Thursday, November 27, 2014

For The Birds...

Jessica S. Herwick...

One of the more interesting signs that the weather is turning is the behavioral changes of my back yard birds.  The robins and finches that frequented my garden all spring and summer, pleasantly nibbling at insects and seeds, arrive now in flocks of a dozen or more.  They form alliances.  Although I have no evidence of this except my own observations, I am pretty sure they are grumpier, less tolerant, and more likely to fight among themselves.  I swear, you've not seen angry birds until you've seen cute little robins turn and fight over the last of my raspberries.  This is how I am certain that temperatures are taking a dive and thus begin to set out the feeders.
I don’t put feeders in my yard through the warmer months of the year because I find my garden and backyard habitat offer enough nutrition for wildlife.  

Now that we are putting our gardens to bed, tending to trees and placing pumpkins on porches, consider that there are many species of wild birds that stay the winter and brave the weather along with the rest of us Philadelphians. The change of season means big changes for all living things - including wildlife.
Juncos and cardinals struggle with some of the same troubles we humans face in the hard freeze of January. Days grow shorter, nights longer and colder; the garden that had until recently overflowed with berries, vegetables, seeds and other preferential food sources have been shut down, hidden by the snow, or frozen under thick layers of ice. The insect population disappears.

Unless you’re lucky enough to live among a forest of evergreens, optimal conditions for shelters are gone.  Old nests may need reinforcements.  Water becomes more difficult to find.  Then, of course, unpredictable storms arrive with high winds and wintery mixes.  To make matters worse, birds are warm blooded.  In order to survive, a bird must maintain a body temperature within a certain range.  They might be seen fluffing up to create warm pockets of air within their feathers or standing on one leg at a time, warming the other by pulling it in towards their body.  Sound familiar?  Well, all but the insect eating.

According to the Penn State Extension Wildlife Outreach Center, more than 35 species of birds can be spotted at feeders throughout the winter months.  You can attract different species by putting out specific foods they are the most attracted to, and that often varies by species.  Birds have preferences in seed and delivery system.  Some like to peck at the ground or a flat surface; some like to perch in the air from hanging feeders.   They don't all eat the same things (although there are some shared favorites among species).

What type of seed you choose will indicate what sort of feeder you will use.  Those two choices, combined with the habitat surrounding your feeders, will dictate what birds you see.  

WARNING!  This can become an addictive pastime!  Once you experience a taste of success - luring certain species by placing the right feed into the right delivery system - you may find yourself ordering specialty seeds, designing your own bird feeders, and perching by your window for hours to catch a glimpse of the woodpecker you hear pecking away in the distance.

See this November-time robin munching on wild cherries in a Manayunk tree.  

So what’s the best way to support our feathered friends in the wintertime?  Allow me to introduce you to some simple options to get you started.   

You can purchase pre-mixed seed in small and large quantities.  Pre-mixes will usually tell you what birds you will attract with their "special mix" so it’s certainly a time-saver.  Pre-mixed seeds are a great place to start if you’ve never maintained a feeder.  It is also great once you’ve found a brand that works for you but it does take a little experimentation.  It will help if you can figure out what wild birds you already see in your surroundings.  Then, find a mixed seed that includes those species. 

All Natural Repurposed Wooden Feeders
By: Patrick W. McCloskey.  See me for orders!  
Read the labels before you purchase, especially with pre-mixes!  Most big name brands will list the types of seeds in the mix, recommendations for what sort of feeder to use, and an analysis of the nutrition content.  Watch out for unnecessary ingredients like food coloring, corn syrup, or fillers that keep the cost of the seed low.  

Fillers are cheap ways to increase the weight of the feed bag.   But because filler is completely unattractive to birds (and they do know the difference!) it is really just money wasted.  Some feeds may have vitamin enrichment.  (Most commonly seen on pre-mixed bags are vitamins D and A and those are okay.)     
Typically, the information label on your mixed seed will tell you the best types of feeders to use.  Mixed seeds can go into any feeder and work best in tube feeders or something similar, like the DIY bird feeder that a friend of mine makes by repurposing trees that are being cut for convenience in his neighborhood.  "My birds" love it! Notice the many perching options.

Delivery System:  Mixed seed can typically be used in most any bird feeder.  However, it's a good idea to check the label, as most mixes will recommend the best feeders for their seed.  

Who to expect for dinner:  When talking about purchased pre-mixed seed, you should expect the mix you purchase to attract the species of birds the package advertises.  Pre-mixes should help take the guesswork out of what to put out.  If the wild bird seed mix you purchased claims it will attract 7 types of birds, but you only ever see house finches, you should try a different seed mix.  Typically you'll see various ratios of species, but if it's a good seed mix, depending on your location, expect what they're selling or find another brand.   

SUNFLOWER SEEDS:  There are two types of sunflower seeds that are especially intriguing to a large number of bird species.  Purchasing a bag of 100% sunflower seed might be a little more expensive than the mixed seed, but it is attractive to a wide range of wild birds.  The high oil content of the seeds is an essential part of most wild winter bird diets because it provides them with energy to create body heat on cold days. 
Black Oil Sunflower Seed
Black Oil Sunflower Seed
Black oil sunflower is by far the number one choice of many birds. It has a higher oil content than the standard Mammoth sunflower seed.  Smaller birds like it because the softer shell is easier to crack open (as compared to the Big Mammoth sunflower seeds that have a tougher casing.)  Larger birds like them simply because they are sunflower seeds and they are delicious.

Big Mammoth Seed

Mammoth (or other common) Sunflower Seed

Big Mammoth sunflower seeds are the typical white and black striped seeds that we ourselves roast, salt and enjoy eating.  Birds use their beaks to crack the seed casing open and eat the seeds inside.  Some bird-feeding aficionados do not like the mess that all those hulls leave behind.  In that case, you can spend a few extra dollars to purchase pre-shelled 100% edible sunflower seed which leaves no mess at all. 

Delivery System: Hand Tossing, Platform Feeders, Hanging Feeders, Hopper Feeders, Tube Feeders (if the openings are large enough for seeds to fit through).  You can also purchase feeders just for sunflower seeds. 
Who to Expect for Dinner:  Chickadees, cardinals, all finches, grosbeaks.  

DISCLAIMER: I’m never surprised when I see an unusual or uncommon species at these seeds.  They really seem to be loved by most all birds.

Dark rice-like black nyjer seed, above, in a finch mix.
NYJER SEED (thistle):
Oftentimes referred to as thistle, nyjer is actually the dried seed of the nyjer plant, native to Ethiopia.  It looks a little like small grains of wild rice and offers a high concentration of protein and fat, desirable to cold weather feeding finches, juncos, mourning doves, and sparrows.  Most commonly known for luring all varieties of finches, Nyjer seeds bring color and a vibrant social life to your feeding stations.
Finch sock in action.

Delivery System:  Finch socks can be purchased where you find your bird feeding supplies.  Finch Socks are made from mesh or other fabric with small holes sewn up into a shape resembling a tube sock.  The socks are then filled with Nyjer until the seeds are pushing at the holes in the mesh.  Finch Socks usually come filled, ready to hang, and in a range of durable materials.  
Open finch sock
Most finch socks are refillable. When empty, if the birds haven’t completely destroyed the sock from picking at it, Finch Socks can be refilled and reused!  Nyjer can also be mixed with other seeds and placed in hanging or tube feeders.  Be warned:  house finches love Nyjer and may be tempted to nest in your eves or attic if you feed them regularly. 

Who to Expect for Dinner: Goldfinches, purple finches, pine siskins, juncos, mourning doves, and sparrows.  But mostly finches.

All natural, store-bought suet cakes fresh out of the wrapper. 
Suet is a high-quality rendered animal fat that birds are attracted to throughout the winter, especially those who eat insects as a primary food source. The fat helps keep them warm and provides the nutrients and oils that their bodies need.  Sometimes you can purchase suet from a butcher or grocery that has an on-site butcher.  Suet is typically set out in a mesh bag or a thick layering of cheesecloth and hung like a finch sock but it does have a tendency to break down quickly in its all natural state.  Suet will melt into an oily mess if there’s an unusually warm sunny day but there is a solution.
Above:  Suet cake in cages.

A much simpler, more sanitary way to deliver this incredibly beneficial food is by purchasing pre-made suet cakes. The cakes are basically the suet, sometimes with flavor (like peanut butter), pressed together with seeds or sometimes dried berries.  Pre-made cakes are treated so they do no melt when the weather gets warmer although I’ve never seen a suet cake last that long.  Once I put them out, the birds eat them up within 2 days.

I recommend reading the labels carefully for these pre-made products as well.  To make them look more attractive, or different when there’s a big selection of flavors, companies add corn syrup, food coloring, dyes, and other unnecessary ingredients that are of no interest to the birds.  Featured in the photos here are peanut butter and natural suet cakes which I find are most commonly additive free.  

Delivery System:  Specially designed suet cake cages can be purchased (usually for under $5.00).  You’ll find them alongside the selection of suet cakes at your hardware or home and garden store.  You can also cut the cakes into pieces and place them on your platform feeders.  If you really want to see a show, just place the whole cake on a platform feeder and observe the social behaviors of the birds.   

Who to Expect for Dinner:  Chickadees, titmice, finches, bluejays, cardinals, grosbeaks, nuthatches, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, orioles, wrens and warblers.  Although some of those are not abundant in our area, you never know!

See the below video for a peek at suet cake cages in action...

Dried mealworms.
Mealworms can be purchased alive and set out, still alive, for birds.  Insect eating songbirds especially love them.  I personally don’t like to buy anything living if I know I’m about to lead it to certain death.  Lucky for me, there are professionals doing that dirty work! Resealable bags of dried mealworms can be purchased at most home and garden stores.  This is an exceptional substitute for birds who rely on insects in their diets.  Mealworms are nutritious and the high protein and fat content of these little creepy crawlers provide the birds with a source of energy. 

Delivery Method:  Platform feeders are best and recommended by most seed companies.  I recommend using a platform feeder with high walls. Another option is to place feeders near fences or structures that will break the high winds.  Dried mealworms are very light and blow around easily.  Bluebirds love mealworms so you can use your bluebird feeders if you already have something special in your yard.  

Who to Expect for Dinner:  Robbins, woodpeckers, cardinals, bluejays, mockingbirds, tanagers, titmice, wrens, grosbeaks, nuthatches, bluebirds, and most other winter song birds. 

A Note About PEANUTS and CORN

There are a few interesting bird species that enjoy cracked corn or peanut hearts, both of which can be purchased as bird seed and appear often in mixed seed.  Although cardinals, doves, sparrows and other ground feeding birds will be drawn to these food sources, I warn you all out there, so are the squirrels!  City squirrels are notorious for attacking bird feeders to munch on the treats.  If there is a lot of peanut or corn in your mixed seed, you might have more than feathered guests to dinner.  

Other food sources like sunflower seed and suet will feed the same birds that enjoy peanuts but won’t be quite so attractive to the squirrels, although nothing is completely squirrel-proof.

Hint:  Sometimes (and only sometimes) squirrels will leave your feeding stations alone if you give them their own.  Dried corn on the cob, or even piles of peanuts laid out on a platform or squirrel feeder, placed far away from your bird feeders, may distract enough squirrels to prevent them from being destructive.  However, I do not recommend feeding the squirrels in the city.  They will become a pest much faster than you think. 


Consider Providing a Water Source. 

A water source doesn’t have to be a fancy marble carved birdbath. My neighbor who is an avid bird watcher keeps a heated birdbath in her yard through the winter and early spring.  It is an expensive system, but it certainly is pretty and keeps the water flowing!  I myself do not get quite so dramatic, but I do provide water. 

Most birds bathe by rubbing and fluffing themselves in dry dirt or sand.  But they need drinkable water to be present, especially when fresh sources are frozen solid. 

I have a large lid from an old garbage can that I keep upside down on the ground next to my feeders.  I place several rocks inside the lid.  On very cold days, I bring a small pitcher of water out and fill the lid to about 2” deep.  During the rest of the winter I keep my eye on where melting icicles or similar situations create puddles.  When there is nothing liquid to be seen, I fill the lid to be sure no one goes thirsty.  Pretty simple.

Consider Habitat and PREDATORS!?

Be sure to consider the habitat that surrounds your house and your feeders.  Birds need to perch and move around.  Consider the space you are working with and try to establish feeding station(s) in places that have a suitable habitat.  I hang my suet cages on my fence, where there’s plenty of room for everyone to find a perch.  Trees are important as well.  Even without leaves, birds enjoy hopping from branch to branch.  

Anything that simulates this type of situation, even twigs in a pile, can become a popular hang-out area.  The more wooded the area, the more likely you are to see more than a few species… and a few predators.  Especially in my city neighborhood, outdoor cats and feral cats will come creeping and snack on the birds you’ve lured to the feeders.  Consider the height of the feeders and the length of the grasses and shrubbery near your feeding station.  Don’t provide predators with hiding places.  As seen in the photos here, I didn’t cut my lawn soon enough and the neighbors feline snuggled right up to my feeders!

Want To Learn More?  
Penn State Extension 
Wildlife Outreach Center:  Winder Bird Feeding:  The Basics
** This publication includes a recipe for a simple bird feed you can make at home! **

Penn State Extension 
Landscaping for Wildlife: Wildlife Outreach Center Resources & Publications Page

Birdwatcher's Digest Home Page
This is a bi-monthly publication all about bird watching.  Whether you are an amateur just wondering what you're looking at through your window, or striving to reach genius expert levels with binoculars on-site, the Birdwatcher's Digest will have something of interest to you!   

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