Cold (and dare I say flu) Advice?
The Agony of Defeat

Focus on the Feeders

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This weekend was Mass Audubon's annual backyard bird count, a project called Focus on Feeders. We participate every year, and it's great fun for amateur birders like ourselves! Since I was sick in bed yesterday, we unfortunately lost a day's worth of counting. But happily we've had a steady stream today, and at the bottom of this post (a long ways down, lol) I have our count totals.

Before I get to that though, I'd like to give you a tour of our feeders and to offer some basic bird feeding tips, because I am often asked how it is we get so many birds to come to our feeders ...

I would say, four things make all the difference:

  • location
  • consistency
  • quality
  • quantity

So let's discuss. :)

Location, location, location ...

Fortunately, our home is well-situated for attracting wildlife of all kinds. Our yard is not big, but we have many trees and shrubs close to our house, so visiting critters can safely dart back and forth between feeders and cover. Second of all, our property backs up to fairly deep conservation woods and wetlands. I am certain we enjoy such numbers and variety of birds because of this extremely supportive habitat.

If you have no nearby vegetation, don't fret - birds will still come to your feeders! It might take them longer to find you, but they will eventually locate your offerings. In the meantime, consider planting some shrubs or even small trees about your property - as a source of cover and food.

For instance, we are in the process of planting more things that will attract and sustain our feathered friends - native berries, for starters. It is my dream to attact a cedar waxwing someday, and from what I understand it's the berries that will do it. Stop by your local birding store or nursery, and ask what native plants will best attract and benefit your local species. Or, just do a quick google search - look up what birds frequent your area (Audubon chapters are a perfect place to start) and then google some more. Check out books at your library, too. I just received two excellent books on this subject:

To this area of thought, I would also add the importance of visibility. We keep all our feeders on one side of our house - where there are lots of windows from where we may enjoy the show at any moment of the day. Keeping in mind proximity to cover, try to station your feeders where it will be easy - effortess even - to watch. In sight in mind as they say, and the more you watch, the more you can't stop watching! It really becomes a habit, in the best sense of the word. But first, you have to remember to look. :)

Patience is a virtue.

Or in other words, don't give up! For the birds' sakes and your own. First of all, the birds will come to rely upon you for food. This is critical in the winter when natural food sources are not readily available.

Second of all, sometimes you do have to wait even to get that first little bird! And then you might have weeks of barely any activity and you just really have to wait. But do hang on!

We've been feeding birds in this house for almost eight years now, and we weren't getting this many birds in the beginning! The people who lived here before us were not bird feeders so it took some time to get started. But every stage has been fun. Every new bird sighted brings a thrill of discovery!

And the more we notice, the more we want to learn! Learning is the best way to pass the time between new sightings.

So while you're waiting for the birds to notice you, drum up some birding fun. Start by informing yourselves; acquaint yourself and your children with the common birds in your area. I am constantly amazed at how few species my neighbors - longtime residents here - can identify. Allow me a brief moment on my soap box would you? ;)

At one time, generations ago, people had a much stronger connection with nature; they were not quite so removed from it as we are today. Correspondingly then, most folks had at least a passing familiarity with their local flora and fauna. Today many people know only one or two birds by sight - for some it's all just "robins and pigeons." (I'm quoting a neighbor here, lol.) Well I say, how much better for our children to grow up raised on fresh air, with a true appreciation for the earth all around them? And how much better for ourselves if we can breathe and appreciate right along with them?

Fostering such appreciation can only begin with familiarity. To know something intimately we must first seek a level of understanding, whatever that level may be. Simply a deeper sense of awe or perhaps a career path previously unconsidered. Fill your children's hearts with a fondness for nature, and when they are grown, they will be at ease in God's beautiful world.

And where there's comfort, there will be joy. :)

There are all kinds of little activities to assist this endeavor. All along our birding journey, we've kept up our reading and field-guide checking. Make it a game for your kids! Get them excited! Stock up on bird-themed stickers, rubber stamps and patterned paper. Make up little notebooks or a large wall-sized chart. Keep track of your birding adventures, even if you have to go a bit beyond the backyard to jump-start them. Stop by a nearby pond or field and just observe. Visit a local wildlife sanctuary and participate in guided bird tours. At home, every time a new bird arrives at your feeders, make it a celebration! Find out all you can about the bird. Draw pictures, write down thoughts and questions. Look up bird poems to memorize. And why not bake special bird-shaped cookies for tea? I could go on and on here (and maybe I will at some future point) but in the interest of time (mine and yours), let's move on ...

You get what you pay for.

Quality seed does truly make a difference. Buy the best seed you can afford. Visit a bird store if you have one nearby and compare prices; they might not be that much more than the supermarket brand. Plus, the cheaper brands usually have a lot of twigs and filler stuff in them. I have never had luck with the bags of mixed seed you might pick up at the grocery store ~ the kind with striped seeds and yellow bits.

I buy, almost exclusively, black oil sunflower seed. I prefer to buy it from Wild Birds in the next town, but I admit too often I pick up the 40 lb. bag at Petsmart. If you plan to buy in bulk, ask the bird store owner if there are discounts (and possibly storage) options for such a purchase.

In addition to black oil sunflower seed, we also put out suet cakes and large birdseed cakes. Suet cakes and other feeder treats you can definitely make on your own, and that's something on my learn-to-do list. (An economical and fun project!) The seed cakes are rather expensive, I'll admit. But they really attract the woodpeckers, and oh, do I love woodpeckers. :)

As for other kinds of seed, I'm tempted to try safflower as I hear cardinals love it. I also hear squirrels don't love it, so if those critters are a problem for you, you might try this specialty seed. We recently stopped buying nyjer (or thistle) seed when we noticed the finches regularly ate from the black oil seed and only turned to the thistle feeders when the others ran dry. And I stopped throwing down cracked corn long ago, too.

Truly, I've found most species go for the black oil seed no matter what else is offered. And it does make things simpler to just use one seed type.

And finally ...

Too much is never enough.

Sometimes less is more, but this is not one of those times. ;)

When it comes to birdfeeders, the more the merrier. And admittedly we do have A LOT of feeders and we keep them stocked all the time, even in the summer. But instead of me going on and on about why it's a good idea to have lots of feeders, let me take you on a little tour of our feeding yard:

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This feeder is just inside the front gate. It holds a lot of seed so it stays filled for a good long time. Even the bigger birds like cardinals and jays can perch here and eat, but the squirrels pretty much leave it alone.

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This is a special birdfeeder I hung on the side of our shed. All kinds of birds like to visit Our Lady of Grace. :)

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This feeder attracts squirrels who like to dive in, grab a seed and then sit on top and eat. (We lost the cap to raccoons long ago.) You should see their little feet sticking out - it's hysterical! (I've got pictures somewhere ...) The tiny red squirrel prefers this feeder to all the others, so it's a keeper.

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These are the window feeders, each one the same, filled with black oil seed and hanging from an angled pole. These hang in front of windows in the learning room and family room. You can sit and watch the birds very closely with these feeders. These are entirely squirrel proof.

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And here we have the window-sill mounted feeder. You are supposed to be able to see through the windows in back, (while the birds cannot) but we could only see shadows. I moved the panels to the middle and we can see the birds that land on either side. They got used to us pretty quickly.

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Here is one of the two seed cake feeders:

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It has seeds and nuts and dried friuts all caked together. The birds love this.

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Case in point: the white-breasted nuthatch. :)

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Our two tray feeders attract everyone. Literally, there is not a bird I have not seen in one or both of these trays. What's especially nice is they allow the ground feeders like cardinals, jays, juncos and doves to eat safely, and at eye level.

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A few favorite resources. The bottom two I've already mentioned. My other favorite sources for bird information are:

A final word about record keeping. While I LOVE the idea of keeping a hand-drawn journal (in the manner of Edith Holden, for example), it is impractical for me to do so at this time. Instead, I have found it convenient to jot down my random little nature notes here at my blog. (You can read them daily beneath my picture up on the top left.) Every week or so, I cut and paste the notes into a post for my other blog, The Nature Corner. I've been keeping it - I just realized now - for over a year! And so, if I go back and look over all those notes from the past year, they will make up an almanac of sorts - a very personalized account of a New England Year. :)

Blogging is so very easy - you might consider keeping a family blog (private or password protected if you like) exclusively for your birding adventures! You could post photos, along with any notes or observations. A scrapbook of course is ideal, but how often do you envision yourselves sitting down to cut, paste and journal?

OK, I'd better wrap up this post! If you've read this far, I thank you for your very kind attention! :) Now, before I sign off, here is our bird tally from today. The sun is going down so there won't be too many more (though the cardinals do love this dusky time of day) ...

  • American Crow (4)
  • American Goldfinch (2)
  • American Robin (60+) (A flock passed through.)
  • Black-capped Chickadee (2)
  • Blue Jay (4)
  • Dark-eyed Junco (8)
  • Downy Woodpecker (1)
  • European Starling (1) (I spied it tucked in w/the robins.)
  • House Finch (1)
  • House Sparrow (12)
  • Northern Cardinal (1)
  • Tufted Titmouse (2)
  • White-breasted Nuthatch (2)
  • Cooper's Hawk (1)

So who was at your feeders today?

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