They will eat small mammals such as: deer mice, shrews, squirrels, moles, and bats or small birds such as finches, as well as doves and quail. Other prey includes large insects, crayfish, earthworms, toads, lizards, snakes, spiders, and centipedes.

Water: Owls will visit a bird bath if other water sources aren’t accessible.

Shelter: Dense trees and old, larger branched trees make the best spots for owls to roost and sleep during the day. They may roost in conifers, tree cavities and buildings.

Nesting Site: The Eastern Screech owl is the easiest owl to attract to your yard with a nesting or owl box. Since owls nest much earlier than other species, boxes should be put up by January or February to give the owls plenty of time to find their new home. Positioning them at least 10-20 feet above the ground, and away from perches for predators is best.


Shrubs and trees to plant for over-wintering birds:

Elderberry (Sambucus spp.): Many insects are attracted to the nectar-heavy flowers of the elderberry. Birds such as the Bluebird, Black-capped Chickadee, Goldfinch and Northern Flicker enjoy the insects, as well as the berries.  

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.): Serviceberry foliage hosts many types of butterfly caterpillars. Bluebirds, Black-capped Chickadees, Robins & Woodpeckers eat the caterpillars which are a good source of protein. The fruits are loved by most songbirds, too.

Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana): The Eastern Red Cedar is an all-purpose shrub/tree to include in your landscape: The bark is a favorite nesting material, evergreen branches provide year-round cover and protection from the cold and berries offer winter food for many birds. Attracts Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped chickadees, Bluebirds and Cedar waxwings.

Oak (Quercus spp.): Oak trees are a huge draw for birds. Native oaks can support more than 500 species of butterflies and moths. The caterpillars and insects are a perfect food source for birds. 

Pasquesi stocks a variety of seed and food that attracts specific birds + wildlife at