Autumn is the season to rake leaves, tidy the garage and clean the bird feeders. The first two chores can wait, but the last can’t.
This blue jay was content to suck down large quantities of black-oil sunflower seeds. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

Wait, don’t snow yet! I still need to clean out my bird feeders before winter. Fortunately, it won’t take as long, because bears reduced my assortment of feeders to two this summer.

Autumn is the season to rake leaves, tidy the garage and clean the bird feeders. Of course, I haven’t done any of those things yet. The first two chores can wait, but the feeders can’t. I hope for an influx of wandering finches this winter, and I don’t want any birds getting sick. Or worse. Let’s review my whole feeder strategy.

Summers are getting warmer. I had to wash my hummingbird feeders more often. Even then, I noticed mold starting to form. Likewise, seed rots faster in warm weather, so the bottom of my feeder looks scummier than usual. I keep a 5-gallon bucket in the garage for such occasions, and the feeders are getting a good sanitizing.

I’m moving my bear-bent mounting pole closer to natural cover. Warmer weather favors predators, and it appears to me that raptors — especially Cooper’s hawks — are staying longer into winter or not leaving at all. Neighborhood cats also are enjoying longer hunting seasons.

Chickadees, titmice and nuthatches perch on safe branches, scanning for trouble before dashing in for a morsel. They return to cover before eating. They’ll ignore bird feeders that are too far from safety. Finches worry less, relying on safety in numbers. They seldom dine alone.

My feeder may be closer to cover, but it’s not so close that cats can lie in wait under the shrubbery. Outdoor cats kill billions of birds a year, and I don’t want that on my conscience.

Warmer weather also makes seed storage more challenging. I stockpile bulk seed in metal garbage cans, which used to be cool enough in the garage. Not anymore. I buy Nyjer seed in smaller quantities these days. The small thistle-like seeds can ferment in hot humid weather. Several years ago, I had to throw out $50 worth of rancid seed. Last year, I discarded a much smaller amount when I realized the goldfinches wouldn’t touch it.

My feeders — ahem, my lone remaining sunflower seed feeder — is now placed quite distant from my window. I haven’t witnessed a dead bird in a while. Nonetheless, I keep screens on the nearest window, to cushion the blow for any wayward chickadee. Ironically, a feeder placed close to the window also causes less misfortune. Birds may not build up enough speed to hurt themselves in the event of a panicky, hawk-inspired exit.

As soon as I’m confident the neighborhood bear family has gone into hibernation, I expect to replace my demolished Brome Squirrel Buster Plus. I loved this feeder as much as the squirrels hated it. They could never quite figure out how to defeat it, which is a rare and beautiful thing.

Squirrels are patient and persistent. If they can find a way to beat you, they will, even if it takes all day. I still have the old one, perhaps useful for spare parts, but the plastic tube is too perforated by bear teeth to be of much use.

Likewise, it’s almost time to put suet back out, although my old suet feeder is just a tangled bunch of wires now. I’ve got a spare. Time to dust it off. My neighborhood woodpeckers are angry with me for not nourishing them properly in their life of leisure.

I salvaged one of my three thistle feeders. I put it out for a time, but it hasn’t been visited much. Nyjer is beloved by goldfinches, pine siskins and redpolls, but they don’t hit it much in autumn when there is so much natural food around. They’ll be back as soon as it’s more winterlike outside.

I live in a rural area where pigeons, starlings and house sparrows seldom show up. It’s a rare cardinal that visits my backyard. For winter birds, I do quite well with just black-oil sunflower seeds, Nyjer and suet.

In May, I’ll add a hummingbird feeder, and maybe an orange for the orioles. However, the orange seems to be attractive for only a couple weeks, before more natural food becomes available.

My bird-feeding tactics are relatively simple, devoid of strategy. Or at least the tactics were simple, when I had to contend merely with squirrels and a once-in-the-spring raccoon visit. Right now, bears aren’t even the real problem. It’s the blue jays hammering the feeder. The sunflower seeds are disappearing faster than pandemic toilet paper.

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Bob Duchesne, Good Birding

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at He can be reached at