by Marjorie Rachlin
Seeds, suet, action! There’s been a hungry clientele at my bird feeder, particularly since it got cold. During the winter, I can expect to see about 14 different species chowing down, and possibly a rare new one.
To a bird, a feeder is a restaurant with a menu and varied seating arrangements. If you watch closely, you will see different dining styles among our feathered clientele.
First at the tableGoldfinches, house finches and cardinals fly in, sit on the feeder, and gorge. They are the seed eaters – the birds for whom seeds are a main staple all year long. They have a strong wide bill that can hold and crack a seed, let the husk fall, and retain the kernel so they can to swallow it.
These are the sit-down diners, occupying the perches, methodically eating one seed after another, while others wait in a nearby tree.
Calling for carry-out
The take-out crowd grabs a sunflower seed and flies off. Black-capped chicadees, tufted titmice, and white-breasted nuthatches have narrow pointed bills, designed for an insect diet in the warmer months. They can’t manage this trick of taking the husk off with their beaks. They carry the sunflower seed to a nearby branch, put their foot on it, peck until the husk falls off, then eat the kernel.
Sometimes they hide the seed instead – tucking it into a crevice in the bark of a nearby tree and going back to the feeder for more. I have seen a white-breasted nuthatch fly back and forth to the feeder five times in rapid succession, hiding the seed each time in the bark of my neighbor’s oak.
Settling for scrapsSome birds don’t come to the table at all – they are basically ground feeders. They rely on scraps that fall to the floor. Mourning doves like the ground, as do many sparrows. In addition to the usual English sparrows, I’m seeing two other kinds of sparrow in my yard right now: One song sparrow that nested here in the summer and decided to stay, and a group of white-throated sparrows, who arrived in October for the winter. (They are the ones that sing a high plaintive song, “Pea-bo-dy, Pea-bo-dy” from time to time.)
Many of the ground birds eat seeds all year long, and they enjoy small seeds like millet and cracked corn, which come in most mixed bags of feed, so I scatter some on the grass.
Running the restaurantI have a tube feeder, which I fill with black sunflower seeds, and occasionally peanuts. I am interested in attracting finches, and they prefer sunflower or sunflower hearts. I don’t like grackles and starlings, and this kind of tube has short perches that make it hard for them to light. Unfortunately, bluejays also find it uncomfortable, although they manage to snatch a seed or two before dropping to the ground.
Types of birdfeeders are legion. Many are designed to keep squirrels from eating you out of house and home. I buy my feeder equipment and seeds at the Audubon Shop at Woodend (8940 Jones Mill Road), but you can view a wide selection at www.birdfinder.com. A baffle keeps the squirrels off my tube feeder, but of course nothing keeps them from pigging out on the ground. And you may find that flying squirrels are visiting at night.
The crowd that never got the message about fat
Woodpeckers prefer fat; they ignore the seeds. When the suet feeder is up, I will have one or two downy woodpeckers there every day, and, from time to time, a look-alike species, the hairy woodpecker. The biggest member of the family is a red-bellied sapsucker, which is not red-bellied at all but has a red patch on the back of its head. All these woodpeckers have big strong bills, used to digging insects out of tree bark, and their main diet most of the year is insects.
I beg the butcher for beef fat, but suet cakes do just as well. The fat also attracts Carolina wrens, who have to have fat and food from us if they are to survive a true cold spell.
Nature red in tooth and clawTo a hawk, birds at a feeder are the main course. I am told that a Cooper’s Hawk will eat a mourning dove a day if they can get it, and my neighbor had a Cooper’s visiting pretty regularly last year. It’s not always an easy hunt though — many birds mean many eyes to keep watch.
If all suddenly goes quiet in your yard, and the birds disappear into the bushes –there’s probably a hawk nearby. Often the bluejays will scream an alarm. The hawk may leave, but it will take 15 minutes or so before the birds re-appear.
Do you have a feeder story?
What’s happening at your feeder? What’s your story? What birds are you getting? Is anyone getting a pileated woodpecker? A towhee? What kind of feeder and food work best? Squirrels anyone? Use the comment box below.