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If you regularly feed birds in your backyard, you may have noticed a feeding frenzy around your feeders at certain times of day. In contrast, other periods are far quieter, with little feeding activity.
Observe for long enough, and you’ll notice patterns, including which species arrive first, which stay longest and which seem to have insatiable appetites for seed and suet. But what times of day are a bird feeder’s busiest? Read on to find out.
As you might expect, early mornings see a peak of activity among feeding birds, looking to replenish their energy stocks at the start of the day ahead, topping up resources that have been used overnight to stay warm while roosting.
But birds don’t usually just feed once a day, and you’ll spot foraging individuals and larger flocks busily scouring the ground regularly throughout the day, no matter what time of year. Many birds graze on and off throughout the day, only stopping when night falls. Other nocturnal species hunt and feed primarily or solely once it’s dark.
During the spring, you may notice a sudden surge in visitors to your feeders, particularly with newly fledged birds mastering the art of fending for themselves (with a little bit of help from householders). And in winter, feeders may feel noticeably busier with different species stocking up on energy-rich foods to help them survive in plunging temperatures.
So to find out more about when your bird feeding stations are most likely to be at their busiest and whether this matches the natural feeding rhythms of wild birds, please read on.
Many different birds feed throughout the day - pictured, a Great tit coming in to feed during the morning
On waking up each morning, the first priority of many birds is to feed, in order to replenish energy stores that have been lost overnight while roosting.
Early mornings are an ideal time for foraging as the sun rises, as temperatures are cooler and there is an abundance of insects resuming their own daily activity at first light. Although they may wake ahead of sunrise, many species hold off searching for food until light improves, making it easier to spot predators.
Cardinals, robins, blue jays, chickadees, juncos and woodpeckers are among the earliest birds to arrive at feeders, waking shortly after sunrise. If birds visit well-stocked feeders early in the morning and find them well-stocked, it’s likely that they will return later in the day and keep coming back.
Cardinals can be one of the early morning feeders spotted at bird feeders
While most morning activity at bird feeders peaks between 7 am and 11 am, some later arrivals are not unusual.
Starlings are known to show up at bird feeders than many other species, and sweep in later in the morning, towards midday, and make short work of any food that remains. They will not hang around after they have depleted whatever supplies are on offer, and will quickly move on to their next feeding spot.
You may notice a slight lull in bird numbers at around midday, due in part to the higher temperatures at this time of day, but any birds you do spot visiting your feeders are likely to be juveniles and smaller birds that could not access feeders earlier in the day because of the intense competition from other, feistier species.
Starlings tend to arrive later than other birds at feeders
Feeding reaches a second peak in the late afternoon, with many of the morning’s visitors returning for a pre-roosting snack, particularly in late summer and early autumn, when it’s the best time for them to store fat and build up energy reserves that are needed to see them through the winter months.
Moths and many other flying insects are more active at night, and as they begin to wake, insectivorous birds will take advantage of their presence and enjoy foraging.
House finches, sparrows and pigeons are among the common dusk visitors to feeders, and it’s rare to see many birds paying any attention to your feeders as the sky darkens.
House Sparrows will sometimes feed during dusk
Owls, night herons, nighthawks and nightjars are just a few examples of nocturnal birds that are active and typically only feed during darkness. Nocturnal birds tend to follow similar feeding patterns to diurnal birds, just in reverse, waking to feed at dusk.
Night-feeding birds use sound to locate a food source, relying on their sharp hearing to detect the movements of their prey. They also use their precise night vision to identify objects in the dark, including mice, rats, voles and insects.
Barn Owl hunting at night for mice
During the approach to winter, you may notice smaller birds suddenly appearing to be hungrier or spending more time foraging. Ahead of the arrival of colder weather – or alternatively, ahead of a lengthy migration flight – it's common for birds to begin building up their energy reserves by eating more food, particularly those with higher fat content.
Storms and adverse weather may interfere with a bird’s natural feeding rhythms, with many birds sheltering until heavy rain, snow or winds ease before eating.
Flying in such conditions is exhausting and uses significantly higher quantities of energy than in regular weather, so it’s no wonder that foraging in a gale is not usual practice. However, in prolonged periods of bad weather, birds may have to face the storm if their usual tactic of waiting it out does not work soon enough.
If a predator around a nearby feeding site is detected, it’s safe to assume that smaller birds will lie low until the risk has passed. Birds will not willingly put themselves in the path of danger, so they will likely wait it out before continuing with their usual feeding habits until they know the threat is no longer present.
Feeders that are kept clean and regularly stocked can quickly become part of a bird’s daily feeding routine, and they will visit several gardens taking advantage of all the different provisions supplied by humans.
Birds can become dependent on humans restocking feeders, and if empty feeders are not replenished soon after being emptied by your backyard diners, it can lead to worrying concerns over survival if they are unsure how else to find sufficient food.
Great Spotted Woodpecker feeding from a bird feeder
Feeding patterns may change significantly when birds are brooding or raising their young. An increased need for food once young nestlings hatch leads to feeding activity of parent birds intensifying during the pre-fledging period.
In some species, incubating eggs is the sole responsibility of the female. In such cases, the male may take on the role of provider for his mate, strengthening their bond by bringing her food on the nest.
Purple Sunbird feeding a young chick in the nest
There’s no doubt that a well-stocked feeder can be a lifeline to hungry birds, particularly when naturally available food sources are scarce, either in colder weather or when demand is high due to large numbers of newly fledged birds competing for any food they can find.
In summer, many birds will not need additional or supplementary feeding, but protein-rich foods can be supplied to help with molting and raising young.
In winter, visiting bird feeders becomes a daily habit for many species, and food can be offered twice daily to meet demands if needed.
If any food is left over, then it can be cleared and amounts adjusted so there is no waste and does not attract unwanted rodents or other pests that are also keen to be supplied with their next easy meal.
Blue tit and Great Spotted Woodpecker at a feeder in winter
When feeding birds in your backyard, it’s vital to keep in balance with nature and replicate natural feeding habits as far as possible and not introduce any risks or obstacles to their survival.
In spring and summer, foods with high protein content should be offered to assist with molting and feather replacement, as well as to help parent birds keep up with the feeding demands of nestlings.
Foods such as black sunflower seeds and mealworms are ideal. Peanuts should be avoided as they pose a choking hazard if parents feed them whole to young birds. Foods with a high fat content should be limited, and homemade fat balls should be fed with caution as they are likely to spoil quickly in warm weather.
In fall and winter, it may be necessary to feed twice daily, in the early morning and early afternoon, to ensure all birds have access to high-energy foods that help to boost their fat reserves to survive the coldest nights.
Once you have established a feeding pattern, it’s advised that you stick to it as birds become reliant on regular food sources and if one suddenly stops, then they may be unable to find enough alternative foods to meet their needs.
Blue Jay at a full bird feeder
Feeding birds at backyard feeders can be a source of great fascination and joy to many, with the arrival of new species or the recognition of familiar visitors a real buzz on cold winter mornings.
By informing yourself of foods that are safe and suitable to offer at different times of year, keeping your feeders clean and providing a bird bath that is freshly topped up with drinking water, you can rest assured that you are bringing direct benefits to the survival of your neighborhood wildlife.
Sometimes birds simply stop relying on food provided by humans, when an abundance of natural food is available in the wild, particularly in July and August.
Other factors that may stop birds flocking to your backyard feeders include the arrival of a new predator in the neighborhood, such as a cat or noisy dog. They may have discovered a preferable food source nearby, for example a neighbor stocking their own yard with fresher food from cleaner feeders.
In severe winter weather, feeding twice a day can provide garden birds with an important energy boost to help them survive plunging temperatures. A high-energy food, for example, suet or fat balls, should be offered first thing in the morning and again in the early afternoon.
During storms and wet weather, food can quickly become saturated, so sheltered feeding spots are recommended, for example using covered feeders and scattering food under bushes out of the heavy rain.
In heatwaves, a regularly topped-up supply of fresh water is vital for drinking as well as bathing. Seeds can also be offered as a quick energy fix, and shelter is also important. In all weathers, it is important to clear uneaten food away, particularly anything that might quickly decay or spoil in the heat.
It may surprise you to learn that the tiniest bird species needs to feed almost constantly each day, just to stay alive. Hummingbirds have an incredibly fast metabolism and need a constant supply of energy, sourced from nectar feeders and wildflowers, and need to consume around twice their own body weight in order to exist.
Scavengers such as gulls eat between three and six times a day, but more if the opportunity arises, and many smaller songbirds forage throughout the day grazing on any insects, earthworms or larvae whenever they find it, rather than limiting themselves to specific feeding times.
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