Bread-Should We Feed it to Birds?

I would like to definitively settle an ongoing debate, at least for myself. Can we feed birds bread, or are we hurting them? To provide a bit of background, I grew up feeding the ducks stale bread. It was an annual vacation tradition with my grandmother. We went up to Lake George, settled into O’Sullivan’s Motel and headed down to the beach to feed the ducks. I am pretty sure that grandma rationed grandpa’s bread intake for a few weeks to amass the quantity of stale bread she deemed an adequate offering to our feathered friends. So I grew up feeding the ducks bread and I sentimentally view it as a fun pastime, one that I want to share with the little ones in my life.

As an adult I recognize that feeding the birds, particularly waterfowl, is a complex issue. If you feed birds in one location too often, they can develop a dependence on that food source instead of seeking their food. In public spaces, such as parks and beaches, there is a human health concern to attracting birds who then assemble in large numbers, fowling the area. Excess bread can also mold and negatively effect the water in which the birds live. This is especially the case in ponds and small bodies of still water. The birds can also, especially Canada Geese and Swans, be unfriendly and have been known to attack small children when they have felt threatened. In this post I don’t want to focus on any of these components of the larger discussion. I simply want to discern if I am physically hurting a bird by feeding it bread.

According the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, bread will not harm birds if ingested. They can fully digest bread of all types. But there is a but. While they will eat it, bread does not provide the protein or fat the birds really need. It is an empty filler. Carbs, even birds should avoid them! It is okay to leave out bread, but try not to offer it too often or exclusively, as it can cause vitamin deficiency if it becomes a staple of the bird’s diet. If you are leaving out bread, you should break it into smaller pieces, especially in the spring. Hard stale bread should be soaked so it is easier to digest. Multigrain bread is better for birds than overly processed white bread. You can also add protein by spreading jelly, marmalade or nut butter on the bread. The spreads can even be topped with seeds, dried fruit or insects, making the bread a platform, rather than the main food source.

Furthermore, there is a variety of household food waste that can be left out for birds rather than thrown away: the cut fat from unsalted meat, mild cheeses (grated), dried or bruised fruit, baked or mashed potatoes and pastry (cooked or uncooked). Seeds from pumpkins or squash can also be left out for the birds. If you are feeding waterfowl, greens, such as lettuce would also be a good choice, just be sure it is chopped into a manageable size. Non-salted food is the key here as any human salt will be harmful to the birds.

Sources:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/how-you-can-help-birds/feeding-birds/safe-food-for-birds/household-scraps-for-birds/

https://lifehacker.com/dont-feed-bread-to-birds-1833943997

https://www.thespruce.com/good-bread-for-birds-385833

Felt Birdhouses: An Update

My Wild Woolies Felt Birdhouse has arrived! After much debate over which style I wanted, I decided on the Pixie Cottage. I guess I am still too much of a traditionalist to have birds living in a face. If I am honest, I did almost go with the Gnome before deciding I liked the Cottage look.

Upon its arrival, I inspected the house thoroughly. I am impressed with the quality of the wool, which is thicker than I expected and seems fairly sturdy. I like all of the details of the house even better in person and I was very pleased that it looks almost exactly like the photo on the website.

One feature that I was pleasantly surprised to find was the opening at the bottom for cleaning out old nesting material. I think that will turn out to be pretty handy if the house can withstand the elements for more than one season.

On a related note, I am starting to see Wild Woolies products available in stores. There was a selection of houses on sale in the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park store in Peninsula, Ohio. I also noticed a variety of the wool Christmas ornaments were hanging up in a Whole Foods in North Jersey this past December. So keep your eyes peeled!

This is the update for now. For the rest of this experiment we will all just have to wait in suspense until spring!

Blue Jays- The Bully of the Backyard

I have seen numerous references to Blue Jays as “the sentinels of the forest,” sounding the alarm of danger for their fellow birds and other woodland creatures. I feel that this title attributes a benevolent quality to the Blue Jay’s actions which is totally unwarranted. True, Blue Jays often send out loud cries which serve as a warning to the rest of the animals in the immediate vicinity. However, rather than the primary purpose of the call, this is often a coincidental side effect, if not a deliberate misrepresentation, designed to scare the other birds away from what the Blue Jays covet for themselves.

Based on my observations, rather than the overseer of safety, I think it would be more accurate to classify the Blue Jays as the bombastic and inflated characters that they are. John James Audubon, for whom many bird watching societies are named, referred to Blue Jays as “mischievous.” Like the bully in a playground, the Blue Jays very loudly and pompously push their way into the midst of the feeder crowd, using their superior size and prancing movements to intimidate and push their fellow birds from the seed or perch they plan to possess.

Don’t get me wrong, Blue Jays are a beautiful bird. Familiar to most people, at about twelve inches long, the Blue Jay ‘s back, head and tail are a bright, light blue, decorated with horizontal stripes along the bottom of its wings and length of its tail. A fluffier white-gray belly and neck provides some contrast. Its face is bordered in a black semi-circle, almost like a beard. Its head is topped with a distinct crest, adding an almost regal formality to the Blue Jay’s overall appearance.

One of the reasons Blue Jays are so familiar to us is directly due to human interaction. Blue Jays have adapted well to human populations, both urban and suburban and are just as comfortable in a yard or park as they are in the forest. People are a consistent and convenient source of food all year and as a result very few Blue Jays migrate in the winter. They have a varied diet of bugs, fruit, seeds, nuts (they are very partial to peanuts specifically) and carrion which allows them additional flexibility in their various habitats. They also cache food, a behavior uncommon in birds. In the spring, Blue Jays supplement their diets by attacking the nests of other birds and eating their eggs or newly hatched nestlings. Yes, Blue Jays eat babies. While they are not the only bird species to behave in this manner, this activity is leading to a decline in many forest’s song bird populations as nest robber population, including the Blue Jay increase due to their positive relations to humans.

Blue Jays are interesting it watch. The have a curious and inquisitive nature that seems to imply a deeper intelligence. Matched with their seeming fearlessness, these qualities find them often invading humans’ personal space bubbles similar to seagulls approaching beach goers. But while their “mischievous” actions may be funny, remember that they can also be aggressive and even mean to other species.

Blue Jays can definitely hold their own, and have been known to mob (or attack as a group) owls and other large predator birds. Their imitation of a hawk can scatter birds in an instant and the juveniles seem to pick up this loud-mouth quality very early on. The cries of a juvenile Blue Jay are some of the loudest and most unsettling sounds of nature. They seem to feel that their parents need a constant verbal reminder to feed them immediately! This behavior lasts for the first twenty days of their life, after which point they are responsible for feeding themselves.

So there you have it, a loud-mouth bully with aggressive behavior. Next time you admire the beautiful blue of a Blue Jay, just remember that appearance is only one aspect of its complex character.

To experience the sounds of the Blue Jay for yourself, visit https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Blue_Jay/sounds

Cooper’s Hawk

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.

The White- Breasted Nuthatch

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.

Felt Birdhouses?

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.

It 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.

As I 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.

So I 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.

If 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 https://www.songbirdgarden.com/ 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 list.

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.