I am a bird watcher.
Not a true birder, in that I don’t often go out with a pair of binoculars trying to check bird species off my life list. But I do watch from the kitchen windows and sit on the deck watching. I can get lost and forget time. Because I have created a bird habitat on our property, I have lots to keep my eyes on.
If you want to keep track of who is visiting your yard, start with a basic bird guide. Two of the most common are Petersons Guide to Birds and the National Audobon Guide. Both come in Eastern and Western America versions. There are many others, as well as apps and audio call guides.
For watching, I have several feeders, with a variety of foods. Different food appeals to different bird species, and feeding it in different ways attracts different species.
- Black oil sunflower seeds – So many of the birds like them: woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, cardinals, tufted titmice, finches, grosbeaks, pine siskins, blue jays
- Suet or suet cakes – wood peckers (red bellied, downy, hairy, flickers), chickadees, nuthatches, bluejays, sometimes even warblers or brown creepers.
- Safflower seed: especially cardinals and most of the same birds, and doves, when it is on the ground or a flat feeder.
- Cracked corn – blue jays, grouse, turkeys, doves, cardinals, grosbeaks, pheasants, house sparrows, crows and ravens. Other critters outside like it too…deer, bears,squirrels.
- Thistle /Niger seed – goldfinches, house finches and purple finches, indigo buntings, red polls and pine siskins.
- Peanuts – most of the same birds as above, and squirrels!
- Millet – many of the ground feeding birds will clean it up, like doves, towhees, juncos, cardinals and some sparrow.
- Woodpecker mix
- Fruit and nut mix which has seeds, dried fruit and some nuts
- In the spring I also put out dried meal worms which some of the spring arrivals, like blue birds, will be attracted to
- there are also other mixes, like no waste mix , also called patio mix, which have shelled seeds, so sunflower hulls and the like are not all over the ground or porch as the birds sit and split seeds open on the feeder.
The way you feed birds is as important as what you feed them. Different species eat in different manners.
Woodpeckers, sapsuckers, nuthatches and creepers have long toes that grip the trees, and can therefore grip wooden hanging feeders on the edges and from all angles. They don’t need a perch or flat space to land. They also can hold onto to metal suet baskets.
Cardinals, doves, juncos typically eat on the ground. So low feeders or elevated platform feeders will work. They have a harder time landing on hanging feeders. The problems with ground feeder, though, is that feeders actually on the ground can make the birds easier targets for birds of prey or other hunters.
Ideally your yard has bushes, shrubs, and trees the birds can land in near the feeders, which makes them feel safe. Perfect habitat would make these shelters species that might have berries, nuts or flowers that the local bird population would also use for food, shelter and nesting. Most birds will not sit at the feeder and eat continually, but instead grab one sunflower seed and fly off to crack it open and eat. Chickadees are very cute to watch, as they make many trips back and forth. Finches, on the other hand, will perch and eat as much as they can without leaving the feeder.
I hang several feeders. Most are actually hung up on a high clothes line, which is out of reach of the bears, and only a few squirrels will walk the tight rope to get to the feeders.
- Tube feeders – I put sunflowers seeds, woodpecker mix and fruit and nut mix to attract different species to it
- Platform feeder – for the cardinals and doves specifically, but all species will land on it hanging in the air
- Hanging feeder with suet holders
- Peanut feeder
- Thistle feeders, which might feed finches upside down to prevent other birds from eating or tube feeders with small holes, and even mesh bags that finches pull the tiny thistle seeds through.
- Lastly, Suet cages that will hold either plain beef suet or suet cakes
Real suet should only be put out in cold weather, as it can turn rancid in hot weather, as well as melt and make a greasy messy below the feeder.
Other treats like fruit (apples, oranges, raisins, grapes, or currents) will attract species like waxwings, robins, blue birds and mockingbirds.
A few other feeders I use only in the spring and summer.
- Hummingbird feeders – my hummers prefer these with perches , although many styles without perches are also available.
- I have tried Oriole feeders for oranges or jelly and oranges – beautiful but they never used it, nor have they drunk sugar water. They usually just some to the tray feeder.
Birds to not need to be fed year round, however since I like watching them, I do offer food year round. In the spring, it’s fun to watch for the returning birds. My red-wing blackbirds have arrived already in February, quite early this year. Frequently the same birds return to the same yard if they feel safe, have a food source, and nesting habitat.
A few other tips:
- Make sure feeders are clean. Food that gets wet can mold, which in turn can be toxic. wash and dry feeders thoroughly on a regular basis, and refill with fresh seed
- Keep cats away from feeders in as much as possible – difficult on a homestead, or if you have a neighborhood cat that likes to hunt, but if you are spending money to feed the birds, don’t turn them into prey
- Place feeders away form windows to prevent collisions. Birds often see a reflection of the sky and don’t realize how hard the glass is! You can also place window decals or hanging window ornaments to help break up reflections
- Keep food in sealed containers. Occasionally some insects will hatch from seed, and will end up flying around the house if seed is left in an open bag. I reuse plastic cat litter pails for this, and metal containers will also work well.
- I will occasionally have a sharp shinned hawk or Coopers hawk hanging around, and once in a while they get a dove. This is part of nature, and they hunt song birds as a fact of life. This is why bushes and shrubs are a good to have near feeders, so the song birds can dive into them for safety.
Water is also an important item to include in your yard for attracting birds of all sorts. The sound of water is great – a bubbling fountain or waterfall if you have a water feature. Lacking that, we use the lids form large garbage pins, turned upside down and nestled in the ground. We can easily wash and fill them with the hose.Birds will drink from shallow areas.
For bathing, a bird bath is a requirement. The water must be pretty shallow, about half an inch is all that is needed. It helps to put pebbles in the bottom so the bird have something they can grasp with their feet, and it helps them determine the depth of the water. Fledgling birds can drown in water than is too deep.
Lastly, make the habitat conducive to nesting. Some birds will nest in the bushes, trees and undergrowth on your property, but cavity dwellers (chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, tufted titmice, nuthatches, creepers, bluebirds) all need either a bird house or standing dead trees with holes. Some of the smaller species will use old holes formerly occupied by larger birds. the size of a bird house can vary with the species, as indicated on the Birds forever website.
In the spring I put out a tray of nesting materials: dog hair, bits of string or twine, yarn, dryer lint, bits of fabric. Many nest builders will take items to line their nests. One year the catbirds found a long string from a Mylar balloon – and wound it throughout the bush they occupy yearly.
Visit the Audubon Society for lots more information on birds, conservation, bird watching, identification and local activities near you.
I hope this helps you choose a way to care for the wild birds in your yard. It’s rewarding and thrilling to see a new species (a Roufous sided Towhee showed up a month ago, and one winter a Blue Grosbeak got blown north in a storm to our yard). I also watch for the neighborhood eagles when I am out and about. The Pileated woodpeckers are starting to drill holes in the dead trees to attract mates. Spring brings the woods and yard back to life. It’s a treat to watch each year.
What are you doing for your neighborhood birds?