Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Bird Feeders and Bird Watching

We have had bird feeders for years and because of that, we have enjoyed seeing a variety of birds. Not only have we learned a lot about identifying birds but we have also learned a lot about bird feeders and bird feed.

Not all bird feeders and bird feed are created equal.  Your chances of seeing uncommon or rarely seen birds all hinge on the right feeder and feed.  Now is not the time to go cheap.

Let's talk feeders first.  Whenever possible buy metal feeders and feeders made specifically for the type of bird you want to attract.  Why metal?  Squirrels, possums, and raccoons love a full bird feeder and to get to that feed they will chew through plastic in a heart beat.  Animals cannot chew through a metal feeder.  They can try but at the most they will just bend it and you can just bend it back.

Plastic is also brittle and affected by both the heat and the cold.  If a feeder is knocked down by an animal, there is a greater chance of breakage if it's plastic.  Plastic can rarely be fixed.  So when you are deciding on your feeder and it comes down to plastic or metal, ALWAYS go with metal.

So now that you have picked the correct feeder for the type of bird you want to attract (finch tube feeder, sunflower seed feeder, tray feeder) and that feeder is metal (trust me...get the metal feeder) you will now want to buy your feed.  I feel like I am repeating myself but buy the feed specifically for the type of bird that you want to attract.  You know the line in The Wizard of Oz where they say "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."   Bird feed is like the Wizard, pay no attention to the photos of numerous birds on the packaging.  One type of feed does not work for all birds.
The cheap bird seed is filled with filler that the birds will pull out and drop to the ground so that they can get to the few seeds that they really want.  Trust me when I tell you, do not buy the cheap feed.  It just ends up on the ground making a mess, attracting mice, and those pesky animals that will tear apart your plastic feeders (oh that's right, you are going to buy metal).  In the end, you will go through more cheap feed, which will cost the same as if you bought the correct more expensive seed in the first place.  See the photo below of some cheap seed that R bought.  The sunflower seeds are just empty hulls but the rest of the seed was pulled out of the feeder by the birds trying to get to the black sunflower seeds.  It makes a big mess and also makes the birds vulnerable to predators when they are on the ground eating the dropped feed. 
If you want gold finches then buy Niger seed.  If you want orioles buy oriole jelly or nectar.  If you want hummingbirds then buy hummingbird nectar.  If you want bluebirds then buy bluebird feed which is what I did today.

After having such great luck with the orioles, I decided to ask the wild bird store clerk (the clerk wasn't wild but was a clerk who worked at a wild bird store) about bluebirds.  I was there today to buy another orange cup to hold jelly because every couple of days I wash the cup before refilling and I thought it would be easier to just have a spare to fill and drop into the feeder.

I wasn't expecting to buy bluebird stuff until next year but after hearing what they had to say and looking at my feeder options I decided to purchase the simple set up similar to my first oriole feeder. The frame is metal and it holds a *plastic cup that holds the feed.  The cup is blue unlike the oriole cup that is orange.  I was told today that they are attracted to blue and I must say that I had never heard that before but then again I have never really looked into bluebird feeders before today.
*I know I said never buy plastic but this is a cup and if the animals want to eat out of it they will not need to chew it apart to get to the food.  Plus, replacements cups are inexpensive and easy to find.

I remember the first time that I saw a bluebird.  I was 30 years old and we were on our way to a motorcycle race in Nazareth PA (That's a whole other story.  What a race weekend that was....LOL). We were driving along on a paved road but it was lined with old fence posts next to the ditch and there on a fence post sat a male bluebird.  Oh my goodness.  So blue and so pretty.  I didn't see another until I was... ahem...older.

Over the years I would see one here or there. Some just flying through the yard but lately there have been more.  The more I see, the more I want to make sure that they are around for other people to see. So I need to feed them.
We hung the feeder on the same style of bracket that I use to hang my other feeders and my large solar lanterns.  The brackets are made by Panacea and have a hand forged look. They can be found all over the Internet and at a lot of your local stores. The bluebird feeder was hung from the bracket on a tree in the area where I see the bluebirds sit and fly from tree to tree.
The feed that I purchased came in a small container and is a mixture of seeds, suet, and roasted mealworms.  This container was about 8 bucks.  A big bag of mealworms was more expensive and I thought if the bluebirds eat just the worms then I'll spring for a big old bag of mealworms later. Tasty.
I filled the cup up with the delicious Bluebird Munch and placed it in the metal holder.  Tomorrow we will see if the bluebirds found the feeder and if they ate the feed.

It's tomorrow and the cup is half empty.  But what ate the feed?  Was it bluebirds, finches, cardinals? 

Later in the day after I refilled the cup, I came upon the culprit.

A red squirrel.
Some DOs and DON'Ts

Do wash your feeders several times throughout the year or if the seed gets wet and moldy.  Use hot soapy water.  I let mine sit in the water for awhile before I start scrubbing.

Do keep your feeders full once you have the birds regularly coming to your yard.

Do grab a beverage and sit back, watch, and listen.  Let the birds get used to you.

Do hang the feeder where you can get to it.  You will never refill your feeder if you need to use a ladder to get to it.

Do use metal hooks and extenders if you need to hang from a high branch.

Do buy a field guide for identifying the birds.  I like the small faux leather covered Audubon Field Guides. The cover withstands a lot of handling and it is arranged somewhat by color which makes identifying the birds easier for young kids and adults like me who want to know NOW and not have to read an entire book to determine if a bird is a bluebird or blue jay.  Make sure you buy the correct field guide for your area as most come in either Eastern or Western US or North America.

Do research.  Find what works best in your area or climate.  The wild bird stores are my best source of information for my area.

Do give it time.  You won't have this many hummingbirds overnight.

Don't cheap out.  I hate to harp on this but you will get frustrated and never see the wonderful song birds that are out there flying around.

Don't let your young kids handle a dirty bird feeder.  Sorry but adults only when it comes time to handle or clean the feeder.

Don't use rope to hang a bird feeder.  Rope is easily chewed, rots, and really provide no stability for the feeder when the birds land on it.  Ropes also allow the feeders to twirl and even though you might enjoy the tilt a whirl ride at the fair grounds, it makes it too difficult for the birds to land when it is spinning.

Don't let your feed get wet.  If you use large seed feed, make sure there are drainage holes in your feeder.  If not, drill a few holes in the metal feeder (remember you are buying a metal feeder).  Just make sure the holes are small enough that the seed cannot fall out through the hole.

Don't place a feeder too close to large windows.  Large plates of glass reflect the sky and the birds will fly into the glass.  I once had a hawk fly into my patio door.  Stunned him and scared the living day lights out of me.

If you still are not sure what kind of feeder to get, here are my suggestions.  Buy two feeders.  First one is a quality finch feeder that holds Niger seed.  The American gold finch (some call them wild canary but they are not) are beautiful, they find feeders fast, and are not shy about landing on them. Females are a dull version of the male but during the winter the male gets dull yellow like the female.  In our Michigan climate they stay year round.

Second feeder is one that hold sunflower seeds.  A lot of birds love a good sunflower seed and the best one to buy is the all black variety.  Buy a feeder that has a cage around it so that the birds can fly in and be protected,  I like the Perky Pet brand sunflower seed feeder.  All metal, contains the seeds really well, and also offers the bird some protection as it pulls individual seeds from the feeder.

Both feeders have very little wasted seeds and attract a variety of colorful interesting birds.  With these two feeders you should see American gold finches, house finches, purple finches, rose breasted grosbeaks, blue jays, cardinals, tufted titmouse, and if you hang a suet cage from the bottom of your sunflower seed feeder you should enjoy a variety of woodpeckers such as downy woodpecker, red bellied woodpecker, and flickers.  Don't expect to see the pileated woodpecker (Woody Woodpecker type)  they prefer deep forests and are rather shy.  I have only seen one and that was on my way to Mammoth Cave as the guide was taking us to the entrance.

Take your suet cage inside at night and place in a plastic grocery bag (cage and all) put in a cool place like the basement or if it is cold outside just put in your garage.   Rehang in the morning.  If you don't do this the raccoons will take the cage and all. It will be months later when you are weeding your bushes and flowers that you will find the stash of empty suet cages.  

Suet is especially important in the winter because the birds needs the extra calories and fat to stay warm.  R sometimes withholds the suet during extreme high temps because it melts.  He also prefers peanut butter flavor and the ones with berries in them.  If you shop well you can find quality suet for around a buck a block.

I'll do another post later on the different feeders in our yard.