Friends of a Feather at the Feeder

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.

Don’t be so Juvenile! -An Examination of Adolescent Birds

As I indicated in my post about hatchlings, juvenile birds exhibit a whole different set of behaviors from younger birds that justify their own discussion. To quickly recap, the growing phases of a bird are: 1. Egg, 2. Hatchling (or nestling), 3. Juvenile, 4. Adult.

When observing a juvenile bird I often reflect on how appropriately they were named. In the English language juvenile has a negative connotation that many of its synonyms don’t carry. When one acts juvenile, one is usually acting in a way thought to be beneath our actual age. Acting childish. While I am sure that birds are not familiar with the nuance and cultural associations of the word juvenile, they often live up to its definition and all that it implies.

The best way to think of a juvenile bird is to compare it to a kid in Middle School. Awkward, gawky, silly, unknowledgeable, unworldly. All of these adjectives can be applied to the juvenile bird. This is the stage of their development when they set foot in the world on their own. And they aren’t really sure about the whole thing. Often their parents are at a discrete distance, observing and prepared to intervene.

Young birds can be a lot of fun to watch. Their antics as they interact with a world they don’t fully understand can sometimes leave you in stitches. Many of the young House Sparrows that visit my feeders have a really hard time figuring out how and where to perch. They loose their balance easily and sometimes they slide down the feeder pole in slow motion, unable to figure out what is going on, or how to stop it.

Often juveniles are fearless when it comes to getting a handout. Many of the young House Sparrows and even one or two young Blue Jays have come to my feeder and then opened their mouths expectantly to any adult bird that came near. One female Cardinal was particularly taken aback by this behavior. She hopped back and then quickly skirted away from a small army of open mouths. Most adults just ignore this behavior, although some parents will continue to mouth feed even as they are trying to teach their children to fend for themselves.

Sometimes juvenile behavior isn’t as funny. My parents have a lot of trouble with young Woodpeckers flying under their porch roof and nearly injuring themselves as they desperately look for a safe place to land. They soon learn, but the first few days are concerning, both of the birds and whoever has dared to sit on the porch.

It is sometimes hard to tell the difference between a juvenile bird and an injured bird at first glance. Juveniles often flutter their wings at a quickened, almost frantic pace which can seem to indicate that they are hurt. In fact, this behavior is used in some species of bird to inform parents that the baby wishes to be fed.

Appearance and identification are sometimes difficult when it comes to juveniles. Even though many field guides provide an image of juvenile birds, each bird develops at its own rate, meaning that coloring and major identifying markers for some species may not be easily spotted. Some birds, such as the many kinds of Warblers, have very similar juvenile development, making an exact match hard. However, if you are having trouble identifying a bird, there are some quick clues you can look for which will tell you if you are looking at an immature bird.

Fuzz is the first big clue. Whether it is a downy fluff sticking out under the wings or covering the bird’s belly, immature feathers that don’t seem in harmony with the rest of the bird’s plumage can be a good indicator. Like baby teeth in humans, adult feathers develop gradually and many juvenile birds are still a bit fuzzy here or there.

Inconsistent coloring is another indicator. Some birds will look really weird, or almost sick, with very patchy coloring. Chances are they are a young bird, just developing the mature feathers of an adult of their species. Be careful of the time of year with this indicator though. Many birds, including several different species of duck, develop a different plumage when they are not breeding. When mating plumage is developing or phasing out they can exhibit similar patchy qualities to juvenile birds.

You may recognize the shape of a bird, or the overall appearance but it is not the correct color. There are many juvenile birds that develop mature looking feathers that are not fluffy but also do not resemble those of their parents. This is true of starlings. Many male juvenile birds resemble the adult female in coloring and develop their more colorful mating plumage slowly.

How big are they? Many young birds do not develop their full adult size immediately. If you have many of the same species near each other, compare the bird in question to others of the same kind. If it is smaller in statue, it is likely a juvenile. If other birds aren’t around for comparison, consider the bird’s own proportions. Does it’s beak or feet look too large? These signs can also indicate a bird that is not yet fully grown.

Depending on where you live, you may have a variety of fledglings visiting you all summer long as some birds have two or more broods. Generally, the juvenile phase lasts about four weeks for most feeder birds.

Additional Sources:

https://www.audubon.org/news/birdist-rule-57-its-summer-watch-out-juveniles

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.

A Day in the Backyard

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.

Introduction

Bird watching is a great hobby as it is easy to do anywhere. In theory it’s free, unless you get addicted and begin bribing birds to your yard with numerous feeders like I do! It encourages us to take in nature more generally and often motivates us to walk in parks or on trails, getting much needed exercise and fresh air. However, the thing I like most about bird watching as a hobby is that you can dedicate as much or as little time as you have. There are whole days I have sat in my yard with a camera and a book. But I can also come home and sit outside for a few hours, unwinding after work and allowing myself to relax.

I have always liked nature, camping, hiking etc., but I didn’t really get into bird watching until we moved from the city into the suburbs…a heavily treed suburb. Sitting by the window with my warm drink, I would often see flashes of color fly past. Sometimes I knew it was a blue jay or a cardinal, but I wanted to know more about the other flashes I was seeing. I was given a bird identification book for Christmas 2015, along with my first feeder pole and feeder. Before I knew it, I was hooked! And bird watching turns out to be contagious. After seeing my photos, my parents purchased some bird feeders, their own field guide and we have all been bird watching ever since.

This blog is a way for me to share some of my bird photographs, but I also want to provide some facts and figures along the way, as well as some of my own observations. I want to be clear that I have no background or formal training in any science field, so most of the information I will share comes from field guides.