Bird Feeding with George Petrides
Tips on attracting and feeding backyard birds.
It is a little early to start thinking about winter bird feeding and behavior, especially with the Texas heat, where I live, still in the 90's. But as a precursor here is one thing to look for. Over-wintering warblers and woodpeckers will also hang around the fringe of the chickadee/titmice flocks.
During 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.
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.
Keeping squirrels away from bird seed has always been a challenge. A popular choice these days is to select seeds blended with hot pepper or suet with hot pepper. The birds are not bothered by the hot pepper but it does effect the squirrels, keeping them for emptying your feeder in one visit. The hot pepper seeds and suet are more expensive but can be cheaper in the long run if squirrels are eating much of the seed you are putting out.
The more plants, shrubs, vines, trees, flowers you have the more birds you will have and the greater diversity you will have.
However, I am the world's laziest gardener. I just do not do like buying spring flowers and planting them. It is expensive and takes time away from doing something useful, like resting on the sofa.
Too ease this horrible burden, each spring I buy a few packets of native wildflower seeds. I sprinkle them on the ground and rake over them lightly. I do little or nothing to prepare the ground. They do not get any special treatment in the wild so why not make them feel right at home?
Guess what. I usually end up with a nice array of wild flowers. Some grow and flower early in the year and some later. The plant succession is interesting to watch.
Big bonus! The wildflowers produce their own seed. I have had pretty good luck with some flowers coming back year after year, on their own. The flowers are not all lined up in a pretty row but that is not something I really care about.
I leave the seed pods up until late in the year. Not as attractive as the flowers, but allows the plants to reseed and gives the birds something to snack on.
The flowers were past their peak and do not look as much of a mess as in this photo. All came back on their own, including the cone flowers in the upper right. Butterflies, including a beautiful Tiger Swallowtail, and hummingbirds have stopped by to feed.
Males are typically the most vocal. They sing to establish and defend their territory and to attract a mate.
Females of some species such as the Northern Cardinal will also sing.
Female cardinal. Photograph © Greg Lavaty
Northern Cardinal females will sing from the nest, despite the risk of giving away the nest location. One theory is the song may give the male information about when to bring food.
Mated cardinals share song phrases, but the female may actually outdo the male in some ways, singing a longer and more complex song than the male.
Feeding birds in the spring can be one of the most productive times. Many colorful species, including orioles, tanagers, and buntings will begin to move north from their winter homes. As they move north across the country many of these birds will stop at feeders along the way,
One such bird is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Each spring we receive numerous photographs of the male Rose-breasted Grosbeak that have stopped at a feeder as they pass through on their journey north.
You can improve your chances of attracting birds as they move north by offering water - especially with a small waterfall rock which can add sound to help attract the birds. Also expand food offerings - try suet, grape jelly and softened raisins along with sunflower.
Nest boxes often deserve a little spring cleaning also. If you have nest boxes for bluebirds or other species be sure to check inside before nesting occurs. Insects and mice may have utilized the nest box for protection in the fall and winter. Be careful when opening the nest box for the first time, as you never know what could be inside.
Cedar Waxwings are in the southern part of the United States during the winter. These beautiful and distinctive birds are described in the Bent Life History series as follows:
Cedar waxwings impress us as being unlike most of the birds we know. We see them commonly in flocks or small companies through the greater part of the year, but we never know just when they will appear, or how numerously, for the movements of these flocks do not conform to the regular northern and southern swings of migration that the majority of North American birds make to and from their breeding grounds. Moreover, unlike most birds, there is no close relationship between the time of their arrival on their nesting grounds and the commencement of breeding.
When we become well acquainted with the waxwing we look upon him as the perfect gentleman of the bird world. There is in him a refinement of deportment and dress; his voice is gentle and subdued; he is quiet and dignified in manner, sociable, never quarrelsome, and into one of his habits, that of sharing food with his companions, we may read, without too much stress of imagination, the quality of politeness, almost unselfishness, very rare, almost unheard of, in the animal kingdom. His plumage is delicate in coloring: soft, quiet browns, grays, and pale yellow: set off, like a carnation in our buttonhole, by a touch of red on the wing.
1. Provide water for your birds in a bird bath, small pond or other water feature. Remember that moving water is a magnet for birds. Add a water heater in the winter to provide open water. Pumps or the birdbath may need to be drained if a heater is not used.
2. Although it may be shocking to see a hawk taking a bird in your backyard, there is no need for alarm. High mortality rates are normal for songbirds and balance their high reproductive rates.
3. Select a variety of trees and shrubs for your yard to provide food, shelter and nesting sites for birds year-round.
4. Remember that birds prefer feeders that give them easy access to food. Some feeders designed to keep squirrels and larger birds away often receive fewer visits from small birds as well. Always choose a bird feeder that has high bird appeal and, if necessary, use baffles or other methods to keep squirrels away. Then make sure all feeding ports and feeding areas are kept clear of debris so your birds have easy access to food.
Many bird species will cache food in the fall for retrieval in the winter, including Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, nuthatches, and Tufted Titmice. Most try to hide their food cache from other birds. A champion at storing the food, right in the open, is the Acorn Woodpecker. They will often drill hundreds of holes in a selected tree, power pole are even in wooden shingles. They carefully place acorns in the holes for consumption when food is less plentiful. These interesting birds will also "hawk" for insects (capture insects in flight). They will visit feeders for peanuts and suet.
Acorn Woodpecker © Greg Lavaty
One exciting way to enjoy the upcoming fall migration is by supercharging your yard and feeding station for hummingbirds. The hummingbird nesting season is pretty much complete, and you may already have noticed increased activity in your yard. As this pre-migration period kicks-in, hummer numbers at your feeders will increase as the birds prepare for their journey south. Migrating is an energy-intensive activity and hummingbirds must bolster fat reserves to fuel their migration flights. Adding an additional feeder or two and providing natural food sources will benefit the birds and provide some fun high-speed entertainment when hummingbirds flock to your yard.
There are several hummingbird festivals around the country, here are a couple of the more popular events.
Aug. 23 - Aug. 26
Davis Mountains Hummingbird Celebration
Fort Davis, Texas
Sept. 13 - Sept. 16
30th Rockport-Fulton HummerBird Celebration
Many garage doors have a cord with a red handle for lowering the door. When the door is up, the red handle will sometimes draw a hummingbird into the garage, where it can have a difficult time escaping. Paint the handle black or cover it in black tape to prevent this problem.
If a hummingbird does get trapped in your garage, try closing the door and turning off the light. Hummingbirds do not like to fly in the dark and can sometimes easily be picked up and taken outside. Hold the hummer gently, open your hand slowly and give the hummer a chance to orient itself before it again takes to the air.
A singing bird creates musical sounds using its syrinx. This organ is a kind of double voice box at the bottom of the bird’s windpipe. Where the windpipe branches into the bird’s lungs, two sets of membranes and muscles vibrate at high frequencies as air is exhaled. In fact, while singing, a bird can alternate exhaling between its two lungs and thereby sing in harmony with itself.
Usually a male that is defending a territory or attracting a mate will sing from one of the highest or most conspicuous perches available. This favorite spot may be used repeatedly. On the other hand, some birds such as larks, Bobolinks, and buntings – often sing while flying. And while birds do not usually sing around their nests, a few may sing a quiet “whisper song” that can be heard for only a few yards.
In the final analysis, different birds sing different songs, but they usually sing for the same reasons.
Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak
And who knows, some of those reasons may be that they are well-fed, stress free, and what we would anthropomorphically describe as “”happy!”
Offering fruit and nuts is a good way to attract species that do not normally visit seed feeders.
Fruit eaters include :
and many more
Raisins and currents: Soak overnight and offer on a platform feeder or shallow dish.
Strawberries, cherries, blueberries and grapes: Cut in half and offer on a platform feeder or shallow dish.
Apples: Offer sliced or chopped apples on a platform feeder or shallow dish.
Orange and grapefruit: Slice in half and nail to the side of a tree or offer on a platform.
Watermelon: There is usually a little meat on a watermelon rind or un-eaten portion. Placed in a good location it attacks a few bugs, also butterflies, mockingbirds and cardinals. Last year a Red-bellied Woodpecker that seemed to have a taste for watermelon would visit fairly often.
Grape jelly: Popular with orioles.
Peanuts are popular with woodpeckers and nuthatches. Shelled raw peanuts can be offered in feeders designed for feeding peanuts. Offer peanuts in the shell on a platform feeder or on the ground.
Peanut butter also works for the above species plus native sparrows and Pine Siskins. Offer straight or mix the peanut butter with 3-4 parts corn mill. Spread the mixture on a tree trunk, place in spaces in a pine cone, or fill holes drilled in a board or dead limb.
One reason we feed wild birds around our homes is that we presume they appreciate a little help from their human friends. Another reason is that we simply enjoy having them around us. We like watching their antics, seeing their colors, and listening to them.
Each bird species is capable of making a variety of sounds that it uses to communicate with other birds. These sounds are songs, which usually are long and complex, and calls, which usually are short and simple. By encouraging birds to visit our yards, we are more likely to hear most of their vocalizations.
Songbirds account for nearly 60% of the world’s 9,500+ species and almost 40% of the more than 900 species found in North America. For the most part, only the males “sing” – a consistently repeated pattern of tones. The females of a few species, including Northern Cardinals, Baltimore Orioles and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, also occasionally break into song.
Birds generally sing more in the early morning and late afternoon. While singing behavior varies among species, most vocalizations take place during the breeding season. Lags occur during the short mating season and when the young are being cared for. Singing usually pauses when the nesting season is
The songs of birds are learned, not inherited. If a White-crowned Sparrow grew up with only Song Sparrows around, it would learn Song Sparrow songs. Fledgling birds first develop a “sub-song” that matures into an adult primary song in about a year. Although Chipping Sparrows have only one basic song, Song Sparrows may have 10, some wrens may have more than 100, and – as many of you well know – Mockingbirds seem to have a repertoire of a couple hundred songs that are voiced endlessly!
In Part 2: We learn more about how, where and why birds sing.
Feeding our friends on a deck, balcony or patio presents a few challenges, but the rewards are well worth the effort. In fact, there are many products to help you enjoy your birds in small spaces.
One of the easiest and most satisfying ways to get started is with a hummingbird feeder. A popular way to hang a hummingbird feeder is from a simple hook from the eave in front of a window.
Hummingbirds are bold and will readily come right up to your house to investigate a (red-colored) feeder.
Before we discuss seed feeders, let’s not forget about water which is crucial for birds, and an adequate supply will attract great variety of birds for your enjoyment. There are birdbaths available that easily attach to deck railings. An alternative is to put out hanging bath. Remember, a popular birdbath requires daily filling so be mindful of this requirement when choosing a spot for your birdbath. There are also baths available with plastic inserts that can be easily removed for cleaning and filling.
An important challenge of bird feeding on decks, balconies and other small areas is keeping the area clean. The easiest way is use “no-mess” seed blends which contain no hulls (what the birds leave behind). Another solution is to use a deck hanger to suspend your feeder over the side of the deck. Seed trays on tube feeders also help keep debris off a deck or balcony.
Peanut feeders can be a great addition to the enjoyment of your patio or balcony. Wrens, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and a variety of woodpeckers love nuts! Another option is to use a mealworm feeder – virtually all birds love’em!
So check out your possibilities and select just the right products for all of your outdoor areas.
Birdbaths are great for attracting birds that do not visit bird feeders. To attract and enjoy birds all year long, consider buying a heated birdbath. A popular type has the heating element completely enclosed in the birdbath itself. There are also separate birdbath heaters to place in your existing birdbath. Birds want to bathe in the winter as much as in warmer months so your heated bath can be tremendously attractive to your birds. When cleaned, their feathers fluff more efficiently, creating important insulating layers of air between feathers and skin. Now’s the time to create a splash in your backyard!
When we look at the sky, it’s like a roof – flat, solid – just sort of there. Unless the light is exceptional, even clouds and constellations looked painted on it.
For the birds though, the sky isn’t flat, it’s multidimensional. Just as different bird species hunt at different levels within the same tree, different birds tend to fly at different levels in the sky. And for them, the clouds aren’t just pretty puffs in the sky. They are a dynamic part of their daily landscape.
Flying high exposes birds to dangers, such as higher winds or hungry hawks. So when not migrating, most birds follow the facetious advice often given to new pilots, they “fly low and slow”, usually under 500 feet. But during migration, birds often climb to remarkable heights, probably to conserve energy. They burn fewer calories in the cooler air and become dehydrated less quickly.
Also, winds that can hinder day-to-day activities become a welcome aid to quick travel. Like pilots, birds seem to know that their optimum cruise altitude increases as their “fuel” is consumed and their weight declines. Long-distance migrants seem to start out at about 5,000 feet then progressively climb to about 20,000 feet. In the Caribbean basin, where considerable radar work has been done, migrating birds are most often observed at about 10,000 feet.
Clouds and Birds:
Altocumulus clouds: Migrating swans and geese are known to sometimes fly more than 25,000 feet above sea level , over four miles high!
Stratocumulus clouds: Broad-winged Hawks routinely soar at around 3,200 feet, aided by thermals created by differing ground temperatures.
Cumulus clouds: Vultures sometime rise to over 10,000 feet, scanning wide areas for food and watching the behavior of distant birds for clues to the location of a feast.
Cirrostratus clouds: Jet planes typically cruise at about 35, 000 feet, in what are commonly known as “ice clouds”.
Nimbostratus clouds: In their daily activities in and around our backyards, many of our favorite songbirds stay in the 30-to 50-foot range above the ground. Robins, bluebirds, jays, woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches are all relatively low flyers.
Have you ever put up a wonderful new bird feeder, then wondered why your birds did not immediately flock to it? The answer may be simple – they didn’t know it was there!
Birds are visual and auditory creatures. Except for a few species, most find food by sight. If a feeder is the first one in your yard, it make take the birds weeks to discover and recognize it as a source of food. If you’ve added a new feeder where other feeders are already available, it generally won’t take long for your birds to discover this new opportunity, although there may still be a period of time when the birds hesitate to use the new feeder instead of the old.
How soon your feeder is used also depends on the availability of natural food sources, the type seed used in your new feeder, and the habitat close to your feeder. Black-oil sunflower seeds usually attract the widest variety of birds. The addition of nutmeats, such as peanut kernels, will make the feeder more attractive to birds such as titmice, woodpeckers, Blue Jays, even wrens. Make certain that the feeder is visible and not hidden by foliage or other obstructions. If you live in a newly developed neighborhood with few trees and shrubs, consider planting some plants near your feeder to provide natural cover. A bird bath or other water source will also make your feeding station more attractive to your birds.
The first visitors to your new feeder are likely to be chickadees, since these little acrobats are among the most curious and adventuresome of all backyard birds. Once chickadees have found it, titmice and other birds are sure to be close behind.
February can be one of the toughest winter months for birds as remaining wild seed and other food supplies continue to diminish. If you have feeders up its a good time to make sure they stay filled. Here are a few comments from the National Bird-Feeding Society on perhaps why so many people enjoy feeding and watching birds.
Keep the peace - Avoid overcrowding by putting feeders at different heights to resemble birds' natural feeding environment. Serve sparrows, juncos and mourning doves from a tray elevated just above the ground. Woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches, chickadees, finches and redpolls, accustomed to eating among trees in the wild, prefer feeders four to six feet off the ground. Jays and cardinals like surfaces large enough to stand on while they eat.
Among most birds, the sense of smell is poorly developed, so they find their food by sight. No other living animals can match the visual acuity of birds.
Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird
The eye of a bird is extremely large by mammalian standards. Though they look relatively small, hidden behind their lids and protective rings of overlapping bone, birds’ eyes are enormous. This is because the image must be big and have sharp details so that they can locate their food while flying. Imagine the extraordinary vision needed by a hawk cruising over a meadow in search of a mouse, a loon in pursuit of its underwater prey, a hummingbird gleaning a minuscule insect near a trumpet vine, and a titmouse searching for a source of black oil sunflower seeds – amazing!