Bird Feeding with George Petrides
Tips on attracting and feeding backyard birds.
These bird feeding recommendations are based on research showing what backyard birds like to eat and how best to present it. Different birds have different preferences (see www.projectwildbird.org), so we can offer a variety of foods and feeder types for best results.
Cardinals and American Goldfinch at feeders
Sunflower-based seed solutions: The greatest variety of birds are attracted to feeders filled with black-oil, hulled and sunflower-based blends. Some of these birds readily use short perches, while others prefer feeding from the ground or from feeders (like hopper feeders with wide feeding ledges) which simulate the ground.
American Goldfinches in winter plumage.
Many perching birds – like chickadees, finches, nuthatches, and siskins – prefer to eat sunflower-based seed from tube style or mesh feeders. Larger birds like Evening Grosbeaks prefer to eat from platform feeders or trays. A platform feeder will attract a wide variety of birds large and small. Nuthatches, jays, towhees, finches, and doves all enjoy this combination.
Male Red-bellied Woodpecker
Tip: If you want to attracted ground-feeding birds, we recommend a large platform feeder placed low to the ground and filled with white proso millet. Or you can simply scatter a handful or two of millet on the ground. Millet is attractive to a number of species, including popular winter visitors like juncos, as well as doves and many native sparrows.
Next time: Other important and attractive foods other than sunflower or millet!
Chickadees also may group together in mixed-species flocks in the winter. Downy Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, Brown Creepers, nuthatches, kinglets, some warblers, juncos, sparrow and Bushtits may join chickadee foraging flocks and respond to chickadee alarm calls. Mixed flocking seems to be based on food availability. The extra eyes in a mixed flock may increase the birds’ foraging efficiency, and the extra ears may help to pinpoint potential predators. If an enemy is spotted, chickadees and their allies have been known to mob the predator, even in temperatures as low as minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit.
About half the winter diet of chickadees is seed, including the seeds of trees as well as seed and suet from your feeders. They relish black-oil sunflower seeds and also love peanut halves.
After taking a seed, a chickadee will often fly to a nearby perch; hold the seed (or peanut) with its feet, and use its needle-sharp bill to hammer it open. At times, they may seem almost frantic about eating, and perhaps they are. A chickadee must eat almost continuously during the shorter daylight hours of winter in order to stoke its metabolic furnace and to keep from freezing. After all, inside that tiny body is a heart that beats 700 times a minute! On a cold day, a chickadee needs to eat its own weight in food – about half an ounce, the weight of an ordinary envelope.
Cheerfully calling their own names in voices that Burroughs described as “full of unspeakable tenderness and fidelity,” chickadees get top billing during winter. Like consummate actors, they entertain in return for little and seem to enjoy the roles that life has given them. Chickadees seem to remind us to grin and bear the hardships of our own lives as well.
With the onset of winter, the curtain rises on the theater of your backyard feeders! And the stars of the show are the chickadees, those active and agile, highly personable, feathered performers. Traveling in small flocks like itinerant actors, these happy go-lucky troupers brighten many a gray day with their acrobatic antics.
In spite of their tiny size, chickadees are among the hardiest of birds, ranging to the limits of forest growth in the frosty far north. In the United States, one can see five species of chickadees: the Black-capped, the Carolina, the Mexican, the Mountain and Chestnut-backed.
Chickadees appear to greet winter with all the zest of a child with a new sled, but the season is actually hard on chickadees. More than 70% of young birds do not survive their first year. “To the chickadee”, wrote Aldo Leopold, “winter wind is the boundary of the habitable world.” But chickadees have a secret adaptation weapon to fight the cold: they are among a small group of avian species which can decrease their body temperature at night to conserve energy, a process called regulated hypothermia. At night while at rest, chickadees can cool off from 108 degrees Fahrenheit to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. During cold winter nights, chickadees usually roost singly, often in dense conifer trees or tree cavities. They will also use nest boxes, especially roosting boxes, to keep warm.
Mountain Chickadee by Windy Rae.
During a cold winter day, you may see chickadees fluffed up, as fat as tennis balls. The fluffed feathers trap warm air – the bird’s own body heat – which provides insulation. A chickadee’s dark head and back also help keep it warm – those areas gather additional heat from the winter sun.
Next time: Winter diet and feeding behaviors.
What are they up to down there? Part 2 of 2
More birds are feeding in a smaller geographic territory in winter habitat, so rubbing shoulders is probably inevitable. Also, as our chickadees and titmice have found in our backyard mixed flocks; more eyes looking can mean easier and safer feeding.
There is a fair amount of competition for good habitat, a situation that is likely to become more critical as more habitat is destroyed. On the surface, it would seem that that the lush vegetation and abundant insects of the tropical forests would be sufficient to feed all comers, but there is a clear difference in the quality of life between, for instance, cloud forests and scrub forests. It makes sense that the stronger birds, better fed and protected in winter, will have the easiest time during migration and the easiest time defending a breeding territory. Thus, many birds’ chances for reproductive success are sometimes set up before the trip north even begins.
Black-throated Green Warbler
A great deal is still unknown about how migrating songbirds spend their winter “vacation”, but one thing is sure: whatever they do down there, they’ll linger in our memories until they return in spring.
Male Baltimore Oriole
What are they up to down there? Part 1 of 2
It’s easy to assume that we know all about them. We watch for them as they arrive and study them while they are courting, breeding, parenting, and even molting. But the truth is, most migrating songbirds spend only four or five months here before they head back to Central America, South America or the West Indies, where they live the rest of the year. What are they up to while they’re down there?
Male Scarlet Tanager
For starters, they eat. That’s one of the things these birds can’t do up here in winter and a major reason they don’t stay. Most long-distance migrants are insectivores and/or nectar eaters. Temperate climates don’t support enough insects or flowers in winter to sustain birds through the colder season. The migrants seem to have a better chance of surviving a round trip of 3,000 to 5,000 miles than sitting out a winter in North America.
Another thing birds do is hide. Well, maybe not exactly hide, but they don’t stand out the way they do in breeding season either. Although they are not silent by any means, their best songs are saved for defending a territory and for attracting a mate. And some species look completely different in their alternate plumage. Not all warblers, for instance, put on drab winter feathers, but enough do to earn several pages of “confusing fall warblers” in many field guides. In winter plumage, warblers, tanagers, and buntings disappear in the leaves and shadows of tropical forests.
They also socialize down there. Warblers that are strictly territorial on summer breeding grounds, such as the Northern Parula and Blue-winged Warblers, can be found in loose, mixed-species flocks in winter. This probably reflects a lack of space in this more crowded winter habitat.
Next time: Feeding, protection and habitat needs “down there”.
Feeding Rituals – Part 2 of 2
Some tasks change seasonally. To prepare for winter, most nest boxes are cleaned out and nectar feeders put away. Some folks put away their ceramic baths and take heated baths out of storage or use vinegar to clean any deposits off their birdbath heating elements.
Other folks, who prefer more convenient route, simply replace the summer dish with a winter dish that can withstand snow and ice.
Downy Woodpecker in Christmas Wreath
With the “right stuff”, we can enjoy the satisfaction of neatly completing certain tasks, and we’re rewarded with daily visits from many wild, wonderful creatures. And ultimately, no matter how wonderful our gear is, it’s the anticipation of seeing beautiful birds that allows us to accomplish our “tasks” with the greatest of ease and a great sense of well-being for a job well done.
Feeding Rituals – Part 1 of 2
It is one of the little miracles of our relationship with wild birds that something usually considered a chore can feel so much like a devotional ritual. Our lives are increasingly filled with deadlines, emergencies and unending “to-do” lists. Birds let s step outside the artificial schedules we live by and get back in touch with natural cycles.
Filling the feeders while the chickadees scold me to hurry up can make me smile even when I am my most harried. Doing it gracefully without spilling a seed gives me a sense of satisfaction and prepares my heart to also appreciate the sound of birds splashing in the just-filled bath. After along and harrowing evening commute, refilling is indeed a devotional ritual. It allows me to decompress in time to enjoy my birds’ early-evening acrobatic displays as I stand back and watch (As the late, great Yogi Berra once said: “You can observe a lot just by watching!”)
As bird feeing has become more and more popular, American and Canadian ingenuity has produced gear and feeders that make related tasks satisfying to perform. Feeders with removable mesh floors allow for easy cleaning or for hosing off debris. Seed storage containers, whether beautifully decorative or strictly utilitarian, help keep pests at bay. Our enjoyment of hummingbird, fruit or mealworm feeders is enhanced when their food containers are dishwasher safe and so filling the feeders has become a satisfying experience.
Next time: Seasonal Rituals and Personal Rewards
After beginning to feed wild birds with seed, nectar, insect and suet feeders, many people look for ways to enhance their backyard habitat by adding different types of plants. Improving your backyard plantings can involve as many components, simple or elaborate, as you desire.
Fall: Fall plants produce seed and fruit which help non-migrating birds build up their fat reserves for winter. These same foods also may help migrating birds prepare for their long journeys. Chickadees and nuthatches are among the non-migrating species that will seek out the fruit of the dogwood, mountain ash and winterberry.
Winter: Often, the presence of winter plants determines whether or not wildlife will survive this harshest of seasons, Plants such as snowberries and crabapples can provide necessary food and cover during cold weather.
In order to be available throughout the winter, the fruits of many winter plants must have both persistence and low appeal to wildlife when they first appear! To keep wildlife from eating their fruits until the appropriate time, plants have developed different strategies. Some plants produce fruits that are bitter when they first ripen; others, such as persimmons, produce fruits that must freeze and thaw several times before the sugars in them break down to become more palatable.
By adding some of these plant components to your backyard or garden, you can significantly improve the quality of your habitat. In turn, you may attract a wider variety of birds and other wildlife too.
Importantly, as you help meet their needs, they also will enhance your sense of connection with nature and an enjoyable survival strategy for people as well!
(Information adapted from a pamphlet by WindStar Wildlife Institute)
The first thing you can do is to clean out any old nesting materials. On many nest boxes you can gain access by swinging open the front or side panel. If that isn’t possible, many boxes have a bottom that can be unscrewed. If all else fails, take a bent coat hanger, hook the nesting material and drag it out through the entrance hole. Make sure that any drainage holes are unplugged (another good use for your trusty coat hanger).
Chickadee exiting the nest box.
Also check for squirrel damage around the hole. You can purchase metal plates of different sizes that can be put around the hole to prevent further damage (chewed wood), then hose out the box and let dry in the sun. Last, re-hang the box so your birds have all winter too get comfortable with it. There is a wide selection of boxes for many species.
You might also consider mounting a roosting box or two in your yard. Many species have been known to huddle together inside these boxes – all part of your year-round role as Hotelier to the Birds!
In Juan de Fuca Strait off Cape Horn - and it is the wildness at our own back doorsteps that we must learn to revere in the century ahead: the stroll through the woods, the wild birds visiting the feeder at the kitchen window, the real and exhilarating danger of our domestic seas. In the 20th century, we traveled too far and too fast, without ever traveling very deep; idly skimming the surface of the world in pursuit of the merely distant and the merely exotic. One hundred years from now, we shall have to learn to travel deeper, more seriously (which means more slowly), and much closer to home.”
Red Rocks Lakes NWR
Bear River National Wildlife Refuge
”Wilderness may die, but wild will persist.”
Washington Post, January 2 2000
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!
Learn to identify the birds in your yard by species. Figure out who’s related to whom and how. It’s always easier to care about something you know personally. A good field guide is essential to this endeavor and will reward you daily.
Bird song is an important part of the whole birding experience. In fact, most people recognize bird songs before they know common birds by sight. The melodious sound of the robin’s song is an integral and familiar part of spring across most of North America, yet few people can actually whistle their delightful tune!
Birding is more than just filling your feeders. As birds live and work industriously around our yards, we begin to notice behaviors that are time-tested survival strategies. Books and videos are available to help you understand the cause and effect of bird behaviors and enhance your experience immeasurably.
Maybe it began for you with the gift of a feeder and a curious chickadee, or with a bag of peanuts and an enthusiastic jay. Or maybe it’s just something you have about now and then. But somehow the idea of feeding your birds has gotten under your skin. So how do you begin the joyous hobby of feeding wild birds?
First and foremost, bring them to you. Offer food, water, shelter and cover, the four essential ingredients for a healthy bird habitat. A good starter feeder will accommodate a wide variety of birds but still fit into space available. Black-oil sunflower seed alone or mixed with other popular seeds will attract most feeder birds. A few nest boxes and a water source will enhance your setting.
Part III of III
Some birds also stay cool and minimize heat stress by changing their posture or their orientation to the sun. Gulls, which often nest in open areas with little or no shade, will rotate on their nests to face the sun on hot, windless summer days. By changing position, gulls minimize their body surface area exposed to the sun and present their most reflective plumage (white breast, neck and head in many species) to direct sunlight. Young gulls also avoid heat stress by standing in the shade cast by their parents.
Of course, the ultimate way for birds to beat the heat is for them to drink lots of water and to bathe to cool their bodies. That’s why it’s important to provide a birdbath and/or dripper or mister on hot summer days. So go on, throw a summer soiree, and invite birds over for a cool drink and a swim!
One of the most satisfying and pleasurable aspects of summer feeding is watching adult birds interact with their young, especially when bringing them to your feeder for the first time.
Bluebird Feeding Fledglings on Window Sill
If you expect to see small birds, half the size of their parents, you are in for a shock! The newcomers will be approximately the same size as their parents, but you will be able to recognize them by their stubby tails, feathers with wisps of fluffy down, and poor table manners – somewhat as spoiled human children might do when teasing their parents.
Young Blue Jay begging for food
They usually beg with mouths wide open and wings fluttering. At a feeder well stocked with suitable foods, the parent is usually able to jam down food into every gaping mouth, but that doesn’t stop the youngsters from wanting more. Often, the parent will try to escape by flying a short distance away but the young birds will pursue the parent, squawking and screaming all the way.
Male American Goldfinch feeding a youngster
Enjoy the fun!
The American Birding Association Code of Ethics governs the behavior of its field-birding members. In this posting, I summarize the four major principles of the ABA guidelines to backyard birding. I believe that following them will enhance your own experiences with birds, and that of other people, for many years to come.
1. Act in ways that do not endanger the welfare of birds or other wildlife.
2. Act in ways that do not harm the natural environment and habitat.
3. Always respect the rights of others.
4. Groups should assume special responsibilities.
As part of a larger group of bird aficionados who proactively feed birds in our yards, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to teach non-birders by our actions that that feeding the birds is an enjoyable and beneficial experience. It enhances our enjoyment of the outdoors, connects us with nature in a positive way and it gives us the opportunity to create in our children and in others a sense of caring and responsibility for nature and the environment. These four principles will serve us all well though this new millennium.
Last time: During a visit to the Galapagos Islands in the early 1800's, naturalist Charles Darwin found an intriguing group of finches. Each had a different way of feeding, and, correspondingly, a different type of bill. Now thought to represent 14 different species, Darwin's finches apparently descended from a songbird that had flown off-course during a flight to or from South America.
On the other hand, the remarkably similar bills of the Northern Shoveler, the Roseate Spoonbill and the Spoonbill Sandpiper are considered classic examples of convergent evolution.
Members of different Orders, these species are taxonomically unrelated. The Northern Shoveler is a duck, the Roseate Spoonbill is a wading bird and the Spoonbill Sandpiper is a shorebird. Yet they all survive on small marine life found in shallow water and have evolved similar bills - flattened at the end - that are ideal for filtering small organisms.
Natural selection has apparently enabled these species to independently develop similar bills, suited to their specialized diet. Other examples of convergent evolution are found among unrelated species living in South American and African habitats, long separated by the Atlantic Ocean.
Darwin’s Finches – Differential Evolution
Part I of 2
During a visit to the Galapagos Islands in the early 1800’s, naturalist Charles Darwin found an intriguing group of finches. Each had a different way of feeding, and, correspondingly, a different type of bill. Now thought to represent 14 different species, Darwin’s finches apparently descended from a songbird that had flown off-course during a flight to or from South America.
With beaks ranging from strong, conical seed crushers to thin insect-eaters, these birds provided a basis for the evolutionary principles Darwin later formulated in his renowned work, “The Origin of Species.” (Note: the Woodpecker Finch used its bill to hold a twig and probe the bark of trees for insects).
For Darwin, these distinctive finches were evidence that developing species adapt, through natural selection, to exploit different niches in their environment.
Next time: Convergent Evolution!
Do you recall the excitement experienced as a child upon discovery of a bird’s nest in your backyard? Then that same thrill turned to elation if the nest contained baby birds? If you were like me, in the days that followed, you became very aware and more keenly interested in the world of nature just out your own back door. You learned that you need not go far or do more than take the time to watch.
As adults, we are so busy that we often fail to allow ourselves time to relax. Studies have proven over and over that interacting with animals such as caring for a pet and participating in nature-oriented activities promotes mental health and stimulates positive attitudes, resulting in a happier general sense of well-being.
Why not experience again your childhood enjoyment by slowing down to watch your birds at a feeder, or the nest-building activities or the dinner time show by baby birders. The idea of feeding birds is not so much to provide necessary food, as it is to enjoy the activities of the birds in our yard from the comfort of our home.
If time for relaxation is an important goal for you, consider feeding your birds winter, spring, summer and fall. All year long! With a small investment you will enjoy great returns…a better therapy than any amount of money could buy.
So go ahead…. let yourself relax…. just lean back and watch your birds…
Black-oil sunflower attracts the widest variety of birds and can be used in almost all feeder types. People who want to attract goldfinches often present Nyjer (thistle) in special Nyjer® feeders.
To attract juncos, native sparrows or other ground-feeding birds, you can present (white proso) millet directly on the ground or on a large platform feeder. Millet is favored primarily by ground-feeding birds, including House Sparrows, so I do not recommend using it in the tube-style feeders designed for perching birds.
Black-oil sunflower seeds are generally your best choice for tube-style feeders. Medium-sized hulled sunflower (sunflower seeds with the shells removed) is another good choice, especially if you want to eliminate shell debris from your deck or patio.