Five Best Values for Feeding Birds

Despite being located in an urbanized downtown setting, blustery weather in recent days has inspired a wonderful variety of small birds to visit the garden here at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters to feed and refresh.  For those among you who may enjoy an opportunity to see an interesting variety of native birds living around your place, we’ve assembled a list of our five favorite foods for wild birds.

American Goldfinches in drab winter (basic) plumage visit the trickle of water entering the headquarters pond to bathe and drink.  In addition to offering the foods animals need to survive, a source of clean water is an excellent way to attract wildlife to your property.

The selections on our list are foods that provide supplemental nutrition and/or energy for indigenous species, mostly songbirds, without sustaining your neighborhood’s non-native European Starlings and House Sparrows, mooching Eastern Gray Squirrels, or flock of ecologically destructive hand-fed waterfowl.  We’ve included foods that aren’t necessarily the cheapest but are instead those that are the best value when offered properly.

Bread, “bargain” seed mixes, and cracked corn can attract and sustain large numbers of House Sparrows and European Starlings.  Both are non-native species that compete mercilessly with indigenous birds including bluebirds for food and nesting sites.  Though found favorable for feeding Northern Cardinals without attracting squirrels, the expensive safflower seed seen here is another favorite of these aggressive House Sparrows.  Ever wasteful, they “shovel” seed out of feeders while searching for the prime morsels from which they can easily remove the hulls.  Trying not to feed them is an ongoing challenge, so we don’t offer these aforementioned foods to our avian guests.

Number 5

Raw Beef Suet

In addition to rendered beef suet, manufactured suet cakes usually contain seeds, cracked corn, peanuts, and other ingredients that attract European Starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels to the feeder, often excluding woodpeckers and other native species from the fare.  Instead, we provide raw beef suet.

Because it is unrendered and can turn rancid, raw beef suet is strictly a food to be offered in cold weather.   It is a favorite of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and many other species.  Ask for it at your local meat counter, where it is generally inexpensive.

Raw beef suet is fat removed from areas surrounding the kidneys on a beef steer.  To avoid spoiling, offer it only in the winter months, particularly if birds are slow to consume the amount placed for them.  If temperatures are above freezing, it’s important to replace uneaten food frequently.  The piece seen here on the left was stored in the freezer for almost a year while the rancid piece to the right was stored in a refrigerator at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for just two months.  You can render raw beef suet and make your own cakes by melting it down and pouring it into a form such as cupcake tin.  But do it outdoors or you’ll be living alone for a while.
A female Downy Woodpecker feeds on raw beef suet stuffed into holes drilled into a vertically hanging log.  Because they can’t be cleaned, log feeders should be discarded after one season.  Wire cage feeders though, can usually be scrubbed, disinfected, dried, and reused.
Pesky European Starlings might visit a raw beef suet feeder but won’t usually linger unless other foods to their liking are available nearby.
This male Downy Woodpecker has no trouble feeding on raw beef suet packed into holes drilled into the underside of this horizontally hanging log.  Starlings don’t particularly care to feed this way.
Unusual visitors like a Brown Creeper are more likely to stop by at a suet feeder when it isn’t crowded by raucous starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels.   This one surprised us just this morning.
Below the feeders, scraps of suet that fall to the ground are readily picked up, usually by ground-feeding birds.  In this instance, a male Eastern Bluebird saw a chunk break loose and pounced on it with haste.

Number 4

Niger (“Thistle”) Seed

Niger seed, also known as nyjer or nyger, is derived from the sunflower-like plant Guizotia abyssinica, a native of Ethiopia.  By the pound, niger seed is usually the most expensive of the bird seeds regularly sold in retail outlets.  Nevertheless, it is a good value when offered in a tube or wire mesh feeder that prevents House Sparrows and other species from quickly “shoveling” it to the ground.  European starlings and squirrels don’t bother with niger seed at all.

Niger seed must be kept dry.  Mold will quickly make niger seed inedible if it gets wet, so avoid using “thistle socks” as feeders.  A dome or other protective covering above a tube or wire mesh feeder reduces the frequency with which feeders must be cleaned and moist seed discarded.  Remember, keep it fresh and keep it dry!

Niger (“thistle”) seed is very small, so it is offered in specialized feeders to prevent seed from spilling out of oversize holes as waste.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage feeding on niger seed from a wire mesh feeder.  By April, goldfinches are molting into spectacular breeding feathers.  Niger seed can be offered year-round to keep them visiting your garden while they are at maximum magnificence.
American Goldfinches in August.  This tube feeder is designed specifically for goldfinches, birds that have no difficulty hanging upside down to grab niger seed from small feeding ports.
During invasion years, visiting Pine Siskins favor niger seed at feeding stations.
Like goldfinches, Pine Siskins are quite comfortable feeding upside down on specialized tubes with perches positioned above the seed ports.  Seeds dropped to the ground are readily picked up by ground-feeding birds including Mourning Doves and Dark-eyed Juncos.  Periodically, uneaten niger seed should be swept up and discarded.

Number 3

Striped Sunflower Seed

Striped sunflower seed, also known as grey-striped sunflower seed, is harvested from a cultivar of the Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the same tall garden plant with a massive bloom that you grew as a kid.  The Common Sunflower is indigenous to areas west of the Mississippi River and its seeds are readily eaten by many native species of birds including jays, finches, and grosbeaks.  The husks are harder to crack than those of black oil sunflower seed, so House Sparrows consume less, particularly when it is offered in a feeder that prevents “shoveling”.   For obvious reasons, a squirrel-proof or squirrel-resistant feeder should be used for striped sunflower seed.

Striped sunflower seed.
A male House Finch and a Carolina Chickadee pluck striped sunflower seeds from a squirrel-resistant powder-coated metal-mesh tube feeder.
An American Goldfinch in winter plumage finds striped sunflower seeds irresistible, even with niger seed being offered in an adjacent feeder.
A Tufted Titmouse visits a feeder stocked with striped sunflower seeds.
Northern Cardinals readily feed on striped sunflower seeds, especially those that fall from our metal-mesh tube feeders.
An Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has no choice but to be satisfied with striped sunflower seeds that spill from our wire-mesh tube feeders.

Number 2

Mealworms

Mealworms are the commercially produced larvae of the beetle Tenebrio molitor.  Dried or live mealworms are a marvelous supplement to the diets of numerous birds that might not otherwise visit your garden.  Woodpeckers, titmice, wrens, mockingbirds, warblers, and bluebirds are among the species savoring protein-rich mealworms.  The trick is to offer them without European Starlings noticing or having access to them because European Starlings you see, go crazy over a meal of mealworms.

Dried mealworms can be offered in a cup or on a tray feeder.  Live mealworms need to be contained in a steep-sided dish, so they don’t crawl away.  Unless you’re really lucky, you’ll probably have to place your serving vessel of mealworms inside some type of enclosure to exclude European Starlings.
A male Eastern Bluebird tossing and grabbing a dried mealworm.
A female Eastern Bluebird with a dried mealworm.
A pair of Eastern Bluebirds.  The value of mealworms is self-evident: you get to have bluebirds around.

 

To foil European Starlings, we assembled this homemade mealworm feeder from miscellaneous parts. The bluebirds took right to it.
It frustrates the starlings enough to discourage them from sticking around for long.
If you’re offering dried mealworms, a source of clean water must be available nearby so that the bluebirds and other guests at your feeder don’t become dehydrated.

Number 1

Food-producing Native Shrubs and Trees

The best value for feeding birds and other wildlife in your garden is to plant food-producing native plants, particularly shrubs and trees.  After an initial investment, they can provide food, cover, and roosting sites year after year.  In addition, you’ll have a more complete food chain on a property populated by native plants and all the associated life forms they support (insects, spiders, etc.).

In your garden, a Northern Mockingbird may defend a food supply like these Common Winterberry fruits as its sole means of sustenance for an entire winter season.  Having an abundance of plantings assures that in your cache there’s plenty to eat for this and other species.
The American Goldfinches currently spending the winter at our headquarters are visiting the feeders for niger and striped sunflower seeds, but the bulk of their diet consists of tiny seeds from the cones on our Eastern Hemlock trees.  At night, birds obtain shelter from the weather by roosting in this clump of evergreens.
While the Eastern Bluebirds visiting the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters are fond of mealworms, the bulk of their diet here consists of these Common Winterberry fruits and the berries on our American Holly trees.
Cedar Waxwings are readily attracted to red berries including Common Winterberry fruit.
Migrating American Robins visit the headquarters garden in late winter each year to devour berries before continuing their journey to the north.

Your local County Conservation District is having its annual spring tree sale soon.  They have a wide selection to choose from each year and the plants are inexpensive.  They offer everything from evergreens and oaks to grasses and flowers.  You can afford to scrap the lawn and revegetate your whole property at these prices—no kidding, we did it.  You need to preorder for pickup in the spring.  To order, check their websites now or give them a call.  These food-producing native shrubs and trees are by far the best bird feeding value that you’re likely to find, so don’t let this year’s sales pass you by!

City Life: Gulls, Dabbling Ducks, and More

So you aren’t particularly interested in a stroll through the Pennsylvania woods during the gasoline and gunpowder gang’s second-biggest holiday of the year—the annual sacrifice-of-the-White-tailed-Deity ritual.  I get it.  Two weeks and nothing to do.  Well, why not try a hike through the city instead?  I’m not kidding.  You might be surprised at what you see.  Here are some photographs taken today during several strolls in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

First stop was City Island in the Susquehanna River—accessible from downtown Harrisburg or the river’s west shore by way of the Market Street Bridge.

From the middle of the Susquehanna River, City Island offers a spectacular view of the downtown Harrisburg skyline.  In summer, it’s the capital city’s playground.  During the colder months, it’s a great place to take a quiet walk and find unusual birds.
This Bald Eagle was in mature trees along the river shoreline near the Harrisburg Senator’s baseball stadium.
Ring-billed Gulls gather on the “cement beach” at the north end of City Island.
One of a dozen or so Herring Gulls seen from the island’s north end. This particular bird is a juvenile.
A Ring-billed Gull and some petite Bonaparte’s Gulls.  Really good birders will tell you to always check through flocks of these smaller gulls carefully.  It turns out they’re onto something.  Look closely at the gull to the right.
A bright red bill and more of a crescent shape to the black spot behind the eye, that’s an adult Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) in winter plumage, a rare bird on the Susquehanna.  Black-headed Gulls have colonized North America from Europe, breeding in Iceland, southernmost Greenland, and rarely Newfoundland.

Okay, City Island was worth the effort.  Next stop is Wildwood Park, located along Industrial Road just north of the Pennsylvania Farm Show complex and the Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) campus.  There are six miles of trails surrounding mile-long Wildwood Lake within this marvelous Dauphin County Parks Department property.

A flock of Killdeer at the south end of Wildwood Lake.  From November through February, a walk along the south and west sides of the impoundment can be a photographer’s dream. The light is suitable in the morning, then just keeps getting better as the day wears on.
Is this probable Carolina/Black-capped Chickadee hybrid a resident at Wildwood or just a visitor from a few miles to the north?  Currently, pure Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) nest in the mountains well to the north of Harrisburg, and pure Carolina Chickadees nest south of the city.  Harrisburg possibly remains within the intergrade/hybrid zone, an area where the ranges of the two species overlap, but probably not for long.  During recent decades, this zone has been creeping north, at times by as much as a half mile or more each year.  So if the capital city isn’t Carolina Chickadee territory yet, it soon will be.
Another chickadee likely to be a hybrid, this one with some white in the greater wing coverts like a Black-capped, but with a call even more rapid than that of the typical Carolina, the species known for uttering the faster “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”.  It sounded wired, like it had visited a Starbucks all morning.
In the lower Susquehanna valley, Carolina Chickadees have already replaced hybrids and pure Black-capped Chickadees as nesting birds in the Piedmont hills south of Harrisburg and the Great Valley.  This Carolina Chickadee was photographed recently in the Furnace Hills at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in northern Lancaster County.  The transition there was probably complete by the end of the twentieth century.  Note the characteristic overall grayish appearance of the wings and the neat lower border of the black bib on this bird, 
For comparison, a bird presumed to be a pure Black-capped Chickadee photographed earlier this month in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania.  This fall, “Black-caps”, like many other northern perching birds, are moving south to invade the lower elevations and milder climes of the Piedmont and Atlantic Coastal Plain Provinces.  Note the extensive areas of white in the wings, the long tail, the buffy flanks, and the jagged edge of the black bib.
Along Wildwood Lake’s west shore, an adult male Sharp-shinned Hawk was soon attracted to the commotion created by bantering chickadees and other songbirds.
Yellow during the first year, the eyes of the Sharp-shinned Hawk get redder as the bird ages.
Also along the west border of Wildwood Lake, temperatures were warm enough to inspire Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) to seek a sun bath atop logs in the flooded portions of the abandoned Pennsylvania Canal.

And now, without further ado, it’s time for the waterfowl of Wildwood Lake—in order of their occurrence.

A pair of Wood Ducks (hen left, drake right) with American Black Ducks and Canada Geese.
A pair of Northern Pintails.
A pair of American Wigeons (Mareca americana).
A hen (left) and drake (right) Gadwall.
Mallards.
A female Northern Shoveler.
An American Black Duck.
Canada Geese.
You just knew there had to be a booby prize, a “Blue Suede” (a.k.a. Blue Swede), a domestic variety of Mallard.
It’s a Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) sampler.  Clockwise from left: a juvenile male, a female, and an adult male.
A drake and two hen Green-winged Teal.  Isn’t that great light by late afternoon?

See, you don’t have to cloak yourself in bright orange ceremonial garments just to go for a hike.  Go put on your walking shoes and a warm coat, grab your binoculars and/or camera, and have a look at wildlife in a city near you.  You never know what you might find.

SOURCES

Taylor, Scott A., Thomas A. White, Wesley M. Hochachka, Valentina Ferretti, Robert L. Curry, and Irby Lovette.  2014.  “Climate-Mediated Movement of an Avian Hybrid Zone”.  Current Biology.  24:6  pp.671-676.

Looking Up

One can get a stiff neck looking up at the flurry of bird activity in the treetops at this time of year.  Many of the Neotropical migrants favor rich forests as daytime resting sites after flying through the night.  For others, these forests are a destination where they will nest and raise their young.

The Veery (Catharus fuscescens) is a Neotropical thrush that breeds in extensive mature forest on the dampest slopes of the Diabase ridges in the Gettysburg Basin. Their rolling flute-like songs echo through the understory as newly arrived birds establish nesting territories.
The whistled song of the Baltimore Oriole is often heard long before this colorful Neotropical is seen among the foliage of a treetop.  Some dead branches allow us a glimpse of this curious beauty.
The “Pee-a-wee……..Pee-urr” song of the Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens), a small flycatcher, is presently heard in the Riparian Woodlands at Conewago Falls.  It breeds in forested tracts throughout the lower Susquehanna valley. The vocalizations often continue through the summer, ending only when the birds depart to return to the tropics for the winter.
While constructing a nest beneath a tree canopy, an Eastern Wood-Pewee form-fits the cup where eggs will soon be laid.
The Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americana) nests in the treetops of Riparian Woodlands along the Susquehanna and its tributaries.  Most arrive during the second half of May for their summer stay.  It is a renowned consumer of caterpillars.
The Cedar Waxwing is a notorious wanderer.  Though not a Neotropical migrant, it is a very late nester.  Flocks may continue moving for another month before pairs settle on a place to raise young.
Of the more than twenty species of warblers which regularly migrate through the lower Susquehanna Valley, the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) is among those which breeds here.  It is particularly fond of streamside thickets.

For the birds that arrive earlier in spring than the Neotropical migrants, the breeding season is well underway.  The wet weather may be impacting the success of the early nests.

Northern Rough-winged Swallows arrived back in April.  At traditional nest sites, including the York Haven Dam and local creek bridges, small groups of adults were seen actively feeding and at times perching in dead treetops during recent days.  There was an absence of visits to the actual nest cavities where they should be feeding and fledging young by now.  It’s very possible that these nests failed due to the wet weather and flooding.  Another nest attempt may follow if drier conditions allow stream levels to subside and there is an increase in the mass of flying insects available for the adults to feed to their young..
A Carolina Chickadee, a resident species, is seen atop a hollow stump where it and a mate are constructing a new nest for a second brood.  Did the first brood fail?  Not sure.
Common Mergansers are an uncommon but regular nesting species of waterfowl on the lower Susquehanna River.  They nest in cavities, requiring very large trees to accommodate their needs.  It was therefore encouraging to see this pair on a forested stream in northern Lancaster County during the weekend.  However, a little while after this photograph was taken the pair flew away, indicating that they are not caring for young which by now should be out of the nest and on the move under the watchful care of the female.

So long for now, if you’ll excuse me please, I have a sore neck to tend to.

Loading Up For Winter

A very light fog lifted quickly at sunrise.  Afterward, there was a minor movement of migrants: forty-nine Ring-billed Gulls, a few Herring Gulls, a Red-shouldered Hawk following the river to the southeast, and small flocks totaling nine Cedar Waxwings and twenty-eight Red-winged Blackbirds.

A Belted Kingfisher in the morning fog.
A Ring-billed Gull calls as active migrants pass overhead on their way downriver.
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In the Riparian Woodland, small mixed flocks of winter resident and year-round resident birds were actively feeding.  They must build and maintain a layer of body fat to survive blustery cold nights and the possible lack of access to food during snowstorms.  There’s no time to waste; nasty weather could bring fatal hardship to these birds soon.

A Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) feeds on the seeds of an Eastern Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), also known as American Sycamore.  Chickadees are generalist feeders, eating invertebrates and suet at feeding stations in addition to the seeds of many plants.  Carolina Chickadees are year-round residents at Conewago Falls.
A fast-moving Golden-crowned Kinglet zips from limb to limb to grab tiny insects and other invertebrates.  During the winter, these petite birds will carefully probe the bark and crevices of trees to glean enough food to survive.  Golden-crowned Kinglets are winter residents at Conewago Falls.  In spring, they will depart to nest in coniferous forests.
A Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) searches an infected tree for insects.  They are year-round residents.
Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) are considered year-round residents at Conewago Falls, though they may withdraw to the south during severe winters.  Carolina Wrens sing year-round.  Today, their loud melody echoed through the Riparian Woodland all morning.
The tiny bob-tailed Winter Wren is an elusive ground-dwelling winter resident at the falls.  You may hear their scolding chatter from rocky areas and tree logs where they climb around mouse-like in search of small invertebrates.  Their song is a fast jumble of dainty musical trills that can sometimes be heard echoing through the Riparian Woodland in winter.  In spring, they’ll depart to nest in damp coniferous forests.