Bird Feeding with George Petrides
Tips on attracting and feeding backyard birds.
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!
Despite the cold weather in many parts of the country spring is not too far away. Purple Martin Scouts will start arriving in Florida and Texas sometime in January. The Purple Martin Conservation Association hosts a Scout Arrival map. Check it on a regular basis to determine when scouts start arriving in your area. Martin houses should be up a couple of weeks before the expected arrival of the martins in your area.
Winter can be a dangerous time in the backyard. Leaves are off the trees, making roosting spots much more visible to predators. Wind, heavy rain and snow take turns making the local environment inhospitable to birds and other small creatures. This is a time of testing for our wild friends.
A simple brush pile can help make our yards a little safer during this harsh time of year. It’s simple to create, doesn’t require a major investment of time or materials, and can provide safe haven for birds, bugs, and bunnies, among others. The birds can hide from cats and hawks, stay warmer and dryer in snowstorms, and even find a snack in the decaying wood.
Pick an acceptable spot in your yard, someplace that won’t be a visual or physical stumbling point for people. To be of best use to birds, you want to create a kind of thicket, with dense cover on the outside and more open spaces on the inside. You can start as you would to build a campfire, creating a teepee of dead wood. Then pile on branches pruned from shrubs and trees, twigs dropped by wind and storms, even leftover greenery from the holidays. Christmas trees can have a whole new life tucked in a corner of your yard where the birds can hind.
So start 2018 doing some creative brush pile building (a great outdoor activity for children, too) for your birds.
Research indicates that a woodpecker can hammer 25-strokes-per-second with its head moving at a speed of 20-feet-per-second. Sounds like a lot of wood to me. (From the National Bird-Feeding Society)
Here are recommended ways for cleaning several feeder types.
Clean feeders keep your birds visiting regularly and healthier too!
Plastic tube feeders – Clear ports of seed feeders regularly and shake to settle debris. For thorough cleaning, soak the cylinder and removable parts in a solution of one-part white vinegar to one-part hot water and scrub clean. Use a bottle or bird-feeder brush to clean the cylinder or force a rag inside. Rinse and dry thoroughly – moisture left inside the tube may cause your seed to spoil or clump.
Wood feeders – Scrub periodically with hot soapy water and a stiff brush; rinse and air dry thoroughly.
Hummingbird feeders – Clean with very hot water every three to four days; more often in hot weather. The same 1:1 white vinegar and water solution can be used on your hummingbird bird feeders, as long as you rinse them very thoroughly. Clean areas around the feeding ports with a Q-tip swab or small hummer feeder brush.
Then sit back and enjoy your birds.
Written years ago by Birding Master Scott Edwards – but perfectly relevant today!
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Christmas Bird Count
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.
Photo © 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.
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!
Hairy and Downy (right) Woodpeckers
A journal can help you remember a significant birding event in context, with all its natural, emotional, even spiritual significance.
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.
Whether 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.
Glacier National Park
Pineview Reservoir in Liberty, Utah
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
During the night and in severe weather, small songbirds often hide in our shrubbery for warmth and safety from predators.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.