In honor of International Friendship day, I thought I would write about birds of a feather getting along. As those of my readers who have feeders will know, one of the great joys of watching birds in your yard is being able to witness their antics. Regardless of the species, as a group they are funny creatures. I personally enjoy watching them interact with their fellow feathered creatures. Therefore, I decided to dedicate this post to getting along…at least some of the time.
Little birds generally seem less territorial of feeders. They operate on a “the more the merrier” mentality. I guess when you are that small, a full feeder represents more than you could possibly eat. It has been my observation that most of the smaller birds, sparrows, finches and nuthatches, among others take a flight rather than fight approach the minute an interaction turns the slightest confrontational. This makes sense, given their size. I have noticed that the House Sparrows are also either the most forgiving or the birds with the shortest memory, because two seconds after taking off, back they come for another pass at the feeders.
With bigger birds, it really depends on who they’re interacting with. Blue Jays often use the strategy of crashing in and scaring everyone away. Like a fighter jet, they are in and out again before you are even sure what happened. In comparison, the Northern Cardinals just stand their ground and voice their displeasure, usually pushing up their crest feathers, just in case the rest of their body language hadn’t made their feelings clear enough to the transgressor. But the Cardinals are pretty unpredictable. Sometimes they are happy to share and other days they want all the grub to themselves.
Woodpeckers also seem to have trouble sharing. At times I can totally understand their mood. They are usually hanging from the suet feeder and they only just find a good spot, the feeder only just stops rocking and they are digging their bills into some good chow when suddenly someone lands on the suet and starts the whole thing rocking again. That would annoy anyone! Most times they grab a few bits and cut their losses but I have seen a few get a bit snippy with the offender. One spring a juvenile Downy Woodpecker got tough with a juvenile House Sparrow. The House Sparrow gave it right back, but he did have several brothers to back him up.
Mourning Doves are a gentle giant, usually happy to share with everyone or to clear out if the other bird seems the slightest bit tough. I have seen a few Mourning Doves push other birds away at the feeders on occasion, but it is really rare behavior.
Baltimore Orioles are another story altogether. It is like their beauty makes them God’s gift to the forest. They do not like sharing with anyone and they will fight for what they feel is theirs. Unfortunately for one Male Baltimore Oriole I observed, the Grey Catbird he was challenging was not really in the mood to be pushed around and gave it right back!
While the fighting is funny to watch, I think I do prefer when everyone is getting along nicely at my feeders. Much less spilled seed and more opportunities to get good photos than when they are all ruffled and flitting around to get after each other. I guess all we can do is hope that they settle their own disputes amicably and co-exist peacefully.
Found throughout the state of New Jersey in great numbers, it is little wonder that the American Goldfinch was officially declared the New Jersey state bird on June 27, 1935. Not only are they found around the state, many of the Goldfinch stay around all winter. However, in northern New Jersey we usually only see them in spring and summer as many of the state’s population migrate further south with the cold weather, in search of larger sources of food. At one time the population was noticed to decline as the House Sparrow population increased, but today the numbers have stabilized and the species is not considered under threat.
At five inches, the American Goldfinch is an inch smaller than most sparrows. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in color. We all know this iconic bright yellow bird. The male has a black patch at the front of his head, as well as black wings and a tail. The wings have small bars of white, and a small patch of white is sometimes visible on its belly, right where the tail connects to its body. The female is just duller in color all around. The classic example of bird species where the vibrant male plumage is in contrast with a female of mellower coloring. The female’s yellow is just duller, almost grayer than her male counterpart. The black and white of her wings is also a bit more drab and she lacks the black on her head.
The male American Goldfinch does experience one of natures more drastic molts. After the conclusion of the mating season, the males lose their bright luster and appear much more muted, almost indistinguishable from the females. He does not even retain his black forehead plumage. His transformation in early spring, back into the brighter version of himself can sometimes seem even more extreme. During this process the males often look ill or strange, with patches or tufts of white scattered among the brighter yellow feathers.
The American Goldfinch eat a wide variety of seeds, as well as some berries, flowers and the occasional insect. They will visit seed feeders, but if you want to be sure that they find you, you can fill a feeder with exclusively Nyjer seeds. Nyjer attracts finches the same way that catnip calls to cats. It really works. Nyjer seeds come from the African yellow daisy, and they are so appealing to the finches because of their high oil content. Unfortunately, the Nyjer seeds are more expensive than the average backyard bird mix.
If you do succeed to attract New Jersey’s mascot to your feeders, be prepared for some of the most wimpy behavior you have ever seen. Goldfinch are not just flighty or shy, they are the most hesitant bird I have even seen. Often coming to my yard in groups of three to seven, they will slowly hop from branch to lower branch, calling to each other in their high-pitched squeaks. I swear the squeaks have a questioning inflection. “Is it safe?” “Is it safe?” They leap frog their way down the trees until the group finally convinces one bird (often a female, which I find interesting) to go the distance and land on the feeder. Once the guinea pig passes the test, the others will tentatively make their way over, often one at a time. But the slightest motion from an observer, or another bird, and they are all off like a shot, back up to the top of the tree, to start the process all over again.
If you are looking for the American Goldfinch beyond your own backyard, you can frequently find them in fields with high grass and weeds. They are also fond of open woodland. Gardens with lots of sunflower type plants are another good spot to look. Outside of the breeding season, they can be found in groups of up to twenty.
The American Goldfinch is known to be late to nest, waiting until late August or sometimes even in early September before they nest. The females usually build their cup-shaped nest in the fork of a tree branch and, like the hummingbird, they use spider silk and caterpillar webbing on the outside of the nest as binding. Due to their late start, the American Goldfinch only have one brood. Each brood consists of between four to six blue eggs, which the female incubates. The male will return to the nest periodically to feed her, but she sometimes has to call him and beg for him to return. Once the eggs hatch, the male assists with the feeding of the young. From year to year they will select different mates and are not monogamous.
There is just something about the color yellow. While some birds carry their yellow plumage more subtly than others, it never fails to draw attention. I thought it might be fun to highlight some of our yellow feathered friends, and how they manage to pull off such a bold and outspoken color.
Of course when you talk about yellow birds, it would be remiss not to at least acknowledge one of the most famous yellow birds in history. Yup, you guessed it, Big Bird. At eight feet, two inches I think it is safe to say that Big Bird is the largest yellow bird the world will ever see. Since 1969 he has resided on Seasame Street, educating generations of children. However, as we are unlikely to ever see Big Bird or his like on a hike in the woods (a mixed blessing really) I think we will switch our focus to some of his smaller yellow contemporaries.
Big Bird and a few other species aside, most birds seem to feel that a touch of yellow is bold enough to draw attention to them, without causing them to stand out too much. What they really want is for the yellow to attract mates, without also attracting predators. And in some cases I think they might have the right idea with their approach. In the case of yellow, less is often more.
We take as our first example of subtle yellow, the Cedar Waxwing. Mostly a dull brown-gray, the Waxwing’s yellow can be seen in two places. The downy feathers of its belly have a yellow tint to them, revealed only to those who have the advantage of seeing it from the ground. The second splash of yellow that the Cedar Waxwing displays is a bit bolder, and can be found on the very tip of its tail, a feature it has in common with the slightly larger Bohemian Waxwing. Together, and compared to the dull coloring of the rest of his plumage, these two splashes of yellow do attract the eye.
Our next bird uses yellow similarly to the Cedar Waxwing, displaying it on its belly. The Great-Crested Flycatcher is not the only flycatcher with a yellow belly. However, it has the brightest yellow belly of all its fellow flycatchers. Despite that statement, you can see from the photo that its downy belly could still be considered light or dull yellow when compared to many of the other birds that sport yellow plumage.
Though much smaller than both the Cedar Waxwing and the Great-Crested Flycatcher, the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet shares their fairly flat brown-gray coloring. The Ruby-Crowned Kinglet displays its yellow it is a bolder spot then its belly. Both the male and the female have a series of bars and stripes of both white and yellow on the tips of its wing and tail feathers. While stationary this yellow may not attract too much attention, but when in motion, the yellow and white stripes draw the eye, almost as boldly as racing stripes on a race car.
The White-Throated Sparrow is probably is probably the most common backyard bird to display the power of the subtle use of yellow. With two dashes of yellow, over the top of each eye, this Sparrow is immediately distinguishable from any other sparrows that might be at your feeders. I am not sure if it is the placement of the yellow, so close to the white strip or if it is the contrast of the yellow against a relatively dark brown head and body. Perhaps it is a combination of both. But there is no denying, the minute a White-Throated Sparrow is on the scene, you can’t help but notice it.
The Common Yellowthroat displays its yellow a bit more openly. While the throats of both sexes of the Common Yellowthroat are the brightest yellow plumage found on their bodies, their brown-gray back feathers do have a yellowish tint if seen in the right light. I personally think the male’s yellow seems a bit brighter than his mate, but that could be because of the contrast between the yellow and the black mask across his face. The female’s face, in comparison, is the same brown-gray of its body, and therefore the combination provides less of an impact.
Yellow plumage is a very common feature of many of North America’s many warblers. As with other bird varieties, we find that some warblers use yellow more sparingly than others. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler provides a good example of subdued yellow plumage on a warbler. The Yellow-Rumped Warbler sports bright yellow splashes in a few key areas, which contrast with the gray, white and black of the rest of its plumage. As his name clearly indicates, one of those three splashes is located on its “rump.” Rump in this case refers to its back, where its tail attaches to its body. Besides its backside, the Yellow-Rumped Warbler also has a flash of yellow on either side of its breast, near where its wings tuck into its body. The third yellow highlight is a stripe going down the center of its head.
When observed alone, the yellow of the Yellow-Rumped Warbler might not seem all that understated. But compare him to the male Palm Warbler or the Yellow Warbler, and suddenly you will understand what I mean by understated. While the Palm Warbler (left) is not completely yellow, he may as well be. While his wings, tail and back are a brownish-green or olive, his chest immediately draws your eye with its vivid yellow coloring. The Yellow Warbler (right) can’t even pretend. While it does have black wing bars and brown stripes running down its belly, the Yellow Warbler is everything its name implies, yellow. After a quick look at the warbler section of any North American bird book, you will see that I am not kidding when I say that these are just two examples of mostly yellow warblers. I counted about fourteen, but you could easily find more. It all depends on where you draw the line between yellow and yellow highlights.
Of course, having talked about all of these yellow birds, many of my readers are probably wondering how I could be so remiss as to omit the bright yellow of the Goldfinch, New Jersey’s state bird. However, rather than omit it, I was saving the best for last. The Goldfinch is probably one of the first birds that come to mind when a bird watcher is asked to name a yellow bird. Despite its name, the Goldfinch is not a rich gold color, but rather a bright and bold yellow. The males sport a black cap on their heads, and both sexes also display black wings with a white band. As is the case with so many bird species, the male Goldfinch tends to be the brighter of the two sexes, but the females are still pretty bright, and only seem dull when they are directly compared to the males.
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.
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.
A leisurely weekend morning spent in the garden with a book, a cup of
tea and my trusty camera, ready for action. Many of my usual
customers stopped by, including a pair of Cardinals, several Mourning
Doves, House Finches and Goldfinches of both genders and a Catbird. A
Brown-Headed Cowbird grabbed a quick snack at my feeder and a
Northern Flicker rested on a branch for about a minute, but I wasn’t
quick enough with my camera. A young Grackle even took a few drinks
from the bird bath.
It is amazing that in just the span of a day or two the baby birds
sticking their beaks through the hole of their birdhouse are suddenly
up and out. The frantic and awkward flapping which at first glance
appears to indicate an injury, is really the international bird body
language for “I’m hungry.”
Today the baby House Sparrows that have been living in one of the
birdhouses in our yard ventured out into the world. They didn’t
venture very far, just a few branches above their home, hopping more
than flying from branch to branch. They are still being fed directly
by their parents, the adults’ beaks going right into the eager open
mouths of the chicks. Their coloring is such that they could almost
pass for an adult, if a bit smaller in stature when you have mom or
dad right next to them for comparison. But when you look closely, the
fluffy, downy feathers are still there.
The quiet, still morning air was constantly pierced with the shrills of much larger babies, the Blue Jays now have their babies out of the nest. I believe their cries rank among my least favorite sounds of the summer. As gawky as the most awkward teenage you can think of, Steve Urkel comes to mind, you could almost think they are so ugly that they are cute, but then they open their mouths and shrill again. The adult Blue Jays had all they could do to satisfy their bottomless-pit children. They came to my feeder, gulped down the food, shoved it down the babies’ throats, repeat. Suddenly breast feeding doesn’t seem that bad.