Bird Feeding with George Petrides
Tips on attracting and feeding backyard birds.
The bird that carries the sky on its back…reminding us of a heaven which we had forgotten.
Luckily for them, the three North American bluebird species live up to Henry Thoreau’s tribute way back in 1852. Humans have been smitten by their beauty since colonial times. So, when one of them, the Eastern Bluebird, fell on hard times, people quickly noticed and tried to help.
The 18th Century was a good time for the Eastern Bluebird which flourished well south of the St. Lawrence to the Gulf, and west to the Rockies. But with the introduction of that pugnacious Old World duo, the Starling and House Sparrow, the more timid bluebird was out-competed for natural nesting cavities by these aggressive intruders. The Eastern Bluebird’s decline was in motion.
The bluebird nesting box (which mimics a tree cavity) has been long recognized as a remedy. In 1934, it is said that Thomas E. Musselman made ornithological history by establishing the first bluebird trail of 1,000 man-made nesting boxes in Adams County, Illinois.
Nonetheless, the bluebird’s plight grew worse as rural habitat was lost and orchards were sprayed. By the 1970s, the Eastern Bluebird population had fallen by an estimated 90%.
Now the good news! Since the founding of the North American Bluebird Society in 1978, this downward trend has been reversed by the systematic placement of tens of thousands of nest boxes by sympathetic and concerned human “landlords”. Today, Eastern Bluebirds nest where they have been absent for decades.
Watch this space for Part II of this amazing story of Eastern Bluebird survival through human intervention!
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.
Its fun to observe the different feeding behavior of the two species. While both species will often take a seed and retire to a more secluded area to feed, chickadees seem more comfortable cracking open the seed at the feeder, while titmice almost always grab a seed and quickly leave. Do your chickadees and titmice feed the same way?
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.
Many birds, such as chickadees, molt at the end of summer. They may enter the winter with as much as 50% more plumage than at any other time of the year. They also have the ability to fluff their feathers up to increase the thickness of their insulation. However, long winter nights pose an additional problem for chickadees: fewer hours of daylight mean less time for foraging. To compensate, chickadees begin and end their foraging times at lower-light levels and intensify their use of reliably stocked feeders, so that their reduced foraging time is well spent.
In fact, various studies have found that many chickadees that had access to feeders survived the winter. The difference in survival rates was most dramatic during months when temperatures dipped below zero.
This is a common concern, often based on stories that have circulated for so long, they are accepted as fact. The idea that birds’ feet could freeze to metal perches is probably based on the fact that human skin or eyeballs (ouch!) will stick to sub-freezing metal.
However, birds’ feet – unlike human skin – do not contain seat glands. Their feet have no outside moisture and are perfectly dry. Take a look around this winter – you’ll notice birds safely perching on wire fences, etc. even during the coldest temperatures. So don’t worry about your metal feeder perches.
Your birds need water as much in winter as any other time of year, and their need is greatest when natural sources of water are frozen. By keeping your birdbath filled with clean, fresh water in the winter, you provide a means for your birds to keep their feathers clean. Bathing in winter is necessary for them to maintain the insulation value their feathers.
Do you place your birdbath dish upside down each fall to avoid freeze damage to the bowl? You might consider investing in a thermostat-controlled deicer or a heated birdbath or insert. These nifty accessories make terrific gifts for the birder you think has everything.
...the term “bird-watching” was coined in its modern use by environmentalist and bird-watcher, Edmund Selous, in 1902. He (1957 - 1934) was a British ornithologist and writer (see this cover of one of his books). He used this new term to distinguish the new type of observational bird-watchers he supported from the old shoot-and-draw type, represented by his brother, the then-famous big-game hunter Frederick Selous.
Selous started as a conventional naturalist, but developed a hatred of the killing of animals for scientific study and was a pioneer of bird-watching as a method of scientific study. He was a strong proponent of non-destructive bird-study as opposed to the collection of skins and eggs.
Our beautiful planet is home to billions of birds so their global mass/weight cannot be ignored – right?
Locally, many of these birds take off at sunrise, lightening the weight of our planet by billions of pounds as they go airborne.
At the same time, birds across the world are landing at local sunset.
These continuously opposing forces are thought by some to keep the Earth spinning on its axis – right?
OK, I admit that there could be a flaw in the science here but the landing/take off image is still a powerful one.
So how do woodpeckers do it?
Northern Flicker and Red-bellied Woodpecker. © Marvin Stuauffer.
The unique way woodpecker beaks attach to their skulls allows them to chisel into tree trunks without damaging their bone structure. Their long tongues quickly extend to retrieve insects and then relax again around the skull.
Pileated Woodpecker. © Janet Furlong
Their toe arrangement, two forward and two back, allows them to cling easily to tree bark – and your feeders!
6. Reduce the amount of turf in your yard, and replace it with larger planting beds.
7. Provide water for your birds in a bird bath, small pond or other water feature. Remember that moving water is a magnet for birds.
8. 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.
9. Select a variety of trees and shrubs for your yard to provide food, shelter and nesting sites for birds year-round.
10. 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
Enjoy your birds!
1. Offer a food combination appropriate for the birds you want to attract.
2. Place feeders where you can easily watch them as part of your daily routine.
3. Avoid seed mixes with inexpensive filler seeds that birds don’t eat.
4. Avoid seed mixes with higher-cost ingredients that don’t add value. For example, safflower is useful for discouraging squirrels (and Grackles) which dislike t. But when you mix it with seeds squirrels do like, that value is lost, and the safflower only increases the cost of the mix. Offer safflower straight, not mixed with other seeds for best results.
5. Offer foods in ways that reflect the preferences of birds you want to attract. For example, since most of the birds that eat millet are ground feeders, present your millet either on a platform feeder or directly on the ground (a cup full or so at a time).
Adding a birdbath and dripper will help attract a variety of species, including those that do not normally visit feeders.
Next time: 5 more tips for bird feeding success!
Are Mute Swans really mute?
No, they aren’t really mute, but their voices are weak and seldom used except for grunts, menacing hisses, and snorts. During breeding season, they may utter puppy-like barks.
Which group of birds can turn their heads to the greatest extreme?
You guessed correctly, the owls! An owl can turn its head about 280 degrees and then quickly swivel it around in the opposite direction. (Barred Owl photo by Mike Horn)
Which American woodpecker migrates the farthest?
The Yellow-belied Sapsucker migrates to the West Indies and south to central Panama.
The first thing to do is clean out old nesting materials. On most nest boxes, you can access your nest box by swinging open a front or side panel. If that isn’t possible, your house may have a bottom panel that can be unscrewed.
When all else fails, take a bent coat-hanger, hook the old nesting material and drag it out through the entry hole. Also, make sure all drainage holes are unplugged (another good use for your trusty coat-hanger). Then check for any squirrel or other damage around the entry hole. If the hole has been enlarged, you might check with your local wild bird specialty store for special metal plates that can be put around the hole to prevent further damage.
You can then hose out the box and let dry. Rehang your nest box so your birds have all winter to get comfortable with it or even use it as a roosting box since a number of species are known to huddle together in nest boxes for warmth.
We’ve all suspected that birds seem to prefer certain types of seeds over others. Chickadees, for example, love black-oil sunflower seed but don’t care much for millet. Tests have shown that thy do choose a particular sunflower seed over others. When a chickadee picks up a seed it judges the weight and size of that articular seed. They tend to select small, heavy, plump seeds and to reject (toss away) lighter, slender seeds. Apparently, they select those seeds that yield the greatest food value in return for the energy expended in opening the seed. Amazing!
P.S. We once counted the actual number of black-oil sunflower seeds in a 50-lb bag. How many seeds do you think there were? Hint: round to nearest 5000 seeds. Watch this space for the answer next week!
Chickadee feeder face. © Wayne Hoch Warren
If you’re reading this, it’s likely you’ve been bitten hard by our hobby! You may well have a hopper feeder, a Nyjer feeder, a suet feeder, a nectar feeder and a peanut feeder for good measure! Your birds are excited too but have you overdone it?
No need to worry, my friends! Your feeders have different purposes, and each fills a different ecological niches, so to speak. When it comes to enjoying our favorite pastime to the max, you’re right on track with the rest of us. Enjoy!
Color is critically important to birds.
For some, color is for camouflage. For others, it is used to attract the right mate. Even baby birds use color to get their needs met. The inside of many baby birds’ mouths is bright red, a visual cue for the parents to feed them. As the babies grow and become independent, the color becomes more subdued.
Northern Flicker-Red-Shafted. By Shanna-Dennis
Among many species, Such as House Finches and Scarlet Tanagers, the males that have the brightest feathers seem to be most successful at attracting mates. But among flickers it seems that color is irrelevant, at least when it comes to mating. Flickers come in three distinct colorations: Red-shafted in the west, Yellow-shafted in the east and Gilded in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, southeastern California, and Mexico.
Northern Flicker - Yellow-shafted. One Wild Bird Ce
Taxonomists continue to debate over whether or not these represent three species (or two or one!), but the lady flickers have already resolved the issue to their satisfaction. They are philosophically, if not physiologically, color blind. The vibrant red or yellow feather shafts that have given the birds their separate species status for years seem to have no effect on female flickers with regard to their desire to breed, their choice of mate or the success of their offspring when they hybridize. The females may have other less superficial standards for choosing a mate. Or maybe it’s just that bright is bright; whether it’s red, yellow of anything in between.
Birds can fly because they have low weight and lots of power. Their feathers, wings, hollow bones, warm bloodedness, powerful breast muscles, and a strong heart all contribute to this ability. Last week, we discussed body weight and feathers. This week we cover:
Strong Body Systems
The avian repertory system includes a unique system of five or more pairs of air sacs connected with the lungs. The air sacs provide a one-way traffic of air, bringing in a constant stream of unmixed fresh air. This is in contrast to mammals, where stale air is mixed more inefficiently with fresh. Birds also have a four-chambered heart, which allows double circulation. That is, the blood makes a side trip through the lungs for purification before it is circulated through the body again. Bird hearts beat rapidly, and relative to overall body size, they are large and powerful.
Even in the foods they select to feed their “engines”, birds conserve weight. Their foods – seeds, fruit, worms, insects, frogs, rodents, fish, and so on – are rich in caloric energy. They usually do not eat foods such as leaves and grass for this reason. Furthermore, the foods most birds eat are burned quickly and efficiently. Fruit fed to a young Cedar Waxwing will pass through its digestive tract in less than 30 minutes. Birds also utilize a greater proportion of the foods they eat than do mammals.
House Finch on cherry Blossoms. By Jennifer Rector Winston
In all these characteristics, we see that birds are incredibly well-suited for flight and it is no wonder we admire them for this ability. Amazing!
Birds can fly because they have low weight and lots of power. Their feathers, wings, hollow bones, warm bloodedness, powerful breast muscles, and a strong heart all contribute to this ability.
Because of their hollow bones, bird skeletons are filled with air. Although extremely light, bird skeletons are also very strong and elastic because of an interlacing network of fiber. To “trim ship” further, birds have heads that are very light in proportion to the rest of the body. This is because they do not have teeth and heavy jaws to carry them. The function of teeth is handled by the bird’s gizzard, which is located near the bird’s center of gravity.
Feathers, the most distinctive and remarkable feature of birds are magnificently adapted (or designed) for fanning the air, insulating against the weather and reducing weight. It has been claimed that for their weight, feathers are stronger than any wing structure designed by man. Amazing!
Next time: Fuel and breathing!
There are a number of birds that eat fruit. Orioles love citrus fruits. Just cut an orange open and place it on a platform or screen-bottom feeder or on a spike on your fence. The fruit should be placed “inside up” so your birds can readily eat the pulp and juice.
Photograph by Tracey Crow
Other birds such as bluebirds, woodpeckers, and jays, can be attracted with halved apples. Grape jelly and strawberry preserves (a great area to test other flavors too!) are enjoyed by many of these same birds.
Photograph by Wayne Hoch Warren
An added benefit of placing fresh and over-ripe fruit out is that it attracts fruit flies, a favorite protein supply for many birds, including hummingbirds!
Bird: A warm-blooded, egg-laying, vertebrate animal having its body covered with feathers and its fore-limbs modified into wings, which are used by most, but not all birds for flight. Birds compose the class “Aves”. There are an estimated 9,000+ living species.
Birds share with dinosaurs such characteristics as a foot with three primary toes and one accessory toe held high in back. Early avians include such primitive birds as “Archaeopteryx”. The fossil remains of this species, which date to the Jurassic, show reptilian tails, jaws with teeth, and clawed wings with well-developed feathers. Precisely how the ability to fly evolved is unknown and is hotly debated.
Why do we love birds so much? Humankind has always been fascinated by birds. We have envied their freedom and their ability to leave the grip of gravity. It is difficult to keep in mind that man first flew just over 100 years ago. So, we enjoy watching birds as they soar and dive, sip nectar from flowers while hovering, crack seeds with their beak, rocket through dense trees in the forest, or land gracefully on a placid lake – amazing!
“Best gems in Nature’s cabinet,
With dews of tropic morning wet,
Beloved of children, bards and Spring,
O birds, your perfect virtues bring,
Your song, your forms, your rhythmic flight,
Your manners for the heart’s delight.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, “May-Day”