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Backyard Birding

by Beverly S. Krueger

Bird feeding runs in my family. My grandparents were avid birders. Grandpa had a variety of feeders set up and had made a warmed birdbath from a trashcan. He provided food for many different kinds of birds and ensured that even in the bitterest cold they would have a supply of fresh water.

My grandmother, who spent the last 15 years of her life in a wheelchair, spent many afternoons watching the birds from her kitchen window. She and Grandpa kept a list of all the birds they had seen, and they were always especially excited when a new bird came to their feeder. They even made a list of all the birds found in the Bible.

That love of birds was handed down to my parents and now my family. My mother has several feeders on her back deck despite the raccoons that her feeders seem to attract. Over the last several years, we have moved three times. In each new home, we have established some means of feeding the birds.

In Indiana, we had such a large number of squirrels in the neighborhood that we started feeding the squirrels, too. Mike and Daniel made a special squirrel feeder with two large nails for corn on the cob and a platform large enough to put out anything else we wanted the birds or squirrels to have. We had one large feeder for regular mixed bird food with two suet cages on either end. The day after we first put out a cake of suet we had a Downy Woodpecker visit us. As long as we kept suet cake available, we had woodpeckers. We also learned that squirrels will take the whole cake of suet if it is not surrounded by a wire cage.

We attracted all the most common birds found in mid-western suburbs and a few not so common. For a short while we had a Carolina wren, which was a little farther north than it should have been. That was the winter that Indianapolis set a record low of -25 degrees. The little wren didn't make it through that bitter cold spell. When it came time to leave Indiana, we decided to leave the bird feeders in hopes that our new renters would continue to fill them.

We spent the next year in a rental home in Omaha. We put out corn for the squirrels we had seen in the area by sticking the cob in the hole of a brick out on our deck. Rachel hung out a pinecone with peanut butter and bird food. Knowing we would be there only a short time, we decided not to establish a bird feeder, but would wait until we moved into permanent quarters. Last May we moved into our current home.

Our current feeding station was made from a post previously cemented into the ground by former occupants of the house. They had attached a small bird feeder to the top of the post. We removed that feeder and nailed a board about 3 ½ feet long, 1½ feet wide and 2 inches thick to the top of the post. We bought a large bird feeder and nailed it in place to the middle of the board. Either end of the board was reserved for suet cages. We also hung smaller bird feeders from either end of the board, one for thistle seed and one for cracked corn. The squirrel feeder that Daniel and Mike had made in Indiana was set up next to the main feeding station.

We have one very unique feeder. Mike and Daniel made it from PVC pipe of different sizes. The main body of the feeder is a large drainage pipe. The top of the feeder has a fitting that includes a screw in plug. We unscrew that plug to fill the feeder. The bottom of the feeder has a pipe cap cemented on. In various spots around the tube, holes were drilled large enough to fit smaller pipes. The small pipes were needed to keep the seed from spilling out of the holes. The bottom part of these smaller pipes was cut away so that the birds could reach the seed inside the feeder. To get an idea of what this is like look at a finch feeder at a local store. Under each hole, a segment from a Venetian blind rod was cemented for a perch. They drilled two small holes close to the top of pipe on either side to string a wire through for hanging. We keep it filled with thistle seed.

All our feed is stored outside in a large Rubber Maid trash can. It sits right outside the window by my desk. As I was working one day, I noticed something moving outside. I turned my head to find the back end of a squirrel hanging out of the bird food can. I immediately jumped up, which scared the squirrel out of the trash can. He froze on the bench seat next to the can. Worried that he may have hurt himself when he came crashing out of the can, I went outside to check on him. He sat frozen on the bench as I came closer. Deciding it was best not to get too close to him, I checked him over for injuries and seeing none went back in the house. He was still on the bench when I got back to my desk, but as I sat quietly and watched he finally got down and ran off. I found a brick to put on top of the lid, and we've had no more squirrels getting early treats since then.

We don't attract as wide a variety of birds here in Nebraska as we did in Indiana. We do have a big flock of house sparrows that consider us the sparrow diner. They are fun to watch, as were the chipmunks that foraged on the ground under the feeder all summer and the squirrels that think they own the feeding station. Now that cold weather has returned, we've put out suet cakes for all those birds that need the fat. We know that the birds that have been coming to our feeder all summer will now depend on us to keep them fed this winter. We'll continue to meet that need knowing that we too benefit by enjoying their antics and beauty.

Since this article was first published, we’ve had the opportunity to live in the desert and now on the East Coast. The trip from our home to the Naval Air Station where my husband worked in Nevada was lined with irrigation ditches where amongst other water loving plants cattails grew and marsh loving birds like the yellow-headed blackbirds lived. You never know what type of bird you’ll find in your environment until you start looking…marsh-loving birds in the desert. In Virginia, we live near a wild life refuge. Recently we spotted a bald eagle soaring above the trees. It’s not the first time we’ve spotted bald eagles, but the last time was in the mountains of Colorado where you might expect to see them. Now we’ve seen one in the suburban sprawl that flows out of Washington DC. Birding is like that every day pleasures sprinkled with unexpected treats.

Bird and Bird Feeding Facts

The birds you are most likely to attract to your backyard bird feeders can be placed into the following categories:

  • Seed eaters - finches, sparrows, juncos, grosbeaks, and many others.
  • Fruit - mockingbirds, cedar waxwings, catbirds, thrashers, hermit thrushes and robins.
  • Insect eaters - woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches and blue jays.
  • Nectar or sap eaters - hummingbirds and sapsuckers.

Although these birds can be put into these categories, many eat things from the other categories, too. For example, the blue jay will eat sunflower seeds and corn.

You will notice as you watch birds at your feeders through binoculars that each type of bird has a beak especially suited for eating their favorite foods. Seedeaters have short, thick bills that are strong enough to crack seeds. Nectar or sap eaters have long slender bills.

The following is a list of favorite foods of different kinds of birds.

  • Tube feeder with black oil sunflowers: goldfinches, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, redpolls, and pine siskins.
  • Adding a tray to the tube feeder will also attract: cardinals, jays, crossbills, purple finches, white-throated sparrow, house finches, white-crowned sparrows.
  • Tray or platform feeder -- with millet: doves, house sparrows, blackbirds, juncos, cowbirds, towhees, white-throated sparrows, tree sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, chipping sparrows.
  • Tray or platform feeder -- with corn: starlings, house sparrows, grackles, jays, juncos, bobwhite, quail, doves, ring-necked pheasants, white-throated sparrows.
  • Platform feeder or tube feeder and tray -- with peanuts: cardinals, chickadees, grackles, house finches, titmice, house sparrows, sparrows, starlings, mourning doves, white-throated sparrows, jays, juncos.
  • Niger thistle feeder with tray: goldfinches, house finches, purple finches, redpolls, pine siskins, doves, chickadees, song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows.
  • Nectar feeder: hummingbirds, orioles, cardinals, tanagers, woodpeckers, finches, and thrushes.
  • Fruit: orioles, tanagers, mockingbirds, bluebirds, thrashers, cardinals, woodpeckers, jays, starlings, thrushes, cedar waxwings, yellow-breasted chats.
  • Hanging suet feeder: woodpeckers, wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, thrashers, creepers, cardinals, and starlings.
  • Peanut butter suet: woodpeckers, goldfinches, juncos, cardinals, thrushes, jays, kinglets, bluebirds, wrens, and starlings.
    (Some people believe that peanut butter can cause birds to choke. Although this hasn't been proven, you can avoid any potential problems by mixing peanut butter with lard.)
  • Hanging peanut feeder: woodpeckers, chickadees, and titmice.

In addition to bird feeders, you can add birdhouses, birdbaths, and vegetation that attract birds to your backyard. Local garden shops carry many types of birdhouses from little wren houses to multilevel purple martin houses. You can also make your own birdhouses. The easiest birdbath to make is an upside down trash can lid. Keep it filled with water during good weather, but when the temperature drops below freezing be sure to put warm water in it daily.

Make sure that you keep all feeders and water supplies clean. Regular cleaning will keep mosquitoes from breeding in the water and keep seed from spoiling in your feeder.

When looking for feeders, you will want them to be made as sturdily as possible. Squirrels can be very hard on feeders. There are accessories made just for keeping squirrels out of bird feeders. If you really want to keep squirrels out of your feeder, you will need to use a squirrel proof feeder located well away from any trees or other places where a squirrel can take a flying leap towards it.

Fruit bearing trees, shrubs and vines will attract birds. You will also want to have plenty of cover for the birds. Evergreens make ideal bird sanctuaries, but other shrubs work well also. Placing your feeder close to a shrub or small tree will give the birds a place to scope out the feeding station before coming in to feed. This will make your feeder an easy target for squirrels, so you must decide whether to coexist with the squirrels or set your feeders up to exclude them.

Helpful bird watching facts:

You'll need two pieces of basic equipment: a bird watchers guidebook and a pair of binoculars.

  • Starling-during the winter it is spotted with white and tan, but in summertime it is black with an iridescent sheen.
  • Gold finches-the male is bright yellow with a black cap in summer, but in the winter loses its yellow color and black cap and resembles the female.
  • House sparrows-male and females look very different. When attempting to identify birds in a group that includes male house sparrows, be sure to check your bird guide for a picture of the female.
  • Purple finch and house finch are similar; the purple finch has a red violet color and the house finch a truer red color.

If you would like to do some in depth nature study of birds, I suggest you use the Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock. It includes information and observation lessons about all the different aspects of birds and birding including separate lessons for 31 species of birds.
Some information for this article was obtained from the US Fish & Wildlife Service pamphlet, "Backyard Bird Feeding.”

Websites

Teaching Kids About Birds
Information, projects, and links to scouting projects.

Birding with Children
Tips on watching birds with your kids.

Bird Feeder Cam
Take control of the bird feeder cam to watch birds on the platform, the suet feeder, niger feeder, sunflower seed feeder, water feature, or zoom out and watch the entire bird-feeding garden.

Nest Box Cam
Cornell Lab of Ornithology provides nest box cams annually. Using real-time Internet technology, the goal is to observe and interpret the nesting behaviors of birds and promote understanding of their breeding biology. A variety of different birds nesting in nest boxes around the country are available in the archives. This section is part of the Birdhouse Network with many additional resources about nesting birds.

The Backyard Birder
Learn the basics of backyard birding including birdseed, bird feeders, and squirrel control to attract wild birds to your yard.

Bird watching made elementary
Observing and identifying birds can be a gateway to a variety of learning experiences. This primer will get you started birding.
Parts of a Bird Printable

All About Birds
Comprehensive information on North American birds including a bird guide, identification tips, and conservation programs. The bird guide includes a video gallery and species accounts. Species accounts can include pictures, descriptions, range map, video, or audio clips, and other facts about each type of bird. There are also sections on attracting birds, selecting gear, and basic introduction to birding. Excellent site.

Stokes Birding
Informational articles on bird feeding, bird housing, IDing birds, bird gardening, bird behaviors, and Don and Lillian Stokes birding journal last updated May 2001.

National Bird Feeding Society
Birdfeeding.org works to make backyard bird feeding and watching better -- for people and the birds, by supporting education and research about backyard wild birds.

Resources

Bird and Backyard Birding Resources
Including nature guides, learn and find out science books, videos, books with birding activities, and coloring books.

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