Bird Feeding with George Petrides
Tips on attracting and feeding backyard birds.
It’s official. The glory days of conspicuous consumption have ended. With this century well underway, our group has largely chosen to appreciate more simple and familiar pleasures.
This idea is often expressed as: “The closer we live to each other, the closer we want to be to Nature.”
In other words, the more urbanized our society becomes, the greater our need for connections to nature. The more complicated our lives, the more we benefit from attention to everyday beauties.
Sunrise by Frank Dodge
Our group knows full well that the natural world is filled with beauty. But in these stressful times, we must make an extra effort to appreciate it, because our senses have been chilled by overstimulation. Even nature shows are packed with highlights of wildlife drama so that a simple walk in the woods can seem uneventful by comparison.
We’re on the right track when we appreciate not just the striking bright blue of a male Indigo Bunting but also the mottled beauty of finch wings. We appreciate a sunrise not just for its glorious color but also for its gracious predictability. We stop to admire the bark peeling off a birch tree as a work of art. When our soul is stirred by the hollow, flutelike song of a thrush floating through springtime woodland, we know we are truly connecting to nature. These are nature’s miracles, everyday events that bring peace and joy to our busy lives.
Male Indigo Bunting
The birds that visit our feeders every day help bring these miracles into view.
Every day - a chickadee shakes off the chill of night and climbs through our trees, then approaches our feeder with bight-eyed optimism.
Every day - a woodpecker hitches up the side of a nearby tree on his way to our suet feeder, a study in black and white with a spot of red for pure excitement.
Every day - a jay takes flight, launching four ounces of controlled blue or gray energy into the air, then lands with aplomb, and an attitude!, on our feeding tray, just filled with new seeds.
Every day - the same.
Every day - new.
Every day miracles - made just for you.
Many backyard birders hang a feeder from a tree branch or set it on a pole in their yard. Some strategically place two or three feeders around the yard for easy viewing from inside the house.
Generally, the greater the variety of feeders you place, the greater the diversity of birds you see. But many birders overlook one of the most enjoyable feeders available – the window feeder.
Northern Cardinal at window feeder.
The advantages of widow feeders are many. They bring birds right up to your window pane for close observation. Window feeders are easy to mount and can be removed as needed. They also lessen the risk of birds flying into your window since these feeders provide a visual barrier, breaking up a reflection cast by the outside surface of the glass.
Chickadee at window feeder
For best results, place your feeder on a window near shrubbery or tree; attach it to a clean window surface, use a dab of vegetable oil (not saliva or water which quickly evaporates) on the suction cups for good adhesion. As always, allow time for your birds to find your latest feeder!
If you’ve ever heard woodpeckers drum on your home, you’ll be pleased to know that although it may sound like your house is being chiseled to bits, drumming usually leaves few marks, chipped wood or damage i.e. some incidents can be spectacular, most are never noticed!
Downies remain paired with the same mate for years or even for life. They renew their bond each spring. Many of the duties involved with raising a family are shared between the male and female birds. Although the female selects the nesting site, both male and female help excavate the cavity. Excavation typically takes about two weeks. The female lays four to five pure white eggs, which are incubated by both parents for about 12 days until the young hatch. Hatchlings are then fed insects every few minutes.
Approximately three weeks after they hatch, the young downies are ready to leave the nest. The young male does not yet have the red patch on the back of its head but it may be distinguished from the female by an area of reddish pink over its entire crown. Juvenile plumage is worn until the September molt; afterwards, the first-year birds look just like the adults. Young downies remain with their parents for several weeks.
How can you attract downies to your outdoor area? The easiest way is to offer suet, a favorite food of downies and many other woodpeckers too. By consistently providing suet, black-oil sunflower or peanuts, you’re likely to enjoy this tiny woodpecker all year long.
Our Downy Woodpecker is the smallest of the North American woodpeckers and one of the easiest birds to attract to your feeders. It gets the “downy” part of its name from the short, soft feathers around its nostrils. With its black-and-white colors and friendly disposition, the downy is welcome to any yard. The male has a distinctive red patch on the back of its head, the female does not.
These fascinating birds are found throughout most of North America. Many people like attracting downies because they eat insects such as beetles, moths, ants, tent caterpillars and aphids.
In spring and summer, downies are often seen in pairs. In winter, they are more solitary but are often seen in mixed flocks with chickadees, nuthatches, and other smaller birds. The contact call of the downy is a short, flat “peek”. My downies often sound this call just before visiting your feeders.
From late winter through midsummer, we may hear the loud rapid drumming of downies. Sounding like an unbroken “trrrrr” and lasting several seconds, drumming is a way of identifying territory and attracting a mate. Sometimes downies drum on highly resonant surfaces such as gutters, flashing, or metal chimneys. The louder the drumming, the more impressive the downy to other members of its species.
Next time: more drumming, mates, nesting and attracting these delightful little birds to your yard.
Birds have long inspired conservation actions around the world. Many of these measures are far-reaching laws enacted by federal governments. Others are individual or group efforts that have resulted in important changes in human attitudes and the management of wildlife and the environment. Today, thanks to birds and those who care about them, we have strong legal protections for wildlife and protected habitats, such as Refuges, important bird areas (IBA) and other wild sanctuaries. Birds have inspired many to join business groups, bird clubs and conservation organizations which work both locally and globally.
Now, in 2016, we have a new opportunity to be inspired by the enormous success of the Centennial Celebration of the 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty. The enormous success of this landmark Treaty is best described here and here.
Please visit these important sites to learn more about the ways in which wild birds stimulated people to become involved in conservation and encouraged individuals and corporations to be a part of continuing efforts to protect our beautiful wild birds.
The Wild Bird Centers of America (www.wildbird.com) is a national franchise system supporting wild bird specialty stores throughout the USA Con tact George Petrides, Sr. at (301) 841-6404 or email@example.com.
Last time, we explained that veins and arteries are located in close proximity in our birds’ legs….This allows warm arterial blood to raise the temperature of the adjacent venous blood before it returns to the main part of the body. In addition, birds can constrict the blood vessels in their feet, reducing the overall amount of blood that flows there.
Photograph by Robert Tamulis
Birds also use specific behaviors to help keep their feet warm. If you watch carefully, you will see juncos, sparrows, and other ground-feeding birds interrupt their search for food to “rest” on the ground. When they drop their bodies over their feet and legs that way, they can use their feathers for warmth. A roosting bird that that lifts one foot off the perch and tucks it up into the feathers on its belly accomplishes the same thing, significantly reducing the percentage of uninsulated (unfeathered) surface area exposed to the air.
Photograph by Marvin Stauffer
Northern Cardinal male. Photograph by Paul Gray
When you see a row of birds on a wire, try to determine whether any are standing on one foot. The more you observe birds adapting to adverse conditions, the great your opportunity to be inspired by them.
Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Rich Fowler
As the late, great Yogi Berra once said:” You can observe a lot just by watching.”
Winter’s worst always brings questions to mind, universal imponderables that we tuck away for most of the year then bring out again with leaf blowers and holiday decorations. Even if you’ve never verbalized it, you have to wonder how gulls can sit for hours on an iced-over lake without freezing their feet. Or how juncos can sit on top of a snowbank. Or why chickadees don’t stick to metal feeder perches.
Photograph © Janet-Furlong-Culpeper
So why don’t they get cold feed?!
Our childhood observance or participation in such phenomena as tongues sticking to cold flagpoles have led us to expect painful outcomes when warm, wet surfaces meet dry, icy ones. But bird feet are not fleshy and do not perspire, so they don’t face that set of conditions.
Birds’ feet still get cold, and the ways that birds deal with cold feet are a study in adaptability, variability, and survival. Ptarmigan, who spend their winters where daylight is scarce and snow abundant, develop feathers all the way to the tips of their toes, not just to help keep their feet warm, but also to help them walk on fresh fallen snow. By spreading their weight over a broader surface, like we do with snowshoes, they keep from sinking into snow drifts.
Dark-eyed Junco. Photograph © Janet-Furlong-Culpeper
Apparently, scales also keep birds’ feet warm. Ravens that live in the far north have heavier scales of their feet than do their cousins from more southern areas.
Carolina Wren. Photograph © Keith Kraut
Our backyard birds, with their naked legs and toes exposed to the wind and weather, have developed Remarkable ways to keep from getting cold feet. Their anatomy is ideally adapted to minimize temperature variation and heat loss through their feet. In their legs, the veins and arteries are located in close proximity to one another without excess flesh and muscle separating them.
Next time: more fascinating ways your birds keep feet and toes warm!
Mealworms are an increasingly popular bird food, used year round. They are a protein—packed food source that is excellent for attracting all kinds of beautiful insect-eating birds. Happily, mealworms are neither smelly nor slimy so they are easy to use and easy to store too.
Mealworm feeders may easily become the busiest feeders in your yard. Several available feeders have smooth surfaces to keep your mealworms from crawling out; some have adjustable tops, so you can control the size of the birds which come to dine.
Carolina Wren. Photo by Janet-Furlong-Culpeper
Buy a few hundred mealworms from your local wild bird specialty store and try offering them to your birds. You might be surprised at the delightful visitors who now show up at your feeders!
Eastern Bluebird. Photo by Nic Allen
Yellow-rumped Warbler. Photo by Janet-Furpong-Culpeper
For most of us, it started simply enough: a feeder hung from a tree branch, maybe a wren house outside the living room window. But when one feeder becomes two (or three, or six) and the bath turns into a water feature, it’s time to consider a plan!
A feeding station helps meet avian needs for food and water as well as our human need for a sense of connection with nature. To accomplish both, locate a place (or several places) in your yard where you can see from one of your favorite inside spots for eating, reading, or working. Ideally, your feeders will be about eight feet from shrubs or trees. This is close enough to provide the cover which helps your birds feel comfortable, but far enough away so that you can protect your feeders from squirrels or other critters. In other words, look for a place where your birds will be safe and happy, where you can easily see them, and where routine maintenance tasks are easy to perform too.
Next, add your feeders. Feeders come in a variety of sizes and shapes and purposes. To design a complete feeding station, you should consider featuring feeders which accommodate seeds and nuts, suet, fruit, nectar and mealworms.
Fruit feeders are best placed in shady spots, as are bird cakes with high suet content. For summer, many backyard birders switch to no-melt suet products because they hold up well in the heat and are attractive to a variety of summer birds. Nyjer (seed) feeders are best placed a bit away from sunflower feeders to give goldfinches the privacy they prefer.
In some cases, it is best to initially place your new feeder in a spot easy for birds to find. Later you can move it to a spot where it is easy for you to watch it. For example, suet feeders often may start out on tree trunks and hummingbirds feeders start out in the open or near hummingbird-attractive flowers.
When deciding on “where” and after you ask yourself if it will be good for your birds, ask if it will add joy and relaxation to your life. Just as food is part of our gift to them, relaxation and joy is part of their gift to us.
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!