The Secrets of Backyard Bird-Feeding Success by Deborah L. Martin
Discover the joys of attracting winged wonders to your backyard. From seeds and suet to the best bird-attracting plants and other bird-friendly fare, you'll find easy, practical, and low-cost ways to entice birds into stopping by regularly. You'll learn the best tips and secrets from experienced birders, experts, and longtime backyard bird-feeders to welcome birds to every part of your yard and garden.
Learn why your feeders may be packed with visitors at certain times of the year and completely ignored at other timesand how you can keep birds coming to your landscape even when they have little interest in traditional seed feeders. Offer a variety of foods, such as seeds, nuts, nectar, berries, and even bugs at the right time of year, and you'll be amazed at who shows up to dine. Add a few special features to your landscape, such as a birdbath or small fountain, and keep company with birds every day of the year. Find 100 of the most popular backyard feeder birds in the gallery and discover their preferred foods and feeder styles, along with behavior and migration details so you can anticipate and prepare for your favorite bird's arrival.
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About the Author
DEBORAH L. MARTIN is a garden and nature writer specializing in earth-friendly topics and backyard birding. She is the editor of Rodale's Best-Ever Backyard Birding Tips.
Read an Excerpt
Plan a Menu Birds Will Love
A bird's nutritional needs vary--along with the foods it eats--over its lifetime and across the changing seasons. Although each species of bird prefers certain foods and often has a specialized beak or other physical features that enable it to eat those particular foods, most birds eat a more varied diet than you might expect. The birds you see at your feeders might seem to take all their meals there, but they most assuredly get a lot of their nourishment elsewhere.
Goldfinches are reliable visitors at feeders filled with nyjer seed.
To make your yard more inviting to a greater number and variety of birds, it helps to recognize that birds need different foods at different times of the year. While a hopper-style feeder or tray feeder filled with sunflower seed will remain consistently popular throughout the year, offering a tray of calcium-rich grit or crushed eggshells during the breeding season will benefit a wide range of mating birds and will attract even those few that don't queue up for sunflower seed.
For example, cardinals are known seed eaters and are readily identified as such by their sturdy beaks, clearly meant to enable them to crack the shells of their favored foods. But young birds require a highprotein diet to provide the nutrients necessary for growth and development--so even seed- centric cardinals feed their nestlings a steady diet of insects.
Wild birds' diets adjust to the availability of natural foods at different times of the year, too. For example, sparrows may rely almost entirely upon the small seeds of grasses and weeds during winter, but summer finds them getting as much as half of their nourishment from insects. You don't have to have a PhD in ornithology to make sense of this--many birds feed on insects during summer because that's when insects are present. When cold weather takes bugs off the table, birds necessarily turn to other food sources, such as berries or seeds, or the birds migrate to places where insects remain abundant.
Like humans and other animals, birds adjust their diets in response to many factors. Migrating, breeding, raising young, finding abundant natural food in summer, or having to search for it in winter all require different amounts of energy and different strategies. Knowing which foods birds eat and when they eat them makes it much easier to maintain a successful bird feeding station.
Get to Know Your Neighbors
Whether you want to start feeding birds or want to feed more (or different) birds, it's useful to begin with an idea of what's possible in terms of the kinds of birds that will come to feeders in your area. Armed with that information, you can identify a few foods those birds prefer and decide on what kind of feeders and how many to put out.
Admittedly, most people go at this from the opposite direction: They buy a feeder, fill it with seed mix, and expect it to be instantly thronging with all the birds pictured on the label of the birdseed bag. Even when those expectations go unmet, this approach works adequately and often enough that it's still how vast numbers of people begin feeding the birds. Chances are good that a great many avid birders got their start in this very way.
Still, serving a meal without knowing who or how many your guests may be seems like a recipe for disappointment on both sides of the arrangement. If the food you offer is not appealing to the birds found where you live, your feeder may go untouched while its contents grow moist, moldy, and inedible. This can happen even with favored foods, because it can take a little time for birds to discover a new feeder. Starting small is a good idea and helps avoid spoiled, wasted seed.
By contrast, you might put up a new feeder and find that it quickly becomes crowded with unwelcome guests--pesky birds such as starlings and cowbirds, for example. While you can't control which birds find and visit your feeders, you can learn what attracts songbirds versus pest birds and then tailor your feeders and their contents in favor of the birds you want.
Why not reduce the frustration of the "serve it and see" approach and do what you can to offer desirable foods to desirable birds in ways that will increase the odds that they will become regular visitors to your feeders? Become acquainted with the birds that live in your area. In Chapter 10 you'll find a list of feeder birds that are widespread across North America and also lists of birds by region and time of year. Profiles of these birds detail their feeding habits and preferences, so you will know what to serve for each species as well as what it eats in the wild.
A good field guide, particularly one that's focused on the region where you live, will also prove useful in introducing you to your bird neighbors. Further guidance may be found at your local chapter of the Audubon Society, from knowledgeable staff at your nearest specialty bird-supply store, or from any number of online sources, including the National Audubon Society, the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the National Wildlife Federation, and Internet retailers such as Duncraft and Wild Birds Unlimited. Contact information for all of these organizations may be found in Resources at the back of this book.
Be an Equal-Opportunity Bird Feeder
Everyone who feeds birds--whether they've been doing it for a long time or are just beginning--wants to attract the "good ones," meaning the pretty birds, the interesting birds, and of course the unexpected or rare birds. But experienced feeders and newcomers alike often are surprised to find that there are less desirable species of birds competing at their feeders with their favorites for space and seed. No matter how much you spend on high-quality seed and sturdy feeders, you're almost certain to attract house finches, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles in the East, great- tailed grackles in the West, and red-winged blackbirds wherever you live in the country. When these species descend upon your feeders in large flocks, like they sometimes do, they can eat just about everything. When that happens, remember that they are wild creatures, following their natural instincts to flock at certain times of the year. Be patient and wait them out--they will disappear during breeding season and the summer months.
An occasional visit by a bird of prey, or raptor, is another unpleasant surprise for which many bird lovers are unprepared. It can be upsetting to see a hawk or falcon swoop down upon a songbird or to find evidence of such an attack after the fact. And it's frustrating to realize that there are no songbirds at your feeders because there's a hawk perched on the utility pole at the corner of your yard. Smaller birds are "on the menu" for many raptors, and your bird feeders may unintentionally be serving a more diverse clientele than you realize. In addition to dining on smaller feeder birds, raptors also prey on rodents that are attracted by spilled seed at the base of a feeder. If mice or other small mammals are making nighttime visits to your yard to feast on seeds on the ground below feeders, you may also be hosting owls at your bird-feeding station. Each creature has its role to play in the natural order, and your feeder is simply the intersection where they meet. The birds in your backyard aren't "your" birds; they're just wild birds that are visiting there.
"If you're going to feed birds, then you need to be prepared to feed all the birds, not just the ones you want. And that includes the occasional visits by raptors, even though you may not want them there."
ROB NEITZ, Center Valley, Pennsylvania
Common residents of wooded and suburban habitats across North America, Cooper's hawks routinely dine on smaller birds. Despite their size, these agile flyers excel at diving into tangled brush in pursuit of their prey.
Where Native Plants Fit In
When it comes to choosing landscape plants to provide both beauty and bird food, it may seem reasonable to assume that any fruit-, seed-, or nectar- producing plant is as good as another. Based on that assumption, then, why not choose the most colorful cultivar or the one with showy double flowers, regardless of where it's from? After all, the native species may look all right, but the hybridized selection from Asia is a real showstopper when it blooms.
Although it's not completely understood, the relationship between a bird and the plants that are native within its species' natural range is complex and often codependent. Over centuries of coexistence, a bird species becomes innately predisposed to recognize the edible parts of the plants around it. Berries that ripen at a certain time of the year may actually drive migration, mating, or nesting, because the birds instinctively know when that particular food source will be available to supply the nutrition necessary for their activity. It's even possible, although not extensively studied, that those berries may provide exactly the right nutrients and balance of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates that the birds need at that season. At the same time, many of the plants that birds find most attractive have seed dispersal strategies that rely on those same birds.
Dinnertime Is All the Time
Like all living things, birds eat to sustain life. They have a high body temperature (101° to 110°F) and a high rate of metabolism, and they digest their food rapidly. Each day they have to eat a lot to store energy and body fat. Because they use up what they eat so rapidly, smaller birds eat more each day than do larger birds, and different birds process their food in different ways. Some birds store food in a crop, which is an enlargement of the esophagus, for digestion at a later time. But many of the birds that visit backyard feeders, including most of the songbirds that you want to attract, have no crop and therefore have to eat constantly. Insect eaters, birds like swallows and warblers, eat almost continuously all day and therefore have no need for a crop. Although these aren't species that normally would come to a feeding area, they will fly around a well-planned and well-planted backyard habitat that naturally offers them a good supply of insects.
Wherever you live, all birds eat voraciously in the morning to bolster and then sustain their metabolism after a long night of roosting or migrating. They all also eat voraciously in the late afternoon, either before roosting for the night or lifting off to migrate through the night skies during the migration seasons of spring and fall. Some birds are night, or nocturnal, migrants; others are daytime, or diurnal, migrants. Either way, flying long distances requires a lot more energy and food than a bird normally needs on a daily basis most other times of the year. Depending on the species or on an individual bird, some may also eat a lot in midmorning and again in midafternoon. There are always some birds that act differently than the normal expected behavior. One nuthatch may come in constantly to feed at the sunflower seeds or the suet in your feeders during the day, while another one of the same species will only visit occasionally. Some birds may ignore backyard food offerings most of the day and then suddenly decide to gorge themselves at what would be considered an odd feeding time. Northern cardinals of the East are famous for only showing up at feeders late in the day. But that doesn't mean that they haven't been eating all day; they have, but just not at your feeders. On the other hand, some sparrows, jays, or titmice may come in to eat so often that it seems like they never leave.
Who Eats What?
It may seem contradictory, but when it comes to diet, most birds are both specialists and generalists. Many species have physical or behavioral characteristics--a unique beak or the ability to cling to a tree trunk-- that enable them to eat a particular food or type of food. But nearly all birds eat insects when they're available, and many will take advantage of other seasonal foods, like berries. The foods that our best-known feeder birds favor at backyard feeding stations provide a small and not entirely accurate picture of each bird's overall diet.
Cardinals, chickadees, titmice, towhees, grosbeaks, nuthatches, large and small finches, sparrows, jays, many others
. Some have sturdy, conical beaks that let them crack hard seed coats.
. Represent majority of feeder birds
. Specialists, such as crossbills, can get to preferred foods because of unique beaks.
. The hull-less seeds found in "no mess" mixes are accessible even to birds whose beaks are not uniquely designed for cracking shells, and so are attractive to even more species.
Blackbirds, pigeons, doves, grouse, quail, wild turkeys, starlings, grackles, house sparrows
. A subset of seed eaters that includes more ground-feeding birds and those not equipped with beaks meant for cracking harder seed shells
. Many of the seed eaters will also eat grains, but sunflower and other oily seeds are much preferred.
Woodpeckers, nuthatches, Clark's nutcracker, jays, chickadees, titmice
. A subset of seed eaters, including birds with sturdy bills that enable them to crack nutshells; shelled nuts are accessible to a much broader group of birds.
. See Chapter 2 for more information about birds that eat seeds and nuts.
Chickadees, jays, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, many others
. Suet blocks in traditional cage-style feeders limit access to birds that can cling.
. Crumbles of suet in a tray or on a platform feeder will attract bluebirds, catbirds, kinglets, mockingbirds, and yellow-rumped warblers; cardinals, juncos, and sparrows will eat suet served at ground level.
. Accessible suet also attracts starlings and crows, as well as cats, dogs, raccoons, and other mammals.
. High-fat food is particularly needed in cold weather and during migration.
. See Chapter 3 for more information about birds that eat suet.
In the chapters ahead, we'll focus on specific types of feeder foods that birds seek out, plus the best methods for offering those foods at your feeding station. You'll also find plenty of plants with great bird appeal, to help you expand your bird-feeding efforts beyond basic seed and suet. To get you started, here's a quick look at some birds and their food specialties.
Woodpeckers, flycatchers, swallows, nuthatches, creepers, wrens, thrushes, robins, kinglets, wax-wings, vireos, warblers, tanagers, many more
. Nearly all terrestrial (nonshore) birds eat insects during some part of the year.
. "Bugs" include spiders and other arachnids, arthropods, and invertebrates.
bark bug eaters
Woodpeckers, nuthatches, creepers
. Have strong, sharply pointed beaks that can withstand hammering; also have powerful rasping tongues
. Will visit suet and peanut feeders
flying bug eaters
Flycatchers, swifts, swallows, warblers, vireos, hummingbirds
. Have long pointed beaks and wide mouths
. Not often seen at feeders, but may be attracted to suet
Jays, robins, woodpeckers, flickers
. See Chapter 6 for more information about birds that eat bugs.
Hummingbirds, orioles, woodpeckers (sapsuckers), house finches
. Have long curved beaks and long thin tongues that fit inside tubular flowers
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