Bird Feeding with George Petrides
Tips on attracting and feeding backyard birds.
The small, heavily streaked Pine Siskin is often irruptive in winter, and can be seen over large parts of the U.S. where it comes to bird feeders, especially for thistle seed. Some of these traveling Pine Siskins can remain to breed, even in areas far from the normal breeding range of the species.
Photograph © Glenn Bartley.
Pine Siskins usually breed in small colonies, although each pair still defends a small area around their nest. Most of their breeding range is outside that of the Brown-headed Cowbird, so there is little opportunity for nest parasitism, although where the two species do overlap, significant parasitism has been observed. Siskins usually abandon cowbird chicks before they fledge.
You’ll need a source of outdoor electricity to run your birdbath heater or heated bath. If your home does not have an outdoor outlet, you can run an extension cord outside (get one rated for your heater), perhaps from your garage or basement. Alternatively, you may be able to replace an outdoor light bulb outlet with one that has a plug outlet in the base. Extension cords come in lengths from 10 feet to 50 feet, usually in nice bright colors to keep you from tripping over them. Remember that for outdoor electricity, you must use a ground-fault circuit interrupter. This device prevents shorting out or similar problems which may be associated with outdoor electricity. Outdoor outlets are likely already be grounded and protected by circuit breakers in your home
We are excited to announce that the new Birdzilla.com Photographic Guide to the Birds of North America is now available. Designed for beginner to intermediate level birders it covers 650 species. The guide includes range maps and 2,000 color photographs. Birds are organized by habitat. The guide also includes information on attracting and feeding birds.
The guide is available on Amazon for $24.95.
The calendar has turned to a new decade, so how about a Decade level resolution? One great goal could be to create a plan for safe, organic gardening to help the birds and other wildlife. Native plants generally require less water and are more resistant to disease and insects than many of the introduced or highly cultivated varieties. Native plans also tend to attract more birds and a greater diversity of species.
An organically managed yard can be beautiful without the use of harsh chemicals and fertilizers.
Here are some resources to help you get started.
Gardening information regional plant information on the Birdzilla.com web site.
Howard Garrett, the Dirt Doctor, has lots of information on his web site and his syndicated radio show is heard on over 200 radio stations.
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center maintains a nation-wide list of nurseries that specialize in native plants.
I have had excellent success with seeds from Wildseed Farms and I am the worst gardener ever. My way of thinking is that the seeds do not get any special attention in the wild, so why should I do anything special. I sparkle them onto the flower bed and rake lightly. They do great and some re-seed themselves.
As bird feeding starts to reach its peak its time to consider some steps to ensure safe feeding..
- Keep feeders clean and replace seeds anytime it becomes caked or mold/mildew is spotted. Many tube feeder designs now have removable tops and bottom for easy cleaning.
- Rake seed hulls under feeders or use a screen under the feeder to capture the hulls and dropped seeds. Seeds can also be purchased without the hulls, which greatly reduces this problem.
- Window strikes kill millions of birds each year. Locate feeders over 20 ft. or less then 3 ft. from windows. There are also several commercial products - such as decals of spider webs - that make the windows visible to the birds. (Some organizations say 10 feet is far enough away, while others say 30 feet is required.)
Steps to make your yard bird friendly:
- Offer different types of food. Sunflower and suet are good choices.
- Provide a water source. Free water can be difficult to find when temperatures fall below for several days. Birdbath heaters are readily available.
- Provide shelter options. This can include a roost box, shrubs, tangled vines or even a simple brush pile.
- Refrain from using pesticides on your lawn and in your garden. Insects make up an important part of bird's diets and the chemicals in pesticides could also make birds sick.
A simple brush pile provides birds shelter from the elements.
Cowbirds will sometimes dominate bird feeders and have been proven to have contributed to population decreases in birds like the Kirtland's and Golden-cheeked Warbler. Trapping programs have been used to reduce cowbird populations in some areas. If cowbirds are dominating your feeder try different food choices, such as safflower or suet.
Males and females are different in appearance. Males are black with a brown head, naturally. The females are a dull gray-brown in in color.
The Brown-headed Cowbird is a parasitic nester, in that it lays its eggs in the nest of other species. One theory is that the cowbirds followed buffalo herds as the buffalo roamed, feeding on the insects they buffalo scared up. Since the buffalo roamed widely, the cowbirds were forced to either stop following the buffalos or lay their eggs in the nest of other species, to raise their young. Some song birds seem to happily raise the cowbirds, while others create a new nest when a cowbird egg is discovered,. These days the lawn mower has replaced the buffalo and the cowbirds have become common in suburban areas.
During cold winter months three similar finches, sometimes referred to as the "red finches" move into different areas. Their ranges can vary year-to-year.
Can you tell which-is-which - Cassin's, House or Purple Finch?
The three species can be hard to identify. If you are seeing a House Finch or Purple Finch that looks just a little different you may have a new species citing your feeder. Visit the Red Finches Identification page to learn about separating these 3 similar species.
Blue Jays are not everyone's favorite bird. Their aggressive behavior can sometimes drive smaller birds away from feeders. They are, however, very interesting birds and and have their fans. Here's how they are described in the Bent Life History Series.
© Stephen Muskie
"The blue jay is a strong, healthy-looking bird, noisy and boisterous. He gives us the impression of being independent, lawless, haughty, even impudent, with a disregard for his neighbors' rights and wishes: like Hotspur, as we meet him in Henry IV, part 1.
To be sure, the jay has his quiet moments, as we shall see, but his mercurial temper, always just below the boiling point, is ever ready to flare up into rage and screaming attack, or, like many another diplomat, beat a crafty retreat. He is a strikingly beautiful bird: blue, black, and white, big and strong, his head carrying a high, pointed crest which in anger shoots upward like a flame. Walter Faxon long ago told me of a distinguished visiting English ornithologist who was eager to see a live blue jay because he considered it the finest bird in the world. He was surprised to find that this beauty, as he called it, is one of our common birds."
There are several ways to carve a pumpkin into a feeder. One of the easiest ways is to cut a small to medium-sized pumpkin (3- to 5-pounds) in half. Scoop out the soft stuff, leaving a shell about 1/2 inch think. Make perches by making small holes and inserting twigs. Use 2 loops of twine to make a basket hanger for the feeder, or purchase a hanger from a local arts and crafts store. Allow the insides to dry before adding sunflower seed.
Another approach for hanging is to stick two dowel rods through the pumpkin from opposite sides, then tie the twine to the dowel rods.
Search Google for "pumpkin bird feeder" to see many creative designs.
Lively as windup toys, nuthatches pirouette on branches and descend headfirst down tree trunks, combing the bark for insects. Divided into four species, these short-tailed song birds are found almost anywhere in North America where there are trees.
Nuthatches are cavity nesters as some
Nuthatches visit feeders for sunflower, suet and peanuts.
Staying warm in harsh winter conditions can be a challenge to many species. Several small birds, including bluebirds, chickadees, titmice and kinglets will use roost boxes to stay warm on cold winter nights.
A next box can be used as a roost box. Check to make sure it is clean inside as cold weather starts. Insects or other critters may have move in since the end of the nesting season.
Most roost box designs have the entry hole at the bottom to help keep warm air in. Some nest box designs allow the front plate to rotate, with the hole on the top in the summer, and the bottom in the winter.
Something as simple as a small brush pile in a corner of your property can also serve as a good place for birds to find shelter from winter snows and storms.
Temperatures remain in the 90's in Texas but there winter storm warnings in parts of the country. So in Texas, we have not seen signs of fall but other parts of the country skipped fall and went straight to winter. Go figure.
With cold and snow becoming an issue, here are a couple of thoughts for providing winter protection for the birds.
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. It does 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.
Brush piles can be small or large, thin, or tall. Even a small brush pile offers cover.
Pick an acceptable spot in your yard, some place 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 hide.
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.