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,

Keep birds safe

2018-05 Catio Jeffrey Gorges

A “catio” is a place for cats to hang out outside that keeps the birds safe–and the cats too. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges.

Published May 6, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Keep birds safe this time of year” and also at

By Barb Gorges

It’s that time of year that we need to think about bird safety —migration and nesting season.


Bird Tape is available from the American Bird Conservancy. Photo courtesy ABC.

The peak of spring migration in Cheyenne is around mid-May. If you have a clean window that reflects sky, trees and other greenery, you’ll get a few avian visitors bumping into it. Consider applying translucent stickers to the outside of the window or Bird Tape from the American Bird Conservancy,

If a bird hits your window, make sure your cat is not out there picking it up. The bird may only be stunned. If necessary, put the bird somewhere safe and where it can fly off when it recovers.

How efficient is your outdoor lighting? In addition to wasting money, excessive light confuses birds that migrate at night. Cheyenne keeps getting brighter and brighter at night because people install lighting that shines up as well as down, especially at businesses with parking lots. It is also unhealthy for trees and other vegetation, not to mention people trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Do you have nest boxes? Get them cleaned out before new families move in. Once the birds move in or you find a nest elsewhere, do you know the proper protocol for observing it?

You might be interested in NestWatch,, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen science program for reporting nesting success.

Their Nest Monitoring Manual says to avoid checking the nest in the morning when the birds are busy, or at dusk when predators are out. Wait until afternoon. Walk past the nest rather than up to it and back leaving a scent trail pointing predators straight to the nest. And avoid bird nests when the young are close to fledging—when they have most of their feathers. We don’t want them to get agitated and leave the nest prematurely.

Some birds are “flightier” than others. Typically, birds nesting alongside human activity—like the robins that built the nest on top of your porch light—are not going to abandon the nest if you come by. Rather, they will be attacking you. But a hawk in a more remote setting will not tolerate people. Back off and get out your spotting scope or your big camera lenses.

If your presence causes a young songbird to jump out of the nest, you can try putting it back in. NestWatch says to hold your hand or a light piece of fabric over the top of the nest until the young bird calms down so it doesn’t jump again. Often though, the parents will take care of young that leave the nest prematurely. Hopefully, there aren’t any loose cats waiting for a snack.

2018-05Henry-Barb Gorges

Cats learn to enjoy the comforts of being indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Loose cats and dogs should also be controlled on the prairie between April and July, and mowing avoided. That is because we have ground-nesting birds here on the edge of the Great Plains such as western meadowlark, horned lark and sometimes the ferruginous hawk.

There will always be young birds that run into trouble, either natural or human-aided. Every wild animal eventually ends up being somebody else’s dinner. But if you decide to help an injured animal, be sure the animal won’t injure you. For instance, black-crowned night-herons will try to stab your eyes. It is also illegal to possess wild animals without a permit so call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator like the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, 307-635-4121, or the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 307-777-4600.

Avoid treating your landscape with pesticides. The insect pest dying from toxic chemicals you spread could poison the bird that eats it. Instead, think of pest species as bird food. Or at least check with the University of Wyoming Extension office, 307-633-4383, for other ways to protect your lawn and vegetables.

Are you still feeding birds? We take our seed feeders down in the summer because otherwise the heat and moisture make dangerous stuff grow in them if you don’t clean them every few days. Most seed-eating birds are looking for insects to feed their young anyway. Keep your birdbaths clean too.


2018-05hummingbirds-Sandia Crest-Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds fill up at a feeder on Sandia Crest, New Mexico, in mid-July. Photo by Barb Gorges.

However, we put up our hummingbird feeder when we see the first fall migrants show up in our yard mid-July, though they prefer my red beebalm and other bright tubular flowers. At higher elevations outside Cheyenne hummers might spend the summer.

Make sure your hummingbird feeder has bright red on it. Don’t add red dye to the nectar though. The only formula that is good for hummingbirds is one part white sugar to four parts water boiled together. Don’t substitute any other sweeteners as they will harm the birds. If the nectar in the feeder gets cloudy after a few days, replace it with a fresh batch.

And finally, think about planting for birds. Check out the Habitat Hero information at

Enjoy the bird-full season!

Eulogy for an indoor cat


Joey the indoor cat. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Jan. 1, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Eulogy for an indoor cat.”

By Barb Gorges

Today I write a eulogy for Joey, an ordinary orange and white house cat who lived with our family.

I offer the details of her life as an example of the advantages of an indoor cat.

Joey died in the fall at the age of 18 ½ years old. She was my writing companion, sometimes draped over my left shoulder, sometimes over my lap. She exuded enough cat hair to melt down my previous laptop by clogging up the fan.

She was opinionated. She talked about a lot of things, her self-assured gaze drilling into you, assessing you.

Joey and her brother were products of a liaison between an unknown father and a footloose mother belonging to a friend. Our boys, in grade school and junior high then, enjoyed building climbing gyms for the kittens and playing catch and release cat toy games with them.

We took the cats outside occasionally on harness and leash, but Joey’s brother soon refused after stepping on a bee and getting stung.

Joey was always the one to look for before opening a door. It wasn’t that she wanted to go outside. She just wanted to go to the other side, whether into the basement or into a closet. If she did get out the front door, all we had to do was quietly leave the door open, circle around behind her, where she was quivering under a bush, and gently herd her towards the door.

However, one time she escaped without us realizing it right away. It took three days for her to come home and start pounding on the aluminum storm door. We were the only happy people that week after 9/11.

One good reason to keep your cat indoors is so you don’t have to worry about them. Of course, you could build them a “catio”—safe enclosed space for them to enjoy the outdoors. The enclosure would also prevent your cat from hunting local wildlife.

Even if it isn’t important to you to save billions of animals each year—birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians—from domestic cats, if you have children, you don’t want them in contact with cats that roam outdoors.

Cats are the hosts for toxoplasma gondii, a parasite with eggs that persist in soil. We know it causes serious health problems for pregnant women who come in contact with cat feces. But we now know that a large percentage of the global human population is infected and studies suggest toxoplasma gondii can cause behavioral and personality changes and is associated with disorders including schizophrenia.

Outdoor cats, whether owned or feral, are a bigger and more complicated problem than we ever expected. You’ll want to read “Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer,” by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella, neither of whom are cat haters.

For an introduction to the book, see the video of Marra’s talk last month at Search with the term “cat wars.”

One moment Joey was a tiny kitten, and the next moment an adolescent adventurer, then an unflappable middle-aged cat who would still perform amazing acrobatics to catch miller moths buzzing ceiling lights.

And then she became my elder, content to follow the daily rotation of sunny spots around the house, lounging among the house plants while watching birds at the feeder outside.

I believe Joey and her brother, who died of natural causes a few years ago, had better lives, longer lives, than if they had to roam outside in the hazardous world. I know I’ve had a better life because they were inside with me.

In Joey’s memory, please work to keep cats off the street.



What’s Fluffy hunting today? The cost of housecats hunting

Cat watching fish

Just because cats love to hunt doesn’t mean they can’t be happy chasing toys instead of birds, or watching wildlife through the window.

Published May 11, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “The lion inside: Do you know what your hunting machine is up to today?”

2014 Update: Check with the American Bird Conservancy,, for more information about the bird – cat conflict. The companies carrying cat enclosure and fencing products listed at the end are all still in business.

By Barb Gorges

When you see a cat walking along the top of your backyard fence or concealed under a bush ready to spring, what comes to mind?

— “Another pesky predator after my chickens!”

— “I wonder if that’s the cat that left nothing but a pile of feathers under my bird feeder?”

— “Fluffy! Where have you been the last five days? I’ve been worried sick.”

All of these responses illustrate aspects of the issue of domestic cats roaming the outdoors.

But the impacts of house and feral cats on wildlife is a growing problem – especially as felines eclipse dogs as the most popular pets in the United States.

If more cat owners knew how harmful their pets can be to birds and ground-nesting mammals, experts say, they might be more careful about letting these hunting machines loose in the yard.

Cats—predators or prey?

The issue of cats on the loose heated up last month when Wisconsin sportsmen voted to recommend feral cats be classified as an unprotected species, allowing them to be hunted.

The reasoning behind the vote was that domestic cats compete with native species like hawks and owls for prey.

Cats’ impact is estimated at millions of bird deaths every year in this country and probably more than a billion deaths of small mammals. Also, feral cats often carry diseases that endanger domestic and wild animals as well as people.

While the Wisconsin sportsmen want their recommendation to go to the legislature, the governor has said he will not sign any bill allowing cat hunting.

But Wyoming statutes classify stray cats with the red fox, coyote, porcupine, raccoon and skunk as predators that may be hunted without a license all year [where hunting is allowed].

While Wisconsin won’t be implementing hunting policies like Wyoming’s any time soon, the discussion has been successful in raising awareness of the feral cat problem.

The impact on birds

Where do roaming cats come from? A surprising number are companion animals of people who regularly let their cats out.

A study by Carol Fiore and Karen Brown Sullivan at Wichita State University examined the hunting habits of 41 pet cats allowed outdoors.

They found that 83 percent of the cats killed birds. They also verified the deaths of 4.2 birds per cat per year, but added that kills undoubtedly were under-reported.

[Few cats brought kills home. However, fecal analysis for less than half of the cats (less than half the owners provided indoor litter boxes) showed that they were eating far more birds than their owners were aware of.]

Surprisingly, the researchers found that the most prolific cat hunters had been declawed. That dispelled the myth that a well-fed, or clawless, cat doesn’t hunt.

Fiore and Brown also found that 43 percent of the bird kills happened in May and June. That coincides with the nesting season.

Non-game bird biologist Andrea Cerovski of the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish said ground nesting birds and those that nest low in shrubs are the most susceptible.

A fledgling can’t sustain flight for long, and even young raptors can have problems with cats. She said waterfowl are also susceptible when they molt and are waiting for new flight feathers to grow.

Since cats are not a part of the natural ecosystem, Cerovski said, they are particularly hard not only on birds, but also on amphibians, reptiles and small mammals.

Each natural predator species fills a niche in the ecosystem in balance with its prey, Cerovski said. But cats kill additional prey. That means the populations of prey species might not reproduce enough to keep up, so the natural predators have less to eat and their populations drop as well.

Susceptible ground nesting species in this area include vesper, lark, savannah and grasshopper sparrows; lark bunting; western meadowlark; and killdeer. Cats also can disrupt nesting ducks and geese as well as game birds since most of them also nest on the ground.

A paper published by the Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law says that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it unlawful to kill migratory birds. The owner of a cat that kills them could conceivably be charged.

Few birds survive a cat encounter. Veterinarian Robert Farr cares for injured birds.

“I don’t see a lot of injured songbirds,” he said. “Most of the time if a cat gets a bird, that’s it.”

Colonies of feline hunters

In a study published by The Wildlife Society in 1999, two California parks were compared for their populations of feral cats in relation to the number of birds found at the parks.

One park had no feral cats; the other had a colony of 25 cats that were fed daily. There were twice as many birds seen in the park without cats. Two ground-nesting species were not seen at all in the park with cats.

Cat colonies begin when owners fail to find lost cats or owners dump unwanted pets. The homeless cats then gather where there is garbage or someone puts out food.

Sue Castaneda, director of the Cheyenne Animal Shelter, said cats are not allowed to run loose in Cheyenne. Although no licensing is required, cats must be tagged for rabies.

But according to Castenada, few stray cats wear tags.

Of the 2,431 cats picked up or turned in to the shelter last year, only 57 were reclaimed.

Veterinarian Karen Parks, owner of the Cat Clinic of Cheyenne, agreed that in this area, cats don’t get the same respect as dogs.

“This is a human caused problem,” she said. “(Cats) are looked at as disposable property.”

While she knows cat colonies are unpopular with wildlife biologists, the managed cat colony is a compromise that suits her, Parks says.

She said such colonies can be found everywhere in town, including behind her clinic.

Three years ago she trapped, neutered and vaccinated 13 cats and began feeding. Since then, there have been no kittens. The colony is down to nine cats, and although two new felines showed up, they appeared tame and Parks was able to trap them and find them homes.

Parks’ colony is unusual. Other managers suffer from burnout or depletion of funds trying to keep up with neutering and vaccinating the new cats that move in.

Vaccination is an equally important part of Parks’ program.

The American Bird Conservancy says that cats are the domestic animal most frequently reported as rabid. Feral cats can transmit several diseases to native wild cats like mountain lions, bobcats, and the Florida panther. They also carry diseases transmissible to humans.

Currently, Parks sends six or seven feral cats a week to Colorado State University for spaying, neutering and vaccination before returning them to where they were trapped. She said it gives veterinary students experience and, if no other cats were ever abandoned, would eventually be the end of cat colonies.

Roaming is risky for cats

Parks said 85 percent of her clients keep their cats indoors or supervise them outdoors.

The idea that cats are smart and can fend for themselves is inaccurate: the life span of the average stray cat is only three years, said Tara Knight, Parks’ assistant.

According to the Humane Society, “Cats kept exclusively indoors often live to 17 or more years of age.”

Farr said 95 percent of feline injuries he sees are caused by outdoor hazards. Cats are hit by cars, preyed on by coyotes, get in fights, develop wound infections or are poisoned by antifreeze. They can also be attacked by dogs and abused by people.

Tips for keeping both your cat – and wild birds – safe

Keeping cats safe

Spay or neuter your cat

Veterinarian Karen Parks of the Cat Clinic of Cheyenne said she has no tolerance for clients’ desires to let their cats produce litters. Cheyenne Animal Shelter statistics show there are plenty of cats that need homes without adding more kittens.

Keep your cat indoors

The American Bird Conservancy’s “Cats Indoors!” campaign,, has many ideas for turning outdoor cats into happy indoor cats. Play with them!

Outdoor enclosures

Build or buy an outdoor enclosure where your cat can safely be left. Check with the SafeCat Outdoor Enclosure,, The Cat Enclosure Kit,, or Kitty Walk,

Adopt a friend for your cat

Consider adopting a companion cat or dog of the opposite sex.

Grooming and cleaning

Trim claws every week or two. Scoop the litter box daily. If you use clumping litter, it needs to be changed only every two to four weeks.

Don’t feed stray cats

Take them to the animal shelter. They may be someone’s lost pet. If not, adopt them, get them spayed or neutered, vaccinate them and make them an indoor cat.

Keeping birds safe

Putting a bell on a cat doesn’t work because birds don’t associate its tinkling noise with danger. Keeping cats indoors or under control is the only solution.

But what about your neighbor’s cat?

–Ask your neighbor to keep the cat indoors or in an outdoor enclosure. If the neighbor does not, humanely trap the cat and take it to the shelter and explain to whom it belongs.

–Keep bird feeders away from places where cats may hide. Try placing poultry or rabbit wire fencing around bird feeders and bird baths. The fence need only be 2 feet high and 4 feet in diameter. If a cat tries to jump over it, it gives birds a chance to fly away.

–Keep your cat in your yard, or keep other cats out, by installing cat-proof fencing. Two brands are the Cat Fence-In System,, and Affordable Cat Fence, Both are mesh netting systems attached to the top of the fence.