This November I was able to add a new bird to my list. I was particularly pleased about this sighting as it was not only a new bird, but a new bird of prey. In my own backyard, literally. Thank goodness for the strong fall breezes removing most of the leaves from the trees. I had only been sitting out for about fifteen minutes, relaxing and waiting for the birds to get used to my presence and return to the feeders, when they all called out this horrible racket. As the Cooper’s Hawk settled down on a nearby branch, the trees erupted with objections from every other feathered and furred creature in the vicinity. The Blue Jays attempted to intimidate the predator with there loudest shrieks. The Squirrels making their panic noise, which is a cross between the sound of a dry-heave and nails on a chalkboard. The House Sparrows were also adding their sweet voices, not so much to intimidate as to deter the would be predator by demonstrating their greater numbers. Together these sounds and calls created the most inharmonious chorus ever heard. And they just kept it up!
At first I thought they were disturbed by the neighbor’s cat, who I had seen rushing from the middle of the next yard a moment earlier. This is a fairly regular occurrence. Later I realized that the cat was also panicked by the Hawk and running for his life. Not to sound too mean, but I took a slight bit of satisfaction that for once the cat was being terrorized, instead of terrorizing. But when the cat appears the ruckus soon calms down. With the cat gone, I started looking for another reason for their unhappiness. And that was when I spotted it. To have that kind of power to have just your silent presence on a branch cause so much commotion.
I knew instantly that this magnificent creator was not a Red-Tailed Hawk, the species of hawk seen very often in our town, especially in the nearby park. The darker color of the wings was my first indication that this bird was different. A quick look at its tail and rump confirmed that it was not the Red-Tailed Hawk (pictured on right below). The hatch marks of the feathers along the belly were also differently patterned and more heavily colored.
The Cooper’s Hawk is considered a medium sized hawk. They measure between just over a foot to twenty inches. The females are slightly larger than their male counterparts, but this is their only difference in appearance. The Cooper’s Hawk has a white chest, which appears rusty due to the closely placed hatch-marks on his belly feathers. Its back and wings are a slate gray and its tail is also gray and long, with a rounded end and a series of black bands running along the width of its tail. The face of the Cooper’s Hawk made the greatest impression on me. A fierce intelligence radiates from its red eyes. The top of its head is capped with dark gray feathers, while its cheek is covered in a rust colored blush, which further helps to emphasize the bird’s eyes. The Cooper’s Hawk looks almost the same as the Sharp-shinned Hawk except it is larger and has rounded tail where the Sharp-shinned has a squared tail.
The Cooper’s Hawk has shorter wings than some other hawks, a feature that helps them steer through trees. They apply ambush tactics when hunting and have been known to spend time at or near feeders, hoping to pick off an unsuspecting songbird. They are mostly silent, calling only to or from their nests. This quiet adds to their aura of danger and menace. While their diet is mostly comprised of smaller birds and small mammals, they have been known to eat reptiles and amphibians in a pinch.
While this species of hawk is present in New Jersey year round, some birds do migrate to Mexico and other warmer areas in the south. While their population was badly affected by DDT pollution in the 1950s-1980s, today they are a common bird. Spotting them however is often by chance. Knowing that I feel doubly lucky that I chose that morning to enjoy a bit of the autumn sunshine.
When I first started watching birds in my own backyard, the White-Breasted Nuthatch was one of the first “exotic” species I encountered. Basically, what I mean by that is the Nuthatch was the first bird I wasn’t able to name without the assistance of a field guide.
Since that initial sighting, I have become familiar with the comings and goings of these little guys. They are fairly small in stature, being about 5 or 6 inches, which puts them between the size of a Chickadee and a House Sparrow. Their coloring is not particularly memorable. The have slate gray wings, backs, necks and head caps and a white belly, throat and bottom. You can also look for a little bit of chestnut by the back of their legs and butt but it will probably be a flash sighting as these little guys move rather rapidly. Males and females look similar, but the females are a dark gray where the male is black. Their bodies are almost streamline, with their tail and their very long, thin beak almost lining up when the White-Breasted Nuthatch is looking straight ahead.
However plain is its appearance, the Nuthatch is distinct in its behavior. The Nuthatch hops head first down feeders and trees. From this upside-down posture, they often arch their necks to see forward, causing them to resemble a marble dolphin in a fountain. It is this behavior that has caused the White-Breasted Nuthatch to be nicknamed the “upside-down bird” by several members of my family.
The Nuthatch resemble Woodpeckers in their eating habits. They like to hunt and eat insects directly from trees. Their long toes and toenails, along with their long, thin beaks, are great tools for the job. They scrabble along tree bark, hunting for their dinner. However, this is where the Nuthatch is different. While a Woodpecker will land on a tree and hunt its way up to the top, the Nuthatch starts at the top and works down. This strategy allows them to see insects and insect eggs that are not visible from the bottom to top approach.
The Nuthatch will come to suet and seed feeders, but suet seems to be their preference. They also eat nuts and acorns, particularly in the autumn and winter, for they are non-migratory. Due to their Woodpecker-like behaviors, it won’t surprise you to learn that White-Breasted Nuthatches like to nest in cavities and often take over holes that have been deserted by woodpeckers. They have only one brood a year, and both parents concentrate their efforts on feeding the nestlings. Despite their smaller stature, the Nuthatch is generally not shy of other birds. They fly in mixed flocks outside of the breeding season and are not usually startled by companions at the feeder.
The White-Breasted Nuthatch has several relations that look similar to him. He resembles the Red-Breasted Nuthatch, which is also common to New Jersey, but is slightly smaller and has rusty red belly. The stripe over its eyes is the first noticeably difference for observers. The Brown-Headed Nuthatch, which only resembles the White-Breasted in shape and behavior, is more commonly found below the Mason-Dixon line, which includes the Southern tip of New Jersey.
Over the summer, I found myself shopping in a touristy, vacation
town. I had only just started working on this blog and was still
trying to determine what directions I would like to go with it and
all bird related products were of particular interest. I happened to
look up over the registers and there, hanging among the wind chimes
and windsocks were a series of felt birdhouses. The accompanying sign
assured customers that not only were they a sustainable and fair
trade product, but they were for inside or outside use. Taking one
look at these cute things I felt great doubt that they could sustain
a full season outside. But who knows? Lucky for me I had my phone
handy and thought fast enough to snap a quick reference photo. I put
this in my metaphorical bag of ideas, for a rainy day when I had time
for more googling.
didn’t actually take much research to find the source of these felt
birdhouses. Wild Woolies Felt Homemade Designs. The retail website
indicates that they are made of 100% wool, in Nepal. As I searched
the site and took a look at the birdhouses, I was genuinely surprised
by the variety of styles. According to my count, there are exactly
thirty-nine different felt real estate options. Many are what you
might expect, cute houses, themed and decorated in a way that you
just know Tinkerbell and her fairy friends would feel right at home.
These styles included the Pixie Cottage, Magic Mushroom and Fairy
House, as well as the Chalet and Hermit Hut (for those birds seeking
a life of solitude and quiet contemplation). There were others
inspired by nature such as the Acorn, Cactus and Beehive and several
decorated with flowers, humming birds and insects. But there were
also some less traditional housing options, including a Taco Truck,
Yellow Submarine, Hot Air Balloon and Yeti Hut (for which you could
also purchase the accompanying yetis). For me the most bizarre were
those designed to look like animals. The Owl, Chicken and Fox, which
all have holes in their bellies, making me assume that the emergence
of the resident bird probably looks like an adorable parody of a
scene from Alien. For me the
Puffer fish and flower power Elephant were just a bit too weird,
though admittedly cute.
browsed the different houses I caught myself thinking of which
friends would like which designs, as if I was doing my Christmas
shopping instead of researching for my blog. But the questions still
remained, can they really survive the elements and act as a
functioning birdhouse? I snapped out of my shopaholic state, and
started looking for reviews. I could only find one, which was a five
star review from 2018. A positive sign. Unfortunately the review
didn’t answer the question of outside use as the reviewer
specifically said she wouldn’t put it outside. Five stars for
cuteness, but does the product work outside as promised? I searched
in vain for a while longer before coming to the conclusion that there
were no more reviews. No one had put the wool birdhouses to the test
AND written about the results.
And then I got an idea. An Awful Idea. I had a Wonderful Awful Idea. Just kidding! What are the holidays without a good Grinch reference?! But I did truly have an idea. If I wanted to know how the houses fared outside, I should buy one. I could hang it out this spring and document its progress. And then I could write the definitive review that either confirmed or denounced whether these cute little houses can weather the elements.
have put in my order, and am anxiously awaiting my package. Stay
tuned to see which design I picked and learn how it does outside.
you are interested in buying one of these lovely houses, since I
think we can all agree that they are super cute, you can find them
at a variety of retail outlets, including amazon. I referenced
when I did my research which seems to be the outlet that features
all of the different style options. They also sell a variety of felt
bird ornaments, perfect for any bird lover on your holiday shopping
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.
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 off your couch, put on your boots and go fill up that feeder!
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. 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.
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.