Bird Feeding with George Petrides
Tips on attracting and feeding backyard birds.
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
Hairy Woodpecker Various Warblers
House Wren Western Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird Western Tanager
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.
Photograph © 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.
Photograph 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.
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.