Bird Feeding with George Petrides

Tips on attracting and feeding backyard birds.

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Written years ago by Birding Master Scott Edwards – but perfectly relevant today!

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1) In bird feeding, as in many things, there are three keys to reaching higher planes of satisfaction: location, location and location.
2) After location, the next step to bird-feeding nirvana is to feed the birds not only what they wish to eat, but also where they wish to eat it.
3) Once location and food have been thoughtfully chosen, one adds what may be the most difficult ingredient of all…patience!
4) Thou shall only put preferred seeds in your bird feeders.
5) Thou shalt not fight with the squirrels. If you feed the birds, you feed the squirrels...just do so on your terms, not theirs!
6) If you want to make your new feeder even more attractive to our feathered friends, fill it with bird ambrosia…..sunflower chips!
7) Never fail to provide the elixir of life…..water!
8) The true path to bird-feeding bliss is paved with simplicity. When in doubt, trust black-oil sunflower seed.
9) Thou shalt offer suet to our woodpecker friends, all year long to ensure that their children, too, shall come to know your yard as a place of peace and food!
10) Last but not least, and above all, remember: “When the birds disagree with the books, believe the birds!”

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Thank you, Zen Master Edwards!

Both Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks are found throughout most of North America and often visit our yards in search of a warm meal.


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Cooper's Hawk

Both species are frustratingly similar in appearance. Both birds have slate-grey backs and barred rust-colored chests with long banded tails and relatively short rounded wings. The major discernible difference between them is size. A “Sharpie” is a little larger than a robin; a “Coop” is about the size of a crow. To further complicate matters, in each species the female is notably larger than the male. Thus, a female Sharp-shinned Hawk can be as nearly as large as a small male Cooper’s Hawk.

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Sharp-shinned Hawk

The most reliable field mark may be the tail, which is rounder in the Cooper’s (think “oo” as in Cooper) and squared off (think “s” for Sharp-shinned and squared). Eye placement may also help – eyes appear more forward in the “Coop” than in the “Sharpie”.

Clogged seed ports are the number one reason birds will stop using a well-stocked feeder. Unless you always use a shell-free seed or blend, you should shake or clean out your feeder ports regularly as stems and other debris may accumulate over time. Seeds may also “clump” at ports if exposed to rain or snow or even high humidity for long periods, especially hulled sunflower chips and Nyjer seeds.

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White-breasted Nuthatch

To thoroughly clean plastic tube feeders, soak the cylinder and removable parts in a combination hot water and white vinegar (10% or so) and scrub clean. Cleaning brushes may also be available at a local wild bird specialty store and are ideal for this purpose. Rinse your feeder and allow it to dry thoroughly before refilling.

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Northern Cardinal, male

Wooden feeders such as hopper or platform feeders can be scrubbed periodically with hot, soapy water and a stiff brush.

Then sit back and enjoy your birds!

Posted by on in Attracting and feeding wild birds

If there are squirrels in your neighborhood and you don’t want to feed them, try finding a spot you can squirrel-proof with baffles. Baffles are metal or plastic devices placed above hanging feeders and below pole-mounted feeders. They are shaped so that squirrels cannot climb around them.

Feeder placement is critical to the success of any baffling system. Squirrels can jump six to eight feet sideways and four to five feet high, so consult this handy diagram if you want to baffle them. If squirrels can reach the feeder by jumping around the baffles, the baffles become ineffective and you may need a feeder to be squirrel-resistant.

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Posted by on in Conservation

During fall and winter chickadees and titmice may flock together and are often seen flitting back and forth from cover to your feeders at the same time. Titmice, which are larger than chickadees, dominate certain feeding niches chickadees might otherwise occupy. But the advantages of being part of a flock may compensate the chickadees for loss of feeding area.

black-capped chickadee

 

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Flocking advantages include having more than one pair of eyes to locate dwindling winter food supplies. The death rate due to predation may also decline when birds flock together. Because most trees have lost their leaves, the woods are more open in winter, making these birds more vulnerable to predation. Flocking birds also share responsibility for predator alerts. Once an alarm call is given, the flock will often engage in a behavior known as “mobbing”. Instead of fleeing, the birds will gather together and harass the predator. Titmice seem to be particularly bold in their attacks and will dive at the predator or pull at its feathers or fur.

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Enormous hazards face birds even before they hatch. Although the odds against one individual bird appear staggering, avian species as a whole survive well, except where they are threatened by the man-made effects of environmental destruction or poisoning.

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Canada Goose landing on ice.

The life span of most birds in the wild is probably no more than six months to a year or two at most. Generally, larger birds have longer life spans – wild Canada Geese have lived over 18 years and Golden Eagles for 30.

Among medium-sized birds, cardinals have lived for 10-12 years and robins for 17.


b2ap3_thumbnail_black-capped-chickadee.jpgBlack-capped Chickadee.

Chickadees and goldfinches are known to have survived for 8 or more years in the wild. But, keep in mind that these are not the norm, since the stresses of disease, injury, migration and winter starvation take enormous tolls, particularly on young birds during their first year of life.

1. Which seed attracts the most birds?
Plain and simple – black-oil sunflower seed is the most popular seed to offer in your feeder. We believe that if you have only one feeder, it should contain black-oil sunflower.

b2ap3_thumbnail_tufted-titmouse_20160324-202747_1.jpgTufted Titmouse

2. What about birdseed blends?
Blends can be great, but be careful. Stay away from most grocery store or big-box store, pre-packaged blends that may look like great deals – they’re very often not! They may be inexpensive because they contain fillers. A common filler is often milo, an inexpensive seed developed mostly as cattle feed. Milo is very unattractive to almost all feeder birds. These blends are usually a waste of money, not to mention a likely mess on your yard, deck or patio. As much as 80% of such blends wind up on the ground, uneaten and costly in the long run.

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A good blend will contain a large amount of black-oil sunflower seed and sunflower chips (no shells). It will also contain some millet, which is favored by many ground-feeding birds and some perching birds too.

It’s a good idea to ask your local wild bird specialty store for recommendations.

“Thermals” are not just another name for long underwear. They’re also what make landing at airports such a bumpy affair.  And whereas pilots have to compensate for thermals in their approach, birds often count on them for their migratory departures.

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Even small differences in the landscape create various heating patterns in the air.  A plowed field absorbs heat more quickly and releases it more slowly than a planted field or forest. Bodies of water, large and small, respond differently to the sun’s effects. Small towns and housing developments have a different heat index than large concrete jungles.  And over some parts of the landscape, a kind of inverted funnel of fast-rising air bubbles up to elevations from 1,000 to 3,000 feet, creating a natural elevator to the skies above.

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Red-tailed Hawk

Many birds- especially large, soaring daylight migrants – take full advantage of these thermals. Through experience, instinct or luck, a bird will find one of these updrafts and take it upward to its peak. From there the bird soars, losing altitude slowly as gravity takes over, until it finds another thermal and again rises through the turbulent air. This very energy-efficient way to travel makes it possible for some birds to migrate long distances without a large fat reserve. At any time of year, you may see a single hawk, or even a pair, lazily floating on thermals as they travel about looking for food. But during migration, you can see dozens, sometimes even hundreds – of birds using the same thermals in their efforts to push ever southward. This can be particularly impressive when Broad-winged Hawks are migrating en masse. Groups of migrating birds climbing the same invisible ladder are called “kettles”, and kettles are one of the most visible signs of migration in process. Watch for them over the next weeks and months – hawks, vultures and falcons circling higher and higher in the sky, seemingly static, but actually headed south to Louisiana to Mexico, to Peru and Brazil and other wintering havens, using nature’s elevator to speed them on their way.

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Several bird species – particularly waterfowl, such as geese, swans, ducks and pelicans – fly in a vee formation. In a vee formation, these birds fly either next to or slightly above the bird ahead of them. This technique allows them to take advantage of up-wellings of air created by the bird in front.

Research has shown that birds in a vee can travel more than 70% further than a solo bird on the same amount of energy.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Canada-Geese-migrating-Shanna-Dennis_20160515-125136_1.jpgPhoto © Shanna-Dennis

By the way, vee-formation birds are equal-opportunity fliers: the point-bird position rotates among most birds without regard to sex.

Are you a “lister”? A ”journaler”? Perhaps as a way to of dealing with information overload, both practices are increasingly common among birders. Listing helps us track and organize; journaling helps us process and record.

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Many birders keep life lists: of the birds they’ve seen. Some keep separate lists of birds seen around their homes (or from the lot line so a vulture counts!), or in a certain state or province, or on a certain trip. Most field guides come with a list of all species covered in the guide, so you can check them off as you see them. Someday, making a check mark may seem an insufficient way to record your thrilling encounter with a new species. Yu may then want to begin your birding journal!

b2ap3_thumbnail_Hairy-and-Downy-Woodpeckers.jpgHairy and Downy (right) Woodpeckers

A journal can help you remember a significant birding event in context, with all its natural, emotional, even spiritual significance.

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Eastern Towhee

Journals can also serve as practical learning tools. You can use them to record the habitat, time, location, and weather of special sightings, and make specific comments about a bird’s behavior too.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Scrub-Jay.jpgWhether journaling to learn about birds – or about yourself – be sure to describe the elements that strike you as unusual. You may also want to include sketches of birds in your journal – the possibilities are many!

 

Birds often choose to live in the midst of spectacular scenery – the very thing you vacation for too. Take advantage of those places where your desire for natural beauty intersects with the birds’ concept of home.

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Glacier National Park

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Pineview Reservoir in Liberty, Utah

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Osprey at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge

Even a casual walk around the gardens at a resort can offer a view into the life of local birds. No matter where you go, you’ll want your binoculars. There’s nothing more frustrating than not seeing an interesting new bird because you left the bins at home (even the scenery looks better when seen through quality glass!).

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Author at Zion, Utah

From late summer through fall, bird species in our yards and woodlands begin to disappear. Bright colors are replaced by subdued elegance, and as our summer birds begin to head south, the year-round residents begin to establish winter-feeding territories, showing up in our yards in growing flocks of chickadees, titmice, nuthatches , many woodpeckers and finches.

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American Goldfinch

So who heads south? Largely it is the birds that depend primarily on insects and flowers for food. Hummingbirds begin to head out in August and September, well before the last flowers disappear from our gardens. In a few parts of the extreme southern and western United States they will stay the winter (or in the case of Rufous Hummingbirds, more in for the winter), but most of the country is too cold to support these little bundles of energy. Orioles also go south before the coming winter months. Although these larger birds could probably adapt to winter in some parts of the country, there simply is not enough food (fruit, nectar and insects) for them to survive.

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Magnolia Warbler

Most warblers, of course, leave North America as their supply of creeping and crawling things declines for the year. A few will stay in the southern parts of the country, and one, the Yellow-rumped Warbler, has adapted so it can feed on the waxy berries of the wax myrtle, bayberry and juniper in the winter., allowing it to stay at lower elevations of the country (excluding parts of the Northwest and much of the Great Plains). Flycatchers and swallows are out of here for obvious reasons – flying insects are at a premium in the colder, wetter weather of winter.

For a whole bunch of other birds, fall migration is variable. Some, like Blue Jays, head south in larger or smaller numbers, staying pretty much within their range, but shifting around and spreading out to make better use of reduced food supplies. Banding research seems to indicate that others, like the Robins, may withdraw completely from the northernmost parts of their range, hopscotching over some of their more sedentary kin to winter in the southern states.

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Blue Jay

And some, like goldfinches, are simply wanderers, moving around within their range in response to food availability, weather conditions and, perhaps, pure whim - which reason do you prefer!?

Plants which ripen late, such as winterberry, juniper, and wild roses, are eaten by short-distance migrants or resident species such as mockingbirds, flickers and Cedar Waxwings. Shrubs also serve as nurseries for many songbirds. Some, such as catbirds and goldfinches, are born in nests in shrubs. Others are taken to shrubs as fledglings to test their training wings. They’ll spend a day or more hidden in and under the low branches of our plantings, building up strength and flight skills while their parents watch over them and provide food.

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During the night and in severe weather, small songbirds often hide in our shrubbery for warmth and safety from predators.

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For many birds, shrubs even provide a place to preen and bathe – the birds may use the dew that collects on leaves to wet their feathers.

 

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So, consider putting a few additional shrubs or bushes in your yard. By doing so, you’ll improve the look of your home plus you’ll contribute to the health and well-being of many birds too.

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In this simple but important way, you can help ensure that there will always be at least “Two in the Bush” around your home!

Most people prefer a bird in the hand to two in a bush, but many birds would rather be in a bush than anywhere else – at any time of day or night. A bush can be their pantry, nursery, dinette, shower, bed, bath and general store!

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The shrubby plants in our yards are probably most important as a food source. Birds can glean food from most of the major feed groups just by browsing through these woody mini-markets.

Bugs provide protein, berries represent the fruit and vegetable group, and seeds offer both protein and a bit of carbohydrate.

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Shrubs such as elder-berries, gray and silky dogwoods and highbush cranberries can provide food for birds almost year round. But most shrubs bear fruit in fall, providing food for numerous migrating species on their way south for the winter. Like a chain of fast-food restaurants along the highway, these shrubs reliably serve up high-fat foods for weary travelers. Later, particularly in severe weather situations, berries hanging on shrubs in our yards can provide welcome meals for many birds.

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In Part 2: More critical roles played by shrubs in the lives of your backyard birds!

As we look forward to the bright colors and constant activity of hummingbirds and butterflies each spring, we often overlook the fact that they are useful as well as decorative. Butterflies and hummingbirds, along with wasps and bees, are pollinators. Their daily quest for nectar to sustain the energy levels we so admire, transfers pollen from one plant to another. In some cases, this role is critical to the survival of plants as varied as blueberries, cucumbers, tomatoes and cherries which are dependent on-cross pollination - they wouldn’t bear fruit (or vegetables, as the case may be) without the help of pollinators.

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If you want to help them help us, consider creating an insect “pollinator garden”. Such a place would be filled with fragrant, nectar-filled flowers plus herbs for variety. Any small space will benefit these delightful creatures, and benefit us in the bargain. Look for a sunny spot that is sheltered by large shrubs or, perhaps, a garden wall or fence. Ideally, it should be away from patios, decks and doors to minimize the potential for lifestyle conflict between people and the periodic stinging insect guest, but still visible from your house so you can enjoy the beauties of your special pollinator garden.

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Posted by on in Conservation

An old etiquette saying maintains that “horses sweat, men perspire and women glow.” There’s no mention of what Turkey Vultures do. Probably with good reason – they urinate and defecate on their feet to stay cool!

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American Robin enjoying a cooling bath.

When summer temperatures soar, and the air resembles warm, sticky molasses, be thankful for that rivulet of perspiration coursing down your back – as the water evaporates, it cools you. Besides sweating, we beat the heat of brutal summers by enjoying air conditioning or fans, swimming holes and tall, frosty beverages. We also slow down and show a lot more skins than we normally do. To stay cool, birds do variants of all of these things, too…. with one exception.

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_chickadee-on-birdbath.jpgThis chickadee is all wet!

Birds can’t sweat – they don’t have any sweat glands. To avoid over-heating and sudden death, many birds pant to cool off. Heat wand water vapor are perspired into air sacs, carried to the lungs, and exhaled through the mouth. Some non-passerine birds expel excess heat with a “gular flutter” – a rapid vibration of the upper throat and floor of the month.

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Eastern Phoebe on a dripper.

Posted by on in Conservation

An old etiquette saying maintains that “horses sweat, men perspire and women glow.” There’s no mention of what Turkey Vultures do. Probably with good reason – they urinate and defecate on their feet to stay cool!

b2ap3_thumbnail_bathing-robin.jpg
American Robin enjoying a cooling bath.

When summer temperatures soar, and the air resembles warm, sticky molasses, be thankful for that rivulet of perspiration coursing down your back – as the water evaporates, it cools you. Besides sweating, we beat the heat of brutal summers by enjoying air conditioning or fans, swimming holes and tall, frosty beverages. We also slow down and show a lot more skins than we normally do. To stay cool, birds do variants of all of these things, too…. with one exception.

 

b2ap3_thumbnail_chickadee-on-birdbath.jpgThis chickadee is all wet!

Birds can’t sweat – they don’t have any sweat glands. To avoid over-heating and sudden death, many birds pant to cool off. Heat wand water vapor are perspired into air sacs, carried to the lungs, and exhaled through the mouth. Some non-passerine birds expel excess heat with a “gular flutter” – a rapid vibration of the upper throat and floor of the month.

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Eastern Phoebe on a dripper.

Mealworms are a tried-and-true addition to the list of goodies your backyard birds will enjoy. They are high in protein and fat, gobbled up with gusto by many bird species and almost always ignored by squirrels.

Have you ever entertained the idea of training a bird to eat from your hand? Because mealworms are such a tasty treat, birds can be trained to eat from a mealworm feeder or from your hand at the sound of a whistle or bell. Some species especially fond of mealworms include bluebirds, wrens, woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and robins.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Carolina-Wren-snacking-Janet-Furlong-Culpeper-VA-122513.jpgCarolina Wren
Mealworms are the larvae of the Tenebrio molitor or flour beetle and an ideal food source for many birds. Mealworms are clean and dry and provide easy protein and fat for migrating and nesting birds. They are usually packaged in cups in a bran medium. If stored in a refrigerator, like fishing worms, they can keep for weeks.

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Mealworms may be presented in several styles of mealworm feeders. These feeders should have smooth surfaces to keep the mealworms from crawling out, and some are adjustable so you can control the size of the bird that comes to dine.

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Start with a few hundred mealworms (many folks use thousands a week!). It is very entertaining to watch “your backyard birds”, especially insect-eaters as they eat and interact with each other, and, perhaps, you!

Every spring, we hear from readers dealing with birds attacking windows, car mirrors and other reflective surfaces. To their credit, these folks seem more concerned for the birds than personally irritated. Birds that engage in this aggressive behavior (often robins and cardinals) can injure themselves so why do they ram their heads, beaks and bodies against these shiny surfaces?


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Simply put, these birds are responding to rising hormones. It is nesting season (or will soon be in your area) and birds are genetically wired to protect territories to assure that young produced are theirs to raise, Natural selection has always favored animals which are territorial and aggressive in defending food and other necessary resources.

 

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These birds see their own reflections and believe they are seeing potential invaders. So they begin to furiously attack “the enemy.” They usually do not quit until they think they have won or until their mates have laid all their eggs. This is thought to triggers a reduction in hormone levels. Unfortunately for us, this can seem to take forever!

To help your birds, try eliminating the reflection. Cover the shiny surface with a paper sheet, newspaper or brown paper. Some folks have luck soaping their windows (outside surfaces only!). If this is not feasible, then wait, enjoy the moment and hope your bird will win the “battle” before hurting himself seriously.

A baby bird on the ground always presents a dilemma. It’s not true that handling a bird will cause it to be rejected by its parents or other birds. On the other hand, sometimes the best course of action is to take no action at all.

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Young American Robin

Any bird that is feathered and mobile – even if it is flightless – is best left alone. Young birds that have left the nest on purpose or by accident are often moved to a safer place by their parents. By interfering, we may actually decrease the chance of a successful move. Yet we can reduce potential hazards (such as pets).

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Young Northern Cardinal

If you find a featherless bird that has obviously fallen out of the next, the best thing you can do is to simply put it back. Even whole nests that have fallen from a tree should be put back as closely as possible to its original location, and then left alone. The parents will usually return, and their care of the young is most often the young’s best chance for survival.
Care of young birds should be undertaken only by licensed wildlife rehabilitators. These wonderful volunteers can also help you decide what to do if you find an injured bird.

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