Black-Capped Chickadees

Black-Capped Chickadee’s are one of Northern New Jersey’s year-round residents. Small but spunky (they are only about 5 inches), the Chickadee tends to be a bit shy of other birds around the feeder and will often wait to have some alone time with the seeds. When they are feeding young, often the pair will visit the yard together, one keeping watch while the other gets seeds. Then they swap places before flying off to fill the empty bellies and gaping mouths of their little ones. But don’t let this behavior make you think of them as cowards. The are cautious adventurers. If you are just starting to feed birds or you put out a new feeder, it is very likely that the Chickadees will be the first to find it.

Besides their small stature, you will know the Chickadee easily. He has a black cap and neck, with a tan belly and gray wings. There is some white in his wings and a white section at the back of his neck. I say he, but in fact the male, female and juvenile Black-Capped Chickadees are all identical. Even if you can’t see a Chickadee, they tend to be very polite, and introduce themselves with their typical “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” call that gives them their name (https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/sounds)

Attracting a Black-Capped Chickadee to your yard with a feeder is pretty easy. Their diet is varied enough with a mix of insects, seeds and fruit that they will come to seed or suet feeders. It is also pretty easy to convince them to become tenants. In nature the Black-Capped Chickadees like nesting in cavities, but they think the basic nest box is very homey. In my garden they have tried to move in for a few years now, however the Sparrows seem to intimidate them until they abandon their nesting activities. It takes them about 10-14 days to make their cavity homey, lining it with moss, feathers, hair and cocoons. They typically have one brood of 6-8 white eggs with red-brown markings. After three weeks the babies fly off make their own way in the world.

In the winter Chickadees have been known to flock in groups up to twelve. They like to roost in dense conifers for protection from the weather. They are easily spotted in the snow, foraging for food as they need to eat on a daily basis to survive. They must even brave the worst winter storms to search for food. So next time you look out your window into a snowstorm, spare a moment of thought for the brave little Chickadees.

Birding in the Winter

Bird watching in the winter is not always for the faint of heart. Some of the best snowy bird photos can only be taken when one is exposed to the elements. Wintry walks are one great option. Get out of the house for a bit, get some fresh air and explore your favorite trails from a different perspective. Sometimes this can be tricky, especially if piles of snow or icy patches have developed on the trail. In New Jersey the ice is more of an issue than snow, but trail safety, especially when carrying expensive camera equipment, can be sketchy at times. Just remember to have good treads on your footwear and take it nice and easy.

The backyard is also still an option during the winter months. I am not just talking about the view from the warm comfort behind the windowpane. Bundle up, bring a lawn chair and camp out for a bit outside. I have done this a few times after a good storm and I have gotten some amazing shots. The birds are just as happy as the humans that the snow has stopped, so they come out in force. Besides some strange glances from the neighbors, there is really no downside. I get a bit of fresh winter air, and the experience of fresh, clean snow which honestly doesn’t last more than a day of two in New Jersey most of the time.

Winter is also a great time to focus on some of the Northeast’s year-round birds. I feel like the summer is focused on attracting the rare birds…can I get some VIP’st to my yard? Winter allows us to rekindle our relationships with the everyday backyard birds. Woodpeckers, Cardinals, Chickadees, Blue Jays, several varieties of Sparrow. During the winter in New Jersey our usual cast of characters is also joined by the Dark Eyed Junco.

Even if you decide not to brave the storm, remember that the birds don’t have a choice. If you feed the birds during the summer, you really should feed them during the winter as well. During the summer they become used to thinking of your feeders as a source of food. The winter months, especially if there is snow and ice, can be deadly for birds. So get of your couch, put on your boots and go fill up that feeder!

The Dark-Eyed Junco- A Winter Resident

It isn’t often that anyone chooses to winter in the Northeast (birds included), but I guess New Jersey is just like Florida to a Canadian bird. A least the Dark-Eyed Junco seems to think so. Juncos spend their summers in Canada, flying South for the winter months. If you leave your feeders fulled in the winter, Dark-Eyed Juncos will probably be regular customers. In winter they are often seen in flocks, some of which include other small birds, such as chickadees and sparrows. When not at a feeder, you will see them foraging on the ground using their “double scratching” technique, which makes them appear to be hopping in place. In summer they eat a varied diet of insects and seeds, but in winter it is all seeds, all the time.

Dark-Eyed Juncos are actually a very common sight in winter throughout the continental United States, but the species is divided into five regional subspecies. The sub-species to frequent the Northeast is Slate-colored; Oregon, White-winged, Grey-headed and Guadalupe being the other four sub-species.

As the name implies, the male Slate-colored Dark-Eyed Junco has a matted or slate black body, with a grey belly and white under-tail. The female is even more muted, with a tan/brown body and white belly and under-tail. At about 5 1/2-6 inches, they are only slightly smaller than House Sparrows and only slightly larger than a Chickadee. Their most defining feature is their rounded belly, which is reminiscent of Santa Claus, even if it doesn’t seem to shake like a bowl full of jelly.

Like so many of nature’s other clues, the arrival of the Dark-Eyed Junco in November tells of impending changes in the weather. When they finally depart New Jersey, often in April, we know that Spring has truly arrived!

Bird Feeders Are Not All Created Equal

Bird feeders are not all created equal. Any squirrel will tell you this. I have been through many, many feeders at this point, but even the better made, better quality feeders will fail eventually. This is especially true for those made of plastic. Any plastic, even good plastic, will eventually perish when exposed to the extreme cold of winter. There are those people who bring their feeders in during the winter. But you are possibly hurting the birds to save a feeder. Summer feeding is much less important to bird survival. They have other sources of food and they can forage more easily. In winter, especially in snow, that is much more difficult. And remember, many fledglings were taught that your feeder was a food source. They will expect that to remain the case through their first winter. If you want to bring your feeders in, start to wean the birds of their dependence in the late summer and early autumn. Fill your feeders less often, or with less seed. If you have multiple feeders, remove one at a time and allow the birds to adjust.

There are a variety of different bird feeders out there, and sometimes it is difficult to know what you want to buy. Seed feeders probably come in the largest variety of both shapes and materials. There are two important things to keep in mind when purchasing a seed feeder. #1 there is no such thing as a feeder that keeps out squirrels. It is definitely true that some feeders are more squirrel resistant than others. But the squirrels have all summer to figure out how to break into your feeders, and you can be sure, no matter how long it takes, one day one lucky squirrel will break the code. #2 the size of the access holes or slits in the feeder, and their corresponding perches are directly related to what birds will be able to use your feeder. Many cylindrical feeders are designed with smaller birds in mind. Larger birds, such as Cardinals, Blue Jays and Grackles, have a difficult time accessing food directly from these feeders They can’t balance and they often can’t get their beaks into the holes. That doesn’t mean they won’t come around. They may glean on the ground below your feeders, eating the seed that falls or they may rock your feeders to spill additional food. There are a variety of different bird feeders out there, and sometimes it is difficult to know what you want to buy.

The holes or slits on seed feeders are a really important consideration all around. Some feeders only have a few openings, while other have many. The question you need to answer before selecting a feeder is, do I want more birds, or do I want to buy bird seed less often? There is really no right or wrong answer. Seed feeders with slits are the most expensive as seeds can easily be spilled or knocked. The summer I used a slit feeder, I filled it only about half as much as I filled my other feeders, simply because it was so often empty merely hours after I filled it.

Materials used to make seed feeders is another large consideration. They can be found in wood, various grades of plastic and metal. Often a feeder will have a combination of materials. I have remained on the cheaper end of the spectrum, often buying “good” plastic feeders and I have been fairly happy. I have also used several feeders that have come free with my bird poles, most of which have been totally crap. One was so flimsy I put it up in the morning, had to throw it out when I got home from work…totally ripped to shreds by the squirrels. I was honestly not surprised in the least. So thicker plastic is better. But it is important to keep in mind that hard plastic also runs the risk of cracking if it falls to the ground (squirrel or high wind), especially after a season of two of weathering has made it more brittle.

Besides my many plastic feeders, I did inherit a lovely wooden feeder, which remains my favorite. However, I have stopped using this feeder because its weight (especially when holding a whole squirrel) was having a very negative effect on my feeder pole, bending it down and tipping it to one side. In a sturdy tree I have no doubt I would have fared better. The large ledge on this feeder was both a positive attribute and a negative. The larger birds really loved this feeder, but the ledge also made life much easier for squirrels and chipmunks to not only get at the seed, but to sit on the ledge and eat themselves silly. I went through a lot more seed when I used this feeder, and that, along with the damage to the bird pole, is why I retired it to my basement.

I have also had the opportunity to watch several metal feeders in action. Most metal seed feeders have a cylindrical, chicken wire style body, with a series of rectangular or triangular openings. They usually have a ledge at their base and the top usually unscrews to allow filling. These types are really popular among both the smaller birds (sparrows, finches, chickadees) and woodpeckers, nuthatches, cardinals etc. The larger tree climbing birds, such as the woodpeckers and nuthatches are really able to hook into the holes, balance and peck, similar to their natural stance on a tree. One major drawback with metal is weather exposure. If you have a very windy rain storm your seed will get wet. As wet seed can grow mold and potentially make birds sick, I always try to dump out my feeders after a very wet storm, so that the seeds don’t have time to mold and harm the birds.

I think, considering all the pros and cons, metal feeders are really the way to go. They withstand the elements better. They are less likely to be damaged from falls. They are no more difficult to fill than other feeders. They represent the best balance of durability and lightweight. Some manufacturers try to add metal components to plastic feeders, which sometimes serves to make them stronger, but I still think all metal is the best move.

Before we can completely move away from the topic of seed feeders, we must also consider finch feeders. Like the popular girls at school, everyone wants to catch the attention of finches to their gardens. And because the finches are so special, they get their own special seeds and their own designated feeders. This is because nyjer seeds, the finch food of choice, are much thinner than most other bird seeds. They tend to slip out of normal feeders. As a result finch feeders have most of the same qualities as all other seed feeders, with the exception that they all have much smaller holes. If you aren’t sure you can attract finches, you might want to start with a finch sock. Inexpensively found where most bird feeders are sold, the “socks” are thin cloth bags with very small vent holes. They are usually refillable, with a drawstring top. While they are very inexpensive, I have found they do not withstand the elements. Especially if you do attract a lot of finches, expect to replace your sock once or even twice a season (at least). Being such thin material, they are very easily torn. Once you have a hole, you are done, because those thin nyjer seeds just spill out and the finches rarely, if ever, will go looking on the ground. If you decide to graduate from a sock to a more substantial feeder, you will find a variety of metal and plastic finch feeders, all identified specifically as finch feeders due to those smaller openings. Like with all seed feeders, if you want longevity, go with metal.

In comparison to seed feeders, suet feeders are pretty straightforward. Yes there is occasionally a fancy wood and metal suet feeder available, but the basic square metal hinged cage seems to serve just fine. I have inherited several since I started feeding birds and I haven’t needed to throw any away due to damages. The biggest area of concern is where the two halves close. A lack or loss of tension and the suet feeder will pop open easily. Suet feeders are also relatively inexpensive compared to other feeders, so no real worries there. I highly recommend that everyone consider having a suet feeder. The suet is a bit gross at first, but you soon get used to it and you will find they attract a greater variety of birds. Larger birds like suet and can use suet feeders. With a suet feeder I have attracted woodpeckers, red-winged blackbirds, grackles, cardinals and catbirds. I have also seen Baltimore Orieles, nuthatches and other birds drawn to them. Weather is the big drawback with suet. A rainy day and your suet dissolves. I have started checking the weather for the next few days before refilling my suet. Sometimes manufacturers will combine seed feeders with suet feeders, which is a nice way to save space. My wooden seed feeder was a combination feeder and I saw no disadvantages. The birds weren’t bothered by each other, and sometimes they would switch from suet to seed or seed to suet depending on what other birds came to the feeder.

Not unlike finch feeders, hummingbird feeders and Oriole nectar feeders are a bit more specialized. While Oriole feeders tend to hold more nectar and be larger, with larger perches, they are in essence very similar. They are usually a bottle like shape on top with the perch base usually doubling as a threaded lid, when flipped upside down. When right-side up, the base has holes where the birds can reach in to drink the nectar. Depending on the quality of the feeder’s plastic (they are pretty much all plastic) cracks or damage to the thread or seams are your major concern. You will have a sticky mess! Nectar food, often dyed red with food coloring, can be easily made at home with boiled water and sugar. It is important to know that if your feeder is not frequented by a lot of birds (my parents probably have 50-70 hummingbird’s perch in their feeders daily) you need to dump out the nectar every few days, regardless of how much has been consumed. This is particularly true if the nectar is in direct sunlight. Old nectar can harm or even kill hummingbirds. If you are having trouble with ants (or uncles) getting into your nectar, you can buy a smooth ceramic, bell-shaped attachment which goes between your hook and the string of the feeder. Apparently the ants can’t get purchase on the surface, so they cannot crawl down to the feeder.

I have saved jam feeders for last because they are my new favorite. Jam is a favorite among Orioles, and we have also discovered some Catbirds are also big fans. The feeders follow the same basic design as a nectar feeder, upside down jar or holder, with a threaded base that doubles as the lid. Potentially very sticky, but also a lot of fun. The one my parents have has a build in arm which scrapes the jam off the sides of the feeder so that it will drop down for the birds to more easily access.

There are a lot of feeder types out there, and this article is really only just scratching the surface. I have not discussed meal-worm or orange feeders because I don’t personally have much experience with either. My general advice is to test things out before you buy an expensive feeder of any kind. Observe what the birds like, what they seem hesitant of etc. Then you can make more expensive purchases with insider knowledge. The last thing you want to do is buy an expensive feeder the birds don’t like. Another aspect of feeder shopping to consider is that unfortunately a lot of stores seem to be under the impression that there is a feeder season. Yes places like Home Depot, Lowes, and Walmart sell feeders year round, but they often get a greater supply in the spring. So if you are looking to replace a feeder in the winter, there are often slim pickings. If you know what you want, you might be better off online, but I like to look at the feeders in person.

Female Northern Cardinals

I know that I have already written about Northern Cardinals, but I feel that the female Cardinal deserves some special attention. As I mentioned in an earlier post, because of the bright red color of the male Northern Cardinal, the females are often overlooked. But they are really just as interesting to watch and, in my opinion, their subtle hints of red are more striking than the bold display presented by their male counterpart.

The female Cardinal is the same size as the male, 8 ¾ -9 inches. She is a golden brown color with some red highlights on her tail, wings, crest and above her eye. She has a red beak, the same as her male counterpart and she has the same black mask on her face, though usually her mask is smaller and more subtle.

What I love most about the female Cardinals that visit my yard is their sassy attitude. They are just as likely to be aggressive with other birds as a male Cardinal, and there is nothing timid or passive about these ladies. Cardinals are usually one of the larger birds at my feeders and the females have no problem throwing their weight around if need be.

The female Cardinals I have been watching seem more adventurous than the males. The female Cardinals are often balancing on the feeders designed for smaller birds, and figuring out how to perch. Sometimes it takes a few tries, but they usually figure out a good, if awkward, way to balance. The males, either don’t have the patience or maybe have a bit more weight to them making this less likely.

Cardinal couples are monogamous for at least one breeding season, sometimes more. Bird monogamy, and the cheating therein, probably deserves a whole post of its own, and we won’t go into the genetics discussion right now. In one season they will have usually two or three broods. Once the first group have hatched, the male feeds and cares for them while the female goes off to lay and incubate the next clutch.

Northern Flicker

Common year round throughout most of the United States (with the exception of parts of Southern Texas, New Mexico and California), the Northern Flicker is not a regular visitor to my yard. Despite a limited number of sightings, I know Northern Flicker are in the neighborhood, as I can hear their distinctive, hyena like call: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/education/nasongkey.pl?bird=Northern+Flicker

As a result of their scarcity in my yard, I am very excited whenever one makes an appearance and I can get a good photo. When I have sighted a Northern Flicker, in my yard or out on various walks, I have noticed that they seem more shy and skittish than other species of woodpecker. If you are lucky enough to be sitting, with a camera nearby, as I was for some of these photos, then you are golden. Any major movements, and the Northern Flicker will bolt. Not necessarily very far, but you will inevitably lose it in the chase.

While technically a woodpecker, you often see the Northern Flicker on the ground or very low to the ground, on stumps etc. This is due to their great affinity to ants. They eat primarily insects, so don’t expect to see them at your suet or seed feeders like many other woodpeckers. In a pinch they will eat nuts or grain, so you might get lucky if food is scarce. Due to their shorter legs, they hop around rather than walk.

Compared to other woodpeckers with their black and white patterning, the Northern Flicker is a bit more subtly feathered, with a golden-brown back, which often blends in to the background more effectively. In my region, the Northeast, the yellow-shafted sub-species is most common. There is also a red-shafted Northern Flicker, the shaft in both cases referring to the flight feathers. If you are looking at the Northern Flicker from the side while stationary, the only hint of yellow can be detected at the very edges of the wings.

All of the photos on this page depict male Northern Flickers. The most distinct difference between the male and female is the male’s black markings on his cheeks. While one of my field guides calls it a mustache and another refers to it as “black malar stripe,” it always reminds me of eye black glare, like football players use.

Other aspects of the appearance that help to identify a Northern Flicker from other woodpeckers are the spotted belly, as I mentioned the golden-brown coloring, and a gray head with a distinctive red patch.

Splish-splash in the Bird Bath

I was in search of the ideal bird bath for almost two summers before I finally settled with the weighted plastic model I bought from Lowes. Despite the fact that it wasn’t exactly the bird bath I had designed in my imagination, I was very happy to both provide my feathered friends with water and, of course, to observe and photograph their aquatic-antics.

So I did some bird bath research, made sure I was dumping the old water regularly and refilling it with fresh. I even converted a kitchen brush for scrubbing dishes into a bird bath scrubber to get rid of anything gross growing along the edge of the bird bath (I guess I used a bit to much elbow grease because after about three months of cleaning the bird bath, the finishing paint started pealing off the basin).

So my bird bath was in place, clean and welcoming, safe and ready to provide refreshing baths for hundreds of birds.

And they just never took a bath.

They did use the bird bath as a convenient ledge to rest on.

Sometimes they even decided to drink out of it.

Sometimes they even seemed to be scrying the future in its surface.

Even the squirrels were drinking from it…and using it as a jumping point onto my feeders whenever they were feeling particularly bouncy.

But no baths, or at least no baths while I was in the yard. Occasionally I would pull in the driveway and there was a bird looking wet and hopping out of the bird bath. But when I am in the yard, armed with my camera and ready for the water droplets to fall, nothing. Maybe they were shy. I don’t know.

Then one summer day, we had locked ourselves out of our house after an afternoon of grilling and sitting in the yard. I was frustrated with the situation and tired of standing over my husband as he tried to break in to our home, so I took my camera back out, turned my back on my problems and watched the feeders. Within minutes a Starling landed on the bird bath. At this point I had been two years with a bird bath and I knew better than to hope for an actual bath. But I figured if it perched long enough I might be able to get some interesting shots. And then it did the unexpected. It stepped off of the ledge, entered the water and actually bathed. A bird used my bird bath to take a bath! Amazing!

I was so shocked that my frustration with the locked door vanished. My husband didn’t seem to understand the monumental level of excitement about a bird taking a bath in a bird bath, so I left him to his task, feeling great satisfaction that after two years my investment had paid off. I settled back down to watch the feeders some more, assured that we would soon be back in the house, when a Catbird landed on the bird bath. And then he walked into the water. And took a bath.

It is really the little things in life. And the funny part is, if we hadn’t been locked out, I would have been inside cleaning up or something equally mundane and I never would have witnessed these two stupendous baths.