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,

Pool parties popular with winter birds


A birdbath is fashioned from a bowl balanced on a tripod of branches pruned from a chokecherry hedge and lashed together. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 15, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Pool parties popular with winter birds.”

2014 Update: Check out Duncraft,, for a wide variety of bird baths with heating elements built in.

By Barb Gorges

Pigeons and doves are among the few birds with the ability to suck liquids, states author Kenn Kaufman in “Lives of North American Birds.”

This is because the parent birds produce a milky substance from a gland in their mouths, “pigeon milk,” that the young suck by inserting their bills into the corner of their parent’s mouth.

The ability to suck carries over into getting a drink of water.

Other birds can fill their mouths with water, but then have to tip their heads back to let it run down their throats.

I’ll have to wait until spring to observe mourning doves again, though I suppose I could go down to one of the bridges over Crow Creek and observe the pigeons.

However, I can observe a house finch getting a drink in my backyard. It sits on the edge of the bowl, leans forward to dip its bill in the water and then leans back before dipping again, see-sawing until it’s had enough, or until too many other birds crowd in.

Whether or not you plan to compare bird drinking habits, providing water for your backyard birds is a good idea, especially in the winter when natural water sources may freeze.

My present method uses an overpriced, black plastic bowl, about the size of a large dog dish, which was supposed to absorb solar radiation and keep the water from freezing in cold weather.

The bowl is too small to qualify as a bird bath, though a few grackles splashed around in it this summer. But it’s easy to pick up and bring in any morning I need to run hot water over it to release the ice before refilling it.

The system we used years ago in southeastern Montana, where winter temperatures were often subzero, involved a shallow plastic garbage can lid used upside down as a liner for a traditional, pedestal-styled bird bath.

The lid being flexible, we could just pop out the circular ice chunk every morning and refill the lid with a kettleful of boiling water. Sometimes the water froze over in an hour, so I’d repeat the procedure later in the day.

The good thing about these two systems is that they cost nearly nothing and are easy to disassemble and bring in for a soap and water cleaning. However, they don’t provide a constant supply of unfrozen water.

There are plenty of winter bird bath options (water for bathing is as important to birds as water for drinking). Some come with electric heating elements built in, or you can buy the element separately.

The luxury models of heating elements are thermostatically controlled so you don’t boil any bird feet or waste electricity unnecessarily. They will also shut off automatically if the bird bath goes dry.

I checked locally and both A & C Feed stores have heating elements with or without the bird bath, as do McIntyre’s Garden Center and Oasis Market.

Whatever you use for a bird bath, it should be shallow, with the water not more than 2 inches deep. It’s better if the bottom slopes down toward the center.

If your bird bath is just a plastic bowl, you may want to hold it down with a large rock in the middle, or mount it somehow to keep the wind from tipping it over. Then again, if your site is too windy all the time, the birds won’t visit.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology recommends that the bird bath be out in the open, away from hiding places for predators (i.e. house cats), yet with perches not too far away so the birds have some place to sit while they preen.

Roger Tory Peterson, in his video about creating backyard bird habitat, expounded on how attracted birds are to moving water. Although elaborate spigots are available, one easy method is to hang a plastic jug full of water over the bird bath, with a small hole pricked in the bottom to provide a constant drip.

I wonder, if I painted the jug black, would it drip most winter days?

Meanwhile, we had such warm weather clear through the first week of November that I had to water my still-blooming snapdragons and rudbeckia.

I let the hose run in the garden, and next thing I knew, the siskins, finches and juncos had abandoned the bird feeders for a raucous water party.

I was extremely lucky last week and had a Townsend’s solitaire land in the top of one of our big trees. This time of year they make a one note “bink” call over and over, instead of their spring melody.

Unfortunately, our mountain ash is too young to provide a berry crop this year for a fruit eater like the solitaire.

Or was it looking for one of my wild garden water parties it heard about?

Black-headed Grosbeak

A Black-headed Grosbeak and a House Finch share a birdbath. Photo by Barb Gorges.