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!

Migrating Golden Eagles

Why would otherwise sensible people perch themselves atop a rocky outcrop on a Pennsylvania mountaintop for ten hours on a windy bone-numbing bitter cold and sometimes snowy November day?  To watch migrating raptors of course.

November is the time when big hawks and eagles migrate through and into the lower Susquehanna valley.  And big birds rely on big wind to create updrafts and an easy ride along the region’s many ridges.  The most observable flights often accompany the arrival of cold air surging across the Appalachian Mountains from the northwest.  These conditions can propel season-high numbers of several of the largest species of raptors past hawk-counting sites.

Observers brave howling winds on the Waggoner’s Gap lookout to census migrating late-season raptors.

Earlier this week, two windy days followed the passage of a cold front to usher-in spectacular hawk and eagle flights at the the Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch station on Blue Mountain north of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Steady 30 M.P.H. winds from the northwest on Monday, November 2, gusted to 50 M.P.H. at times.  Early that morning, two Rough-legged Hawks, rarities at eastern hawk watches, were seen.  They and two Northern Goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) provided a preview of the memorable sightings to come.  Two dozen Golden Eagles migrated past the lookout that day.  Then on November 3, thirty Golden Eagles were tallied, despite west winds at speeds not exceeding half those of the day before.

Here are some of the late-season raptors seen by hardy observers at Waggoner’s Gap on Monday and Tuesday, November 2 & 3.

In November, Red-tailed Hawks are the most common migratory raptor counted at hawk watch stations in the Susquehanna region.
An uncommon bird, a juvenile Northern Goshawk, passes the Waggoner’s Gap lookout.
An adult Golden Eagle circles on an updraft along the north face of Blue Mountain to gain altitude before continuing on its journey.
The plumage of juvenile and immature Golden Eagles often creates a sensation among crowds at a lookout.  Golden Eagles don’t attain a full set of adult feathers until their sixth year.  This individual is probably a juvenile, also known as a hatch-year or first-year bird.  At most, it could be in its second year.  Click the “Golden Eagle Aging Chart” tab on this page to learn more about these uncommon migrants and their molt sequences as they mature.
The gilded head feathers of a Golden Eagle glisten in the afternoon sun.
An adult Golden Eagle passing Waggoner’s Gap.  The population known as “Eastern Golden Eagles” winters in the Appalachian Mountains and, with increasing frequency, on the Piedmont and Atlantic Coastal Plain Provinces of the eastern United States, where it often subsists as a scavenger.
Another first-year (juvenile) or second-year Golden Eagle.
A local Red-tailed Hawk (top left) trying to bully a migrating Golden Eagle.  A dangerous business indeed.
Through December, Bald Eagles, presently the more common of our eagle species, are regular migrants at Waggoner’s Gap and other Susquehanna valley hawk watch sites.
Red-shouldered Hawks are reliable early November migrants.
An adult Red-shouldered Hawk from above.
And an adult Red-shouldered Hawk from below.
Though their numbers peak in early October, Sharp-shinned Hawks, particularly adults like this one, continue to be seen through early November.
A Northern Harrier on the glide path overhead.
Merlins, like other falcons, are more apt to be seen in late September and October, but a few trickle through in November.

While visiting a hawk watch, one will certainly have the opportunity to see other birds too.

Common Ravens are fascinating birds and regular visitors to the airspace around hawk watches.  Most are residents, but there appears to be some seasonal movement, particularly among younger birds.
Most people think of Common Loons as birds of northern lakes.  But loons spend their winters in the ocean surf, and to get there they fly in loose flocks over the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed each spring and fall.  They are regularly seen by observers at hawk watches.
Like ducks, geese, and swans, migrating Double-crested Cormorants assemble into aerodynamic V-shaped flocks to conserve energy.
Pine Siskins continue their invasion from the north.  Dozens of small flocks numbering 10 to 20 birds each continue to be seen and/or heard daily at Waggoner’s Gap.  A flock of Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vesperitinus), another irruptive species of “winter finch”, was seen there on November 3.

As a finale of sorts, near the close of the day on November 3, two Golden Eagles sailed past the north side of the Waggoner’s Gap lookout, one possessing what appeared to be a tracking transmitter on its back.  An effort was commenced by the official count staff to report the sighting to the entity monitoring the bird—to track down the tracker, so to speak.

A Golden Eagle with a backpack transmitter passing Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch at 3:39 P.M. Eastern Standard Time on November 3, 2020.

To see the count reports from Waggoner’s Gap and other hawk watches throughout North America, be certain to visit hawkcount.org

A Visit to Waggoner’s Gap

Nothing beats spending a day at a hawk watch lookout—except of course spending a day at a hawk watch lookout when the birds are parading through nonstop for hours on end.

Check out Waggoner’s Gap, a hawk count site located on the border of Cumberland and Perry Counties atop Blue Mountain just north of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  It is by far the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed’s best location for observing large numbers of migrating raptors during the October and November flights.

Waggoner’s Gap is located where Route 74 crosses Blue Mountain north of Carlisle.
The entrance to a parking area for hawk watch visitors is designated by this sign located along Route 74 several hundred yards north of the summit of Blue Mountain.
Since acquiring the site in 2000, Audubon Pennsylvania has added improvements to expand the function of Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch to include education for both formal students and the public at large.
The site is named in honor of the late conservationist Clifford L. Jones, a business leader, a former Chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, a cabinet secretary for six Pennsylvania governors (both major parties), a director on the boards of numerous conservation organizations, and an active birder.
Orange falcon silhouettes function as blazes for the trails that lead from the parking area to the lookout.  The trail and the lookout consist entirely of boulders.  Some of these move when stepped upon.  Others may be slick.  Use caution at all times.
The lookout at Waggoner’s Gap is staffed by official counters from August through December each year.  They are tasked with enumerating every migratory raptor’s passage during that period.
Sure-footed observers climb into a comfortable position among the Tuscarora quartzite boulders and begin watching the flight.
The view from the lookout is spectacular.  To the east, downtown Harrisburg can be seen in the distance.
During a recent afternoon with breezes from the “southwesterlies”, a steady stream of  migrating Sharp-shinned Hawks, including this juvenile, passed by the lookout.
Sharp-shinned Hawks were ready subjects for photography as they sailed on updrafts along the south side of the ridge.
An adult Sharp-shinned Hawk.
A second-year Sharp-shinned Hawk.
A Sharp-shinned Hawk below eye level.  Over 400 Sharp-shinned Hawks migrated past Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch on this particular early October day.
The local Turkey Vultures at Waggoner’s Gap seem ubiquitous at times.  They’re on the radio towers, they’re flying overhead, and a few are cruising the slopes below the crest.  But on the day of our recent visit, their numbers were eclipsed by the more than 300 “T.V.s” that migrated down the ridge.
Black Vultures, both migrants and local birds, are seen from the lookout.
Northern Harriers are a hawk watch favorite.  Their long uptilted wings, long tail, and white rump make them easy to identify, even for beginners.  Their plummeting numbers make them a treasured sighting for everyone.
A Red-tailed Hawk on a close approach.
A distant Red-shouldered Hawk.  Numbers of these migrants peak later in the season.
A Peregrine Falcon darts past the lookout.  Note the white forehead, throat, and breast.  This bird is probably a “Tundra Peregrine” (Falco peregrinus tundrius).  In the lower Susquehanna valley, this subspecies is strictly migratory, a transient in spring and fall.  “Tundra Peregrines” breed in the arctic and winter as far south as South America.
An immature Bald Eagle.  Waggoner’s Gap is a superb place for sighting eagles, especially on a breezy day.
Hundreds of Blue Jays filtered through as their southbound exodus continues.  Other songbirds of interest included Blue-headed Vireos (Vireo solitarius), Winter Wrens, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, and both Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets.

Waggoner’s Gap is a hardy birder’s paradise.  During the latter portion of the season, excellent flights often occur on days that follow the passage of a cold front and have strong northwest winds.  But be prepared, it can be brutal on those rocks during a gusty late-October or early-November day after the leaves fall—so dress appropriately.

To see the daily totals for the raptor count at Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch and other hawk watches in North America, and to learn more about each site, be sure to visit hawkcount.org

Pine Siskin Invasion

When wild food crops such as pine cones, acorns, berries, and other tree seeds fail in the forests of Canada, bird species which may have otherwise remained north of the eastern United States for winter pay us a visit.  There was a hint that such an event would occur this year when Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) became widespread throughout the Mid-Atlantic States beginning in August.  Then there were big flights of Blue Jays in recent weeks, an indication that the oaks of the northern wood are producing a less than optimal mast crop.

Reports of Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus), songbirds very similar in shape and size to the familiar American Goldfinch, have been posted from hawk watch sites throughout the region for several weeks now.  During the last several days though, the numbers have increased to indicate that an invasion is underway.  Just yesterday, nearly two thousand were seen from the lookout in Cape May Point, New Jersey.  Just after sunrise this morning, between twenty and thirty Pine Siskins descended upon the hemlocks at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters.  There, they began feeding on the abundant cone crop—then they quickly discovered the accommodations offered by the bird bath and feeders.

Pine Siskins visiting the susquehannawildlife.net bird bath just after this morning’s water change.  Note the dark streaky plumage, deeply notched tail, and the yellow in their wings.  This yellow appears as a bar when the wings are extended and is brightest on adult male birds.
The tiny bill of the Pine Siskin is adapted to extracting seeds from birch catkins and the cones of various evergreen trees.
Like American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins are very fond of niger (thistle) seed offered in tube feeders.
Like goldfinches, Pine Siskins are quite comfortable feeding upside down from feeders with perches positioned above the seed openings.  Note the yellow in the tail of this bird.
Flocks of Pine Siskins roam widely in search of food during invasion years.  Keeping your feeders clean and stocked with fresh seed will improve your chances of having them as visitors this winter.  And remember, if you’re feeding niger (thistle) seed, it’s very important to keep it dry.  Avoid using “sock feeders” and, after each storm, empty tube feeders for a cleaning and drying, discarding any clumps of wet seed.