Basic wild bird feeding

2017-10 junco 1 by Barb Gorges

This Dark-eyed Junco checked out the garden before going for the birdfeeder. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Basic wild bird feeding increases avian appreciation

Also published at Wyoming Network News,

By Barb Gorges

Your backyard may look empty after the leaves fall, but you can fill it with birds by offering them shelter, water and food.

There is some debate on whether feeding wild birds is good for them. But in moderation—the birds find natural food as well—I think it is a great way to increase appreciation for birds.

A bird feeder is no substitute for providing trees and bushes for birds to perch on or take shelter from weather and predators. Birds can also pick the seeds and fruits—or pick dormant insects out of the bark. Provide evergreen as well as deciduous trees and shrubs plus native perennial wildflowers.

Water is nice to have out. The birds appreciate drinking it and bathing in it. But if you can’t scrub out the gunk regularly, it’s better not to bother with it. In winter you’ll want to skip concrete and ceramic baths in favor of plastic since freezing water might break them. The best winter bird bath we ever had was the lid of a heavy plastic trash can—we could pop the ice out.

Feeding seed-eating birds—house finch, goldfinch, junco, pine siskin—is as easy as scattering seed on the ground. But here are tips to benefit you and the birds more.

  1. Black oil sunflower seed is the one best bird seed for our area. Seed mixes usually have a lot of seed our birds won’t eat and then you must sweep it up before it gets moldy.
  2. Put out only as much seed as you can afford each day (and can clean up after). If it lasts your local flock only an hour, be sure to put the seed out at a time of day you can enjoy watching the birds. They’ll learn your schedule.
  3. Tube-type feeders and hopper feeders keep seed mostly dry. Clean them regularly so they don’t get moldy. Consider hanging them over concrete to make it easier to clean up the seed hulls.
  4. If you don’t like sweeping up sunflower seed hulls or are concerned that the hulls will kill your lawn, consider paying more for hulled sunflower seeds.
  5. Spilled seed under the feeder attracts the ground feeders, like juncos, those little gray birds. They like elevated platform feeders too.
  6. If you have loose cats in your neighborhood, consider outlining the spilled-seed area under your feeder with 2-foot-tall wire fencing all the way around. It’s enough of an obstacle to make approaching cats jump so the birds will notice the break in their stealthy approach.
  7. Put your feeder close to the window you will watch from. It’s more fun for you, and the birds are less likely to hit the window hard as they come and go. They get used to activity on your side of the glass.
  8. 2015-12goldfinchlessergoldfinch-by-barb-gorges1

    American Goldfinch and Lesser Goldfinch enjoy a tube-type feeder full of nyjer thistle seed. Photo by Barb Gorges.

    Once you have the regulars showing up, probably the house finches—striped brown and the males have red heads—and house sparrows—pale gray breasts, chestnut-brown backs, consider putting up a special feeder for the nyjer thistle seed that goldfinches and pine siskins love so much.

  9. Seed cakes are popular with chickadees and nuthatches. They require a little cage apparatus to hold them.
  10. Suet-type cakes are popular with downy woodpeckers and flickers.
  11. Squirrels like bird seed too. You can add a cone-shaped deterrent above or below a feeder so they can’t get to it. Or ask your dog to chase the squirrels. If you get more than a couple squirrels, quit feeding birds for a week or so and see if the squirrels won’t move somewhere else. The birds will come back.
  12. A sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s hawk may be attracted to your feeder, though they are coming by for a finch or sparrow snack instead of seed. This means that you have successfully attracted animals from the next trophic level and contributed to the web of life.
  13. Take pictures. Look up the birds and learn more about them through websites like
  14. Take part in citizen science programs like and Project FeederWatch. Check my Bird Banter archives for more information,

Explore and enjoy Project FeederWatch

BobVuxinic-Project FeederWatch

A Dark-eyed Junco enjoys seed at a platform feeder. Because it shows no rust or “pink” coloration, no white wingbar and no pale head, it is the slate-colored subspecies. Photo by Bob Vuxinic/Project FeederWatch.

By Barb Gorges

Despite snow on the ground and pea soup fog at South Gap Lake in the Snowy Range (11,120 feet elevation), on Sept. 27 I saw a flock of dark-eyed juncos. They like snow. Usually I see the first ones down in my yard mid-October, when alpine winter conditions get too rough.

Juncos are those little gray birds that come in five subspecies and multiple hybrid colorations in Cheyenne, but they all have white outer tail feathers. They are my sign of the start of the winter bird feeding season–and the Project FeederWatch bird counting season.

Project FeederWatch is a citizen science opportunity for people with bird feeders to count the birds they attract as often as once a week (or less) between November and early April. Begun in Canada in 1976 and in the U.S. in 1987, more than 20,000 people participated last year. Data are used in scientific studies, many of which are summarized on the project’s website.

Participation costs $18. You receive a research kit, bird identification poster, the digital version of Living Bird magazine and the year-end report.

If you feed wild birds or are considering it, you must visit the Project FeederWatch site,, whether you register for the program or not. It is now beautifully designed and packed with information.

For instance, in the “Learn” section, I can find out juncos prefer black-oil sunflower seeds–and seven other kinds. I personally stick with black-oil because it’s popular with many species in Cheyenne. I also learned juncos prefer hopper-style feeders, platform feeders or feeding on the ground.

Seventy-one species are listed as potential feeder birds in the Northwest region, which stretches from British Columbia to Wyoming. However, about 15 of those species have yet to be seen in Cheyenne, so click on the “All About Birds” link to check a species’ actual range.

The Project FeederWatch website addresses every question I can think of regarding wild bird feeding:

–Grit and water provision

–Feeder cleaning

–Predator avoidance

–Squirrel exclusion

–Window strike reduction

–Sick birds

–Tricky identification, like hairy vs downy woodpecker.

In the “Community” section you’ll find the results of last season’s photo contest, participants’ other photos, featured participants, tips, FAQs, the blog, and the FeederWatch cam.

I find the “Explore” section fascinating. This is where you can investigate the data yourself. The “Map Room” shows where juncos like to winter best.

Based on last season’s data, in the far north region of Canada, juncos were number 12 in abundance at feeders. In the southeastern U.S., they were number 13. However, in the southwest, which has a lot of cold high elevations, they were number two, as they were in the northeast region, and number three in the central region, the northern Great Plains. Here in the northwest region, they were number one. We have perfect junco winter conditions, not too cold, not too warm.

However, looking at the top 25 species for Wyoming in the same 2016-2017 season (based on percent of sites visited and the average flock size), juncos came in fifth, after house sparrow, house finch, goldfinch and black-capped chickadee. Other years, especially between the seasons beginning in 2007 and 2013, they have been number one.

I looked at my own Project FeederWatch data to see if I could spot any dark-eyed junco trends.

I get in 18-20 weekly counts per year. In the past 18 years, there were three when the juncos missed none or only one of the weeks, in 2001, 2005 and 2008. Those seasons also happened to be the largest average flock sizes, 8.65 to 9.72 birds per flock.

Later, there were three seasons in which juncos came up missing six or seven weeks, 2011, 2013 and 2016. Two of those were the seasons of the smallest average flock sizes, 1.6 to 2.5 birds per flock.

It appears my local junco population was in a downward trend between 2008 and 2016. Let’s hope it’s a cycle. Or maybe our yard’s habitat has changed or there are more hawks or cats scaring the juncos away. Or some weeks it’s too warm in town and they go back to the mountains.

One yard does not make a city-wide trend, but we won’t know what the trend is unless more people in Cheyenne participate.

How many FeederWatchers are there in Cheyenne? We’ve had as many as four, back in 1999-2004, but lately there’s only been one or two of us. Statewide, Wyoming averages 25 participants per year.

If you sign up, you’ll have your own red dot on the map (but your identity won’t be publicized). I hope you’ll become a FeederWatcher this season.


2017-10 junco 1 by Barb Gorges

A photo taken through my Cheyenne, Wyoming, kitchen window shows a Dark-eyed Junco that is probably the pink-sided subspecies, or maybe a female of the Oregon subspecies–or maybe a hybrid. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Feed winter birds for fun


An American Goldfinch (left) and a Lesser Goldfinch (right) share a thistle feeder on a snowy day in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Dec. 6, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Feed winter birds for fun.”

By Barb Gorges

Feeding birds in your backyard is a time-honored tradition. It makes a great gateway to building your interest in birds. But there are a few things you should keep in mind if you decide to put up a feeder.

Birds don’t need our food. They are good at finding natural food. Don’t worry if you don’t have food out for them every day, although being consistent means you are more likely to see interesting birds.

Bird feeding is really about enjoying the birds, so put your feeders close to windows you look out of often. Be sure to put them close so that birds won’t hit your windows at high speed when leaving your feeder.

Keep your feeding operation affordable. I’ve had people complain bird seed is expensive. But it’s up to you how much seed to put out and how often. Fill feeders at the time of day you can enjoy watching the birds.

Never put out more feeders than you can keep clean, or clean up after. Feeders can get gunky and can spread diseases. Every couple weeks, clean them with soap and water, maybe a little bleach, and rinse well. If you see a sick bird, don’t put the feeders back up for a week. We usually don’t feed in the summer because even more disgusting stuff grows in feeder debris.

Be sure to keep the seed hulls swept up every few days, or think about feeding hulled sunflower seeds.

Don’t be cheap. Rather than the bags of mixed seed, go for the black-oil sunflower seed. Seed mixes often contain filler seed—or at least seed that birds around here won’t eat—and you’ll just be sweeping it up anyway. Black oil sunflower seed attracts a wide variety of seed-eating birds. Buy the 40-pound sack at the feed store for a better price per pound. If it still seems too expensive, feed only the amount you can afford each day.

Leave the cats indoors. There are many reasons cats should live indoors fulltime, including their health and safety, but really, is it fair to invite birds to your yard where a predator lurks? The feeder may be on a pole or hanging above the cat, but certain birds prefer to feed on the spilled seed on the ground.

On the other hand, if a neighbor cat stakes out your yard, you can make sure the area around the feeder has no place for a cat to hide. I’ve also heard of putting up a 2-foot high wire fence around the feeder, maybe at a radius of about 6 feet. The time it takes the predator to jump the fence gives the birds enough advanced warning to get out of the way.

Offer variety. Some birds like tube-style and hopper feeders. Others that prefer feeding on the ground can learn to use a shelf feeder. Consider nyjer thistle, which is expensive, but use a special feeder for it designed with smaller seed ports or ports that are below the perches, something goldfinches and chickadees can handle but others can’t. Add a suet or seed cake. It may help draw in woodpeckers and chickadees. Offer peanuts and you may get blue jays—and squirrels.

Don’t clean up your flowerbeds in the fall. The seed-eating birds attracted to your feeders will enjoy the seed heads. Plus, tree leaves, while providing mulch, may also provide a variety of eggs of insects (many beneficial) that the birds enjoy picking over.

On a frigid day, have open water in a birdbath. It is almost more attractive than food. Find some kind of shallow bowl, preferably with sloping sides, which won’t break if the water freezes. It should be easy to bring in the house to thaw out. Or get an electric heater designed for birdbaths or dog water dishes.

For more detailed feeding information, go to my archives at Look for “Bird feeding” in the list of topics.

Study your visitors. From your feeder-watching window, scan your trees and shrubs and garden beds to see if you can get a glimpse of more than house finches and house sparrows, especially in the spring. Of the 85 species I’ve seen in or above our yard, I’ve recorded 27 from November through March, prime feeder season.

Share your bird sightings at, or for $18, this winter you can take part in Project FeederWatch, It isn’t too late to sign up. You get a nifty bird calendar poster and a handbook. Even if you don’t participate, the website is full of information about bird feeding and feeder birds.

Have fun. However, if you find it isn’t fun, take down the feeders. Reduce your stress by going for a walk and enjoy the birds along the way.

Birdseed bandits: Outsmarting squirrels

Fos Squirrel

Fox Squirrels are not native to Wyoming’s high plains. Someone introduced them to Cheyenne, where they have learned to raid bird feeders. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Jan. 19, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Birdseed bandits. How hard can it be to outsmart squirrels?”

2015 Update: Last month, after ten years, when the springs wore out, we finally replaced our first Perky Pet square tube sunflower seed feeder. It withstood squirrels clinging to it every now and then, and didn’t let them get any seed.

By Barb Gorges

Fox squirrels are a by-product of bird feeding in Cheyenne. While they are cute and fuzzy and entertaining, the ones attracted to my yard have also been destructive, crashing bird feeders and stripping tree bark, not to mention stealing food meant for birds.

Originally, Cheyenne had hardly any trees and no tree-type squirrels. Birds had no competition at the feeder until, the story goes, somebody imported a few from Nebraska.

Much thought by people who feed birds has gone into outwitting squirrels. The problem is they seem to adapt to all of our strategies to exclude them. Fighting them off is a bit like fighting an infection with antibiotics. Do you use the lowest level of technology that will do the job for now, or do you use a well-fortified feeder to begin with? It all depends on your means and patience.

Feeding birds in Cheyenne is as simple as throwing black oil sunflower seed on the ground. It’s everybody’s favorite and you’ll get a wide assortment of seed-eaters including sparrows, juncos, finches, chickadees and nuthatches—and eventually, squirrels.

The first level of advice often given is to offer squirrels their own feeding station stocked with favorite foods, such as dried corn. Many companies offering bird feeders also offer a platform on which to spike a whole ear.

Baffling the wee beasties

However, with five furry and frisky feeders now gnawing on my trees, I’d rather not attract them to my yard at all. Putting sunflower seed in a tube, hopper or platform feeder protects it only somewhat from squirrels.

These kinds of feeders can be set on a pole, especially if you live where the wind tends to dump seed out of hanging feeders, but sooner or later the squirrels learn to shimmy up the pole.

Commercially made baffles are available that mount on the pole below the feeder. Some look like large, upside down, plastic salad bowls, so perhaps you can drill a hole in the bottom of that extra one you got for a wedding present.

Ruth Keto said greasing her feeder pole with canola oil has worked well so far in her Sun Valley neighborhood. It’s not certain yet how often the oil needs to be reapplied to keep it slippery, or if it’s actually a matter of fastidiousness which the squirrels will eventually overcome and finally get their paws dirty.

In our yard, we tried slipping a 6-inch diameter plastic pipe over our feeder pole before setting it in the ground. The same length as the pole was above ground, it worked because the pipe is too big around for the squirrels to get a grip—until the plastic weathers and the surface becomes rougher.

Lela Allyn has a solution that recycles two-liter pop bottles. She cuts a hole in the bottom of a bottle the diameter of the pole, and slits it all the way up the side. She slips the bottle around the pole and tapes up the slit. It takes several pop bottles, starting at ground level, to bypass the distance squirrels in her Cheyenne backyard have learned to jump.

Pop bottles applied to Lela’s clothesline in the same way have protected feeders hanging from it. Any squirrel stepping on a pop bottle will cause it to spin and the little seed burglar will lose its footing.

Feeders hanging from the arm of a pole or tree branch are usually invaded from above. Once again, a dome-shaped baffle, this time hung above your feeder, could solve your problem, whether commercially produced or of your own invention. These also serve a secondary purpose in partially protecting the feeder from snow and wind.

Bird feeder

This square, tube-type feeder has a spring mechanism. When a squirrel grabs hold, the metal leaves are pulled down, in front of the seed ports. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Caging the consumables

Putting your feeder in a cage is another way to keep out squirrels. It also has the benefit of keeping out large birds, such as grackles and blackbirds, which may monopolize feeders.

Our family bought a Duncraft sunflower seed tube feeder in 1993 which is still in good shape. It came with a plastic-coated wire mesh fence around it, capped by a plastic roof and a plastic tray at the bottom. The wire mesh had big enough openings for a small bird to reach the seed ports, but not a squirrel.

After years on the pole protected by the plastic pipe, we moved it to a tree branch in the front yard. In only a couple weeks, we caught a squirrel wedging itself under the roof and between the tube and the cage.

An inspection of new Duncraft products at a local store showed we could buy the new version with a presumably squirrel-proof locking mechanism on the cap of the tube, plus metal roof and tray securely attached to the mesh.

Instead, we bought a new cage. This is complete with a wire top and bottom and it will fit most tube feeders. The top opens with a presumably squirrel-proof latch so that you can fill the feeder. The handle of the feeder fits through a slot when the cage is closed. So far, so good. Of course, it’s only been a few months.

Small wire cages are sold for holding blocks of suet. Woodpeckers and chickadees, which normally like to eat insects, are attracted, but so are squirrels. We had one of these suet feeders but the birds never had a chance at it. The squirrels hung from it and nibbled. Finally, they unlatched it so the whole block fell out. I see in a catalog there’s now a big cage just for hanging a suet feeder inside.

Platform feeders attract birds that may not want to tackle a tube feeder. Dark-eyed juncos are ground feeders, though they will use a platform four feet in the air. Cage adaptations are available commercially, but I’m thinking I could fix something over the top of our shelf feeder. It has to be removable so the feeder, like all feeders, can be cleaned every few weeks to avoid spreading bird diseases.

Duncraft has come out with a platform feeder guaranteed squirrel proof, based on the theory that squirrels need both paws to grasp a seed. They claim they have a metal grid with spacing too close together for two paws in one opening, but large enough for bird beaks. The platform is entirely metal so the squirrels won’t chew their way in to the booty. How long will it take them to learn to use their paws to scoop seed instead?

For about as long as we’ve had that sunflower tube feeder, we’ve had the same brand of tube for niger (also spelled nyger) thistle seed. This seed is very fine and needs ports, or tube openings, that are very small. Luckily, they automatically exclude squirrels and large birds in favor of the thistle-eating species such as the fine-billed goldfinches and pine siskins. That’s good, because thistle seed is quite a bit more expensive than sunflower seed and I’d hate to waste it on squirrels.

On the other hand, if you enjoy feeding the increasing numbers of Eurasian collared-doves, and the mourning doves when they come back in the spring, you are out of luck. Cage methods probably won’t work well because the doves are about the same size as the squirrels, and the squirrels like the doves’ favorite food, white millet.

Springing surprises

One obvious solution to the squirrel problem is to decimate the population. However, without the proper licensing, this may be against the law in the ordinary backyard. Instead, members of the bird feeding community have become quite inventive and several have patented their anti-squirrel technology.

First, there’s the Twirl-a-Squirrel Electronic Baffle I saw in a catalog. The weight of the squirrel activates a motor that starts twirling your tube feeder until the squirrel falls off. I think it’s only a question of time before one of them figures out how long it has to hold on before the batteries die.

Another battery operated feeder, by Duncraft, actually zaps squirrels with electric current they say birds can’t feel.

Then there’s the Yankee Flipper by Droll Yankees. This operates on batteries also, but it flips the squirrel off. For $10 you can buy the action-packed video that shows how effective this feeder is. Recently, the company added the Yankee Dipper, Yankee Tipper and Yankee Whipper, which all use the principle of perches that collapse when a large enough animal lands on them.

Then there is spring technology. Hopper feeders are roofed containers filled with seed that spills out a crack at the bottom where it is caught on a tray, or perhaps the seed is available through a series of ports along the bottom while birds perch on a bar. Barbara Costopoulos of Guernsey loves her spring-loaded hopper feeder. She has it adjusted so that the weight of a squirrel will close the ports.

Another of her feeders is by the Perky-Pet company. It looks like a square tube feeder wrapped in metal fencing and decorative metal leaves. When a squirrel lands on a perch, the metal fencing, attached by springs, is pulled down and a leaf blocks each seed port, like the portcullis on the entrance to a castle.

Quality counts

If no one has been feeding birds or squirrels in your neighborhood for a long time, you may be able to get away with a lightweight feeder—for awhile.

The first time we hung a feeder in our front tree, it was a Mother’s Day gift from the boys, bought with their meager allowance. First the squirrels took the cap off the tube and reached in for the seed. Next, when the seed level got too low, they began breaking off chunks of the thin and brittle plastic tube so they could reach farther in. Finally, the feeder was knocked to the ground. Destruction was complete in about two weeks.

Paying for quality is cheaper in the long run. But don’t forget to protect your investment. Use eye-bolts and snapping clips so your hanging feeders can’t be swung loose by squirrels or wind. Save your money for bird seed.

Bird feeding information:

Check out Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feederwatch Web site,

Project FeederWatch needs you!

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpeckers are more likely to visit if a suet or seed cake is available. Photo by Errol Taskin, courtesy of Project FeederWatch.

Published Dec. 15, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Project FeederWatch needs you.”

2014 Update: One more reminder: If you haven’t signed up yet, do it now.

By Barb Gorges

OK, listen up, people. I want YOU for Project FeederWatch.

While I can’t draft you like Uncle Sam, I would still like to recruit you.

Project FeederWatch is one of the citizen science programs of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This is the 27th season backyard birdwatchers in North America have contributed data about the birds that visit their feeders during the winter. The information is becoming increasingly important to scientists, yet it is so easy to submit, even a child can do it—and children are welcome.

It takes only a glance at the participant map to see that the Great Plains region is vastly under-observed. Even in a populated place like Cheyenne, the last few years there has been only one red dot—me, and possibly someone else too close by to show up as a separate dot. A few years back several dots showed up across the city.

I’d hate for the scientists to consider my backyard typical, or to have them completely drop our area in studies because of insufficient data, so that’s why I’m inviting you to join me. Besides, it’s fun, and it doesn’t have to take much time. Also, like me, you can learn a lot about the birds in your backyard.

Here’s what to do:

Visit the Project FeederWatch website,

Go to the “About” tab for an introduction and a step by step explanation of how to participate. Under the “Learn” tab, you can find out about feeding and identifying our local birds. The “Community” tab is where you’ll find tips and photos from other participants and the FeederWatch cam.

At the “Explore” tab you’ll find a bibliography of studies that used PFW data and nifty animated maps.

Next, click on the “Home” tab and then the Join Now button. Yes, it costs $15 ($12 if you are already a CLO member), but it’s a contribution to bird conservation. You have the option of paying over the phone, 1-800-843-2473, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. ET (6 a.m. – 3 p.m. Mountain Time).

All new participants get a handbook, a calendar and a full-color poster of common feeder birds in the mail. You may send your data online or mail in tally sheets at the end of the season.

Once you receive your identification number, you can log in through the “Your Data” tab. Set up your count site by describing it: number of trees and shrubs, bird feeders and birdbaths, and so forth. Sprinkling black-oil sunflower seeds on the ground where they can be seen from a window is perfectly acceptable.

Scientific protocol requires selecting your count days in advance. Each set of two consecutive days must be at least five days apart. Mark and I have chosen Saturday and Sunday each week.

It’s OK if you miss some of those count days. Project FeederWatch officials don’t expect you to stay home for the whole season, which is early November through early April. You can sign up after the season has started.

It’s also not necessary to sit by the window continuously. Mark and I leave pencil and paper on the table in front of the window, and whenever we are in the vicinity, we check and see if there any new species for the current count days, or more individuals of any species than previously recorded.

The other bit of protocol is that you only count the birds you can see at any given time. You can’t add the 15 house sparrows you saw in the afternoon to the 10 you saw in the morning. You can only record the largest number you saw at one time.

Record the high and low daylight temperatures over the two days. We use the weather reports published the next day in this paper, figuring the coldest temperatures are pretty close to dawn.

What do I have to show for 14 years of submitting data? With the newly redesigned website, I can see very colorful graphs for each of the 25 species I’ve observed. I know that 11 of those seasons we’ve had goldfinches and that 2004 was the first winter we had any Eurasian collared-doves—and only twice.

But mostly, by participating, I find satisfaction in knowing that “my birds” are contributing to scientific knowledge.

While the current season has already begun, it isn’t too late for you to share that satisfied feeling, or even provide it for someone else as a gift.

A hawk ate my songbird!

Sharp-shinned Hawk

A Cooper’s Hawk in our backyard nailed an Eurasian Collared-Dove, first plucking it, then gorging, then flying away with the remains. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Dec. 25, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A hawk ate my songbird! Bird feeder or bird feedlot, it’s all a part of the food chain.”

2014 Update: This year there were reports of Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks in Cheyenne preying on Eurasian Collared-Doves, an invasive species that first arrived in town in 1998.

By Barb Gorges

Coming home from errands recently, I let the dog in and glanced out the window. What was that on the grass in the backyard? It was a sharp-shinned hawk sitting on its prey, maybe a sparrow. How exciting!

Mark and I have fed birds for years and though we’ve seen plenty of sharp-shinneds patrol our yard, this was the first time one of us saw one be successful.

Most people think of small songbirds when they think about bird feeding, so watching hawks feed on feeder birds can come as an unwelcome surprise.

I’ve had callers who ask me how to protect “their” birds from hawks. They aren’t always happy to hear me explain how wonderful it is that they are witnessing the next step in the food chain.

For a small hawk like the sharp-shinned, which has the aerodynamics to navigate the urban forest easily, our bird feeders must seem like feedlots. But when the feeders/feedlots are right outside our windows and we welcome the same cheerful chickadees day after day, I think we forget their role in the food chain and food web.

Mark and I are on a first-name basis with several farmers and ranchers who raise our meat, if not with the actual animals, plus we hunt and fish, commiserating with predator species. But even if we were vegetarian, we would be wrong to transfer that ideology to wild, meat-eating animals. Carnivorous, omnivorous and carrion-eating animals need animal protein to stay healthy.

Most of the little songbirds, including our seed-eating feeder visitors, prey on insects and spiders when they are feeding their young and need lots of protein. No humans complain.

Conversely, some of the birds that we would consider meat eaters occasionally pick up the odd seeds or berries.

But, looking through my copy of Kenn Kaufman’s Lives of North American Birds, I found plenty of birds that eat only non-plant material: some of the grebes, all of the seabirds, pelicans, herons, cormorants, egrets, osprey, hawks, falcons, eagles, some shorebirds, many gulls, all of the terns, owls, nighthawks, swifts, most of the swallows and wrens, the dipper, both shrike species and some of the warblers—and warblers are the quintessential songbird!

Granted, warblers are eating insects and although insects are animals, their deaths don’t seem to bother many people.

The day after I wrote the rough draft of this column, the dog and I, leaving for a walk around the neighborhood, witnessed a sharp-shinned hawk doing acrobatics a few feet over the driveway, fighting to hang on to a starling. There are so many of those invasive starlings that this seemed like a good thing, except that our feeders remained unvisited for the next six hours due to hawk fright. Oh well.

We who feed birds do so for our own enjoyment, to bring wild birds in close to us. I think if we are very lucky, we feed a hawk or two.

Since all of us feeding birds don’t put out the same seed, I wonder if the hawks notice what their prey species have been eating. I can hear it now. “Ah, I just enjoyed a Gorges free-range, sunflower seed-fed sparrow!”

Clean-up is part of bird feeding

Sick House Finch

Sick birds at your feeder mean its time to take it down, clean it, and let the birds disperse elsewhere for a week. Photo by Ed Dien.

Published Oct. 7, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Clean-up is part of bird feeding.”

2014 Update: Don’t wait to see a sick bird to remind you to clean up your feeders.

By Barb Gorges

On one of those days I’d been going brain-cell-to-brain-cell with anonymous software engineers, I finally made a break for daylight, or at least a window overlooking the back yard.

Sunlight glistened on dog droppings, inveigling me to go outside to clean up before the next snow and get some fresh air.

Dog droppings only glisten from a certain angle. In our yard, when you wield the long-handled scoop, they blend in with patches of leaves, hide under snow remnants and hunker in shadows of the lawn made lumpy by night crawlers.

One of the lumps was the fluttering remains of a house finch. Probably dead from house finch disease. Its neck didn’t seem broken from a collision with a window, no cats have been seen lately, and the dog’s getting too slow to play with birds.

For the sake of future poop patrols, I decided to rake up the clumps of leaves. It was after all, that balmy, windless afternoon just before Thanksgiving.

And I found another dead house finch. Oh geez. Time to sterilize.

A week’s quarantine is what I tell people. Wash and put away the feeders for a week.

It’s hard to sterilize the back yard. I didn’t do anything about the branches of the spruce where the house finches line up waiting for their turns at the feeder.

But I finished raking, swept the patio and used an ammonia solution to clean other favorite, white-washed perches like the TV antenna tower and the railing by the back door.

The wooden shelf feeder I brushed off and wiped with the ammonia. I even threw some on the patio, where wet sunflower hulls and leaves have left brown patterns on the concrete. I brought the tube feeder inside to soak in a bucket before scrubbing.

As the shadows from the neighbor’s garage put the yard in mid-afternoon twilight, I realized that my Thanksgiving bird count results were going to be rather poor.

I was able to count a dozen house finches and two gold finches that were picking over the lawn and flower bed. But there were no signs of the nuthatches and mountain chickadee that have been hanging around.

Birds have no qualms about using the same location for eating and defecating, resulting in disease transmission in crowded feeder situations.

Scientists using Project FeederWatch data from citizen observers across the country have been able to track the spread of disease and the impact on house finch populations.

The moral is anyone who feeds animals—dogs or birds—is responsible for the resulting byproducts. Just think of it as a chance to go out and get a little sunshine.

Regarding the great tit observed in Scotland (mentioned in my Thanksgiving Day column), my friend Dick Hart here in Cheyenne kindly relayed quotes from his Collins Gem Guide to British birds:

“This common visitor to suburban bird-tables has approximately the same range in Britain as the Blue Tit (all parts of the British Isles, although they are scarce in north-west Scotland); there is also some immigration of both species from Europe.”

Its call is described as a “ringing e-hew, ee-hew” and as “silvery axe-blows.”

My Thayer CD of Birds of North America includes 300 photos of world birds. The great tit looks like our chickadee, just a few centimeters larger, with a black cap pulled down over its eyes.

In fact, its genus, Parus, is the same, and includes 50 species around the world.

Dick wrote, “The various species of tits achieved some notoriety a number of years ago when they learned to pry the foil caps off milk bottles left on people’s front steps and drink the milk down as far as they could reach.

“Unfortunately for the birds the Brits have gone to plastic containers like ours.”