When it comes to bird watching, there’s nothing like hiking through the woods with binoculars on your neck, camera in hand. But if you really want to get up close and personal with the birds, a backyard feeder lets you sit and watch each beautiful, brightly colored one.
Years ago, my husband Craig and I owned a perennial plant nursery called Hawks Nest Nursery. Our retail store was in the middle of four acres of woods, so we got to see a great many species of birds. Eventually, we installed feeders and sold bird seed. We called it “live demonstrations.” This soon became a big attraction for birds as well as birdwatchers. My favorite feeder birds were the rose-breasted grosbeaks, the indigo buntings and the woodpeckers, but truly, the chickadees were the best to watch because they would try any feeder we put out.
I often hear complaints about black birds (usually grackles), blue jays and, of course, squirrels wreaking havoc on birdfeeders. Sometimes this is enough for people to abandon the idea of feeding the birds, which is sad, as there are solutions for all of these problems. So here are my best recommendations to help you feed the birds you want to feed, and choose the right food for the fight feeder.
Feed and feeders
All birds eat off the ground, but we want to bring them up where we can see them better and where they will be safe from predators. The ordinary platform feeder with a bin to hold the seed and a cover to keep it dry is perfect for feeding all types of birds, but it has its disadvantages.
Bigger birds will eat at these feeders, and birdwatchers will go through seed like crazy. Fill this feeder with black oil sunflower seed because it’s inexpensive and most birds like it. I don’t recommend cheaper seed mixes, many of which use cracked corn (which attracts grackles) and other filler seeds that birds won’t eat. My favorite feeder is the “Jagunda.” It’s a variation on the platform feeder with a key feature built into the platform to keep the squirrels from getting to it. This feeder holds a lot of seed and is easy to fill, which is especially important in the winter months.
The second most popular feeder is the tube feeder. Important features to look for are sturdiness, ease of filling and hole size. Tube feeders are used by perching birds only, unless there is a platter-type base attached. Cardinals will not perch, so they will not use a tube feeder; they prefer a platform to land on. Keep a tube feeder at least five feet above the ground, and place some sort of a baffle above to keep the squirrels from getting to it. Tubes with small holes are for Niger seed, which attracts goldfinches and indigo buntings. Larger holes accommodate most other types of food and attract more birds. There are some new tubes available with perches that allow cardinals to land. They are very easy to fill and clean.
Peanuts are a favorite of birds, but they are expensive. Only use peanuts in special feeders that attract the gorgeous perching and clinging birds. These feeders also keep the birds from spilling and wasting the nut pieces. Many ornithologists use peanut butter to attract birds while hiking through the woods, and smear a bit on the bark of the trees. When first trying to get birds to a feeder, smear a little peanut butter directly on it. My favorite food to use is black oil sunflower seed; I mix peanut hearts with it to attract chickadees and woodpeckers.
Specialized feeders are a great way to attract particular birds. Inexpensive mesh sacks that hold Niger seed attract goldfinches. Goldfinches will also feed on the special tube feeders that force them to feed upside down. Hang cages that hold suet cakes from the edge of a wood platform feeder or from a tree branch. Clinging and perching birds love suet, which is great for winter when there are less carrion for them to get the fat they need.
The Finger Lakes region is an excellent place for bird watching and feeding. On one of the main fly-ways that crosses over Lake Ontario to Canada, many birds pass through the area for a short time or season. I hope this information will begin a life-long activity that will enhance your enjoyment of your backyard habitat, and open your eyes to the spectacular area in which we are so privileged to live.
The birds will always return
Oftentimes, it is a concern that if you start feeding the birds and then go on vacation it will be harmful to the birds or cause them stress. But don’t worry, the birds usually have about 10 different feeding stations that they use within a mile of you, so they will find food elsewhere and come back as soon as you refill your feeders. Sometimes, you can tell when your neighbors are away by the increased activity at your feeders.
All of the information in this article is great for you and the birds, but squirrels can take away all the fun and all the food in a big hurry. Remember these three things.
1. Squirrels will not eat safflower seed, so if you have only safflower in your feeder, they won’t touch it. Most birds, especially cardinals, like it.
2. Squirrels can jump five feet into the air from the ground. It is important to keep feeders at least that far from the ground, and your poles or posts can be protected with stovepipe-shaped metal baffles. Install the baffle so that the top of it is at least five feet high. That should keep squirrels from jumping above it.
3. Squirrels can leap from tree branches, roofs and other tall objects. In the case of hanging feeders, use a dome-shaped baffle or flat, metal, disk-shaped baffle to keep them from your feeder. My favorite hanging feeder is the “Big Top.” It’s easy to fill and completely squirrel-proof when hung properly
Choosing a Field Guide
When choosing a field guide, look for illustrations rather than photos, as this will provide plumage images at various times of the year. A photo only captures the bird at that moment. The Sibley Guide by David Allen Sibley is thought to be the very best. Stephen Kresse’s book called The Bird Garden is very helpful and complete; in fact, mine is completely dog-eared.
by K. C. Fahy-Harvick