Bird Feeding with George Petrides

Tips on attracting and feeding backyard birds.

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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!



Posted by on in Attracting and feeding wild birds

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.

b2ap3_thumbnail_House-Finch-cherry-blossoms-Jennifer-Rector-Winston-Salem-NC-041713.jpgHouse 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!

Posted by on in Conservation

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.

Light Skeletons
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.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Baltimore-Oriole-Tracey-Crow.jpgPhotograph 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.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Baltimore-Oriole-hand-feeding-Wayne-Hoch-Warren-MI-061913.jpgPhotograph 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”

Only in some species.  Incubating the eggs requires a “brood patch”, an area of skin on the belly that loses its feathers toward the end of the egg-laying period. The patch also develops a supplemental set of blood vessels that bring hot blood close to the surface of the skin. The brood patch is brought into contact with the eggs to provide the necessary warmth for incubation to occur. The feathers will be re-grown once the eggs have hatched and/or the nestlings have grown insulating feathers of their own.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Bluebird-nest-Janet-Furlong-Culpeper.jpgBluebird nest. Photo by Janet Furlong.

In some species, such as the Mourning Dove, both sexes develop brood patches and incubate the eggs; in others, such as the bluebird, only the female has a brood patch and incubates the eggs. Amazing!


Mourning Doves

Now that we are well into this new century, global climate change has become an increasingly hot topic!

b2ap3_thumbnail_Moon-bird-Janet-Furlong.jpgImage by Janet-Furlong.

Our world is getting warmer, though opinions differ about the severity of the problem and the extent to which it is caused by the burning of fossil fuels or factors that include natural cycles longer than human records.

Pineview Resevoir. Liberty, UT. Image by Marc Zabokrtsky.

Some people believe that market forces will provide solutions, and that energy efficiency is the key because it is good for the environment and good for business. Some people promote the use of alternative technologies. Some are trading in their SUVs and high-energy appliances to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Others won’t be concerned until they sense specific threats to their lifestyles.

So we can see that our debates about these issues have begun to tell us something important about our individual values and other hot topics!


What is the correct pronunciation of “pileated” as in the woodpecker name?


PIE-lee-ated is the preferred pronunciation, but PIL-ee-ated” is also just fine. How’s that for coming down on both sides of the issue? There’s likely to be some other fine regional versions too! I personally love pies so it’s easy for me to remember as “PIE” for me. Ornithologists are undecided about many things so why not a little word pronunciation as well?


By the way, the Latin word pileatus, which means “capped” or “crested”, refers to this bird’s impressive red crest. A gorgeous bird, no matter how you say it.

People often debate the value of lawns. On one hand, lawns are essentially monocultures that usually require an on-gong external source of nutrients and relatively large amounts of water to thrive. Lawns also require constant maintenance throughout a long growing season.

On the other hand, for sheer toe-curling, bare-footed spring and summer delight, nothing rivals a lawn. Lawns are also part of our concept of hearth and home.

So few of us will want to eliminate all the grass in our yards, but replacing some of your lawn with shrubbery, natural areas, flowers, water features or brush piles will make your yard a lot more bird-attractive.

A deserving DIY project to consider as summer arrives!

We often recommend presenting mealworms to add new excitement and attract new species to your backyard feeding program. Note the potential range of species which can be attracted by meal worms in some plains, foothills, and mountain settings (depending on your elevation, habitat type and weather conditions):


American Robin                                     Mountain Chickadee
Black-billed Magpie                              Red-shafted Flicker
Back-capped Chickadee                      Pygmy Nuthatch
Black-headed Grosbeak                      Red-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper                                     Spotted Towhee
Downy Woodpecker                            Various Jays
Flycatchers                                             Junco
Hairy Woodpecker                               Various Warblers
House Wren                                          Western Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird                              Western Tanager
                                                                White-breasted Nuthatch


Tip: When first feeding mealworms it will take time for your birds to adjust to this new food source. You may want to start with a small quantity, such as 100 to 500 mealworms.  Now get ready for more bird feeding fun than ever!

Northern Flicker (top photo) © Shanna Dennis

2nd Photo - Red-breasted Nuthatch. © Janet-Furlong-Culpeper.

This dramatic woodpecker is the largest in North America and a welcome, but uncommon, visitor to feeding stations. Once you’ve seen or heard this exciting crow-sized bird, you’ll not soon forget it!


Pileated Woodpeckers are found from mid-Canada to the southern United States and are year-round residents in the East. This large jet-black bird has a bright red crest and a white “racing stripe” running from its bill down its neck. The female has a black forehead and lacks the red moustache. The Pileated’s call is similar to that of the Flicker but louder and more irregular.

Sweepings wing beats and flashing white underwing patches identify the Pileated in flight.

b2ap3_thumbnail_Pileated-woodpecker-wing-flash-Janet-Furlong-Culpeper.jpgPhotograph © Janet Furlong Culpeper

In nesting season, both sexes construct the nest by chiseling a hole with an oblong entrance 15 to 80 feet high in an old tree trunk. The cavity is lined with wood chips and may be used for roosting after the nesting season.

The pair raises only one brood per year. The female lays three to five white eggs and both sexes incubate the eggs which takes a little over two weeks. The young leave the nest 26 to 28 days after hatching. Both parents tend to the young, which are fed regurgitated food.

The male and female, which are monogamous mates, set up a year-round territory, usually consisting of large tracts of mature deciduous or coniferous forest. However, as they seem to become more tolerant of humans, they are moving into suburban areas with second-growth forests.

Contrary to popular belief, filling backyard feeders is at least as important in the springtime as during the winter months.

b2ap3_thumbnail_bird-Feeding-station-Angela-Hall.jpgPhotograph by Angela Hall

Think about it. During the fall and early winter, natural supplies of seeds and berries become available as food sources.  By spring, most of these foods have been eaten, and new crops of natural foods are still months from maturity.


American Goldfinch. Photograph by Anne West.

Spring feeding is important to our feeder regulars; permanent residents, such as goldfinches, chickadees and others have been using our feeders all winter. It also helps our migrants and birds that arrive early to their breeding grounds. Even those birds that feed primarily on insects may stop by if they see other bird activity in your yard.

By late spring, most birds have settled in and begun to nest. They need extra energy as the males define territories and the females build nests and produce eggs. Later in the season, the parents will bring their fledglings to your feeders, and you can watch awkward youngsters as they beg for food and learn to feed themselves.  With the continued support of your feeders, your birds will bring motion, sound, color and family entertainment to your yard throughout the year.

Chickadees and nuthatches like to nest in an area that offers a mixture of trees and open spaces, much like a typical yard. Wrens are also likely to set up housekeeping in a mixture of trees and open space, but the added attraction of dense bushes and brush piles will make your yard even more appealing to them.


Tree Swallows are common nest box occupants in some areas, and they prefer to nest in open areas or at the edge of open areas, especially near water. For all the birds mentioned above, placing the nest box anywhere between 5 and 10 feet above the ground will be acceptable.

For bluebirds, place the box 4 to 5 feet above ground in an open area with low vegetation and a nearby perch.

We can encourage birds to make their homes near ours by creating habitats they will enjoy and benefit from. Birds have four basic needs: food, water, cover and nesting sites, so the ideal backyard habitat will meet most of these needs.

Consider this sampling of plants which attract birds:

  • Fruit-producing trees: cherry, crab apple, hawthorn, mulberry, mountain ash.
  • Evergreens: juniper, fir, hemlock, boxwood, pine, spruce, cypress, holly
  • Shrubs: barberry, azalea, choke-berry, viburnum
  • Vines: honeysuckle, trumpet vine, Virginia creeper
  • Grasses: quaking grass, pampas grass, oat grass, reed grass
  • Annuals: bachelor’s button, morning glory, impatiens, marigold, petunia, sunflower, zinnia
  • Perennials: aster, bee balm, black-eyed susan, coneflower, chrysanthemum, phlox

So, before purchasing a plant for your yard, around your feeding station or water source, consider whether it will provide food, nesting sites or shelter for your birds. With the right plants, you can easily enhance the effectiveness of your feeding station dramatically.


We feed birds because we enjoy seeing them. There is something we can do to help us see them even better! Select the location where birds at a feeder can best be seen from a room in your house that is used often. Then plant a quick-growing shrub so it will be just behind your feeders.


This provides a perching area that can be easily seen from inside the house and will be used often by birds before they come to your feeder and after they leave it too. Thus your birds are visible much longer than if seen only at the feeders.

The presence of shrubbery increases not only the opportunity to see your birds, but also the total use the feeder receives. This is the reason we recommend that feeders be placed near trees and shrubs.

The Mourning Dove, a frequent visitor to our feeders, has quite different characteristics than other common feeder birds. The nesting season of the dove is much longer than that of other birds. In most areas, doves nest from March to September. In the southern states, nests have been found in every month. Doves nest as often as five or six times per season, laying two eggs each time. Their young are fed crop milk, a highly nutritious food produced by a gland that develops in the crop (a sac that stores food before it passes through the digestive tract).

Doves are highly mobile and often congregate in very large numbers to feed on grain in newly harvested fields. You may notice a pronounced drop in feeder use in late summer and fall, when small grains and corn are harvested.

It is possible to use their color too distinguish the sex of adult birds. Males have a distinctive bluish or blue-gray cap and a pinkish hue over the throat and breast. Females have a duller color with a more uniform brownish color on their heads and breasts. Young birds are clearly evident by the buff or white tips on their wing feathers. After about ten weeks they no longer have these wing markings.

The favorite foods of Mourning Doves at feeders are white proso millet and black-oil sunflower seed; however, no other common bird at feeders eats such a wide variety of foods. The feeding habits of doves make them very useful in cleaning up the food that falls to the ground under feeders.

Photographs © Janet Furlong Culpeper

Sometimes human inventions can create a whole new set of problems for birds. Take windows, for example. Once upon a time a pair of cardinals could settle down, raise a family, send their young off to find a nice spot in neighboring yard, and spend a peaceful winter feeding on berries and seeds. Then came multi-story houses and buildings with windows everywhere, peeking out at shrubs and trees on all sides. Where’s a bird to go to be alone?

It was inevitable that our need to see them and their need for privacy would create a conflict – and danger of head-on flight collisions, too. But one occasional result is window tapping. It is clearly a territorial behavior but not an aggressive one. Sometimes, during breeding season, robins, cardinals and other birds will see their reflections on shiny objects and begin breast-beating attacks. Window tapping is much more benign. The birds just tap away, perhaps frustrated and confused, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs. Perhaps they think they are challenging strangers, but, since their hormones may not have kicked in yet, the interaction is less intense. Encounters with reflected competitors seldom do any damage to the birds or to the windows. But regardless of cause, window tapping can become annoying to humans who listen, day after day, until we begin to twitch a bit in anticipation of the next go-round. Sometimes, placing (on outside surfaces which create reflections) strips of Mylar, fabric or other moving objects will distort the bird’s image enough to solve the problem. Sometimes it takes more direct intervention – opening the window or (gently) tapping on your side of the pane. If the window is near a favorite roosting spot, you might have to cover it (from the outside) until the bird moves on.

Mr. Poe notwithstanding, as long as there are windows and birds are territorial, there will be tapping evermore.

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