Bird Watching in the Days of Social Distance

As so many of us are entering into our fourth week of self quarantine because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the struggle to maintain some sense of normality and sanity continues. As many of us work from home, or try to work from home, and so many others are faced with unemployment during the crisis, it is important that we continue to experience the calming effects of nature and the outdoors. And this we can do right in our own backyards and gardens. Just walking outside your door to do some yard work in the sunshine and fresh air can help to ease some of the tension and anxiety, even if just for a short amount of time. You should think of your yard as your sanctuary. This is especially true now that many of the parks in northern New Jersey have been closed to the public. Those of us who are used to traveling to the birds must now be content with seeing only those birds that come to visit us.

March did not come in like a lion this year, but it demonstrated variable and unpredictable tendencies that fluctuated between lion and lamb all month. Thus far April seems to be more accepting that spring has arrived. In our house we know that spring has arrived when we start to be awoken daily by the hammering of a Woodpecker on the outside of our house. I am not sure if it is the same Woodpecker every year, or even every morning, but our vinyl cedar shake shading seems to really have a special attraction, which is lacking in the dozens of trees in a 3 yard radius.

Watching the feeders right now is like a reunion. All our summer favorites have returned from their winter abodes and are getting settled back in. And those winter residents that never left us seem to be venturing out a bit more than they do in the winter, taking advantage of the change in the weather to begin bulking up. Even if we cannot see them all, we can most certainly hear them. With so many birds in the neighborhood establishing their territorial boundaries, searching for mates and seeming to be generally happy that the sun is somewhat shining, the neighborhood is alive with bird song.

Just a few days ago I decided to put my finch feeder back out on the post and see if I could attract New Jersey’s state bird, the goldfinch. In less than twenty-four hours I had success. The males were still molting into their bright yellow summer outfits, but they came none the less. I have been very pleased with the variety of birds I have seen this early in April. This includes some less frequent visitors, such as a curious Carolina Wren and a chatty Brown-headed Cowbird. Even one Dark-Eyed Junco is still kicking around. He seemed unconvinced that winter has left for good, but I think he is alone in that thinking.

Besides being as hungry as ever, they also seem to have that nesting bug. Both of my nest boxes are already humming with activity as two pairs of House Sparrows do their part to increase the population.

So try to take a few minutes each day to go outside and take it all in. The world hasn’t ended and life is going to carry on just as it always has. We will be able to get out to our nature preserves and parks soon, so just hang in there and take quarantine one day at a time.

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.

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.