(c) Jack Ballard
With an anticipatory grin, the three year-old pushes a chair from the table toward the kitchen window, intending to scale the cabinet and countertop for a peek outside. Standing idle, four feet away, his father does nothing to thwart his efforts. In fact, he gives the black-eyed boy a boost. Then the pair gazes out the window together.
A flit and flutter bring a tiny bird with a dark pate and sprightly demeanor to the feeder that the pair are watching from the window. “Chickadee,” the toddler pronounces with sparkling eyes and a proud smile. He turns to look up at his father. “Are you going to shoot this one?”
Squinting through the viewfinder of a camera supported by a tripod on a piece of plywood that straddles the kitchen sink, I nod. In the manner of its species, the chickadee hangs nearly upside-down on the cone of a ponderosa pine stuffed with peanut butter then rolled in sunflower seeds. It plucks a sunflower kernel, then flies away to crack the shell and gobble the nut in a sheltered location. Too quick for the camera, the bird escapes before I can trip the shutter.
It’s a frigidly cold, brightly overcast morning in February, the temperature still in the single digits. It’s a perfect day for our kind of bird hunting. Needing energy to fuel their small bodies, winged visitors should be flocking to our feeders for hours. Those that don’t wish to dine may still drop by for a drink at the heated birdbath a few wing-strokes from the feeders. With the intensity of two goose hunters sequestered in a blind, we scan our surroundings for new arrivals.
In moments they come. First a dark-eyed junco alights beneath the feeder to glean middlings scratched from above by the regulars. We admire the bird’s dusky cloak that contrasts beautifully with its milk-white breast. Coloration of these common Rocky Mountain residents varies widely. Our visitor is one of the prettiest I’ve seen. After scratching about for brunch, it launches into flight and lands on a twig not far from the window. I swivel the lens in its direction and capture two fleeting frames before the junco disappears.
After the junco, a red-breasted nuthatch swoops over to probe the pinecone for peanut butter. Nuthatches seem to enjoy snatching the bits of peanut stirred into the chunky peanut butter. This one pokes here and there on the cone, its slender, pointed beak probing with the precision of a surgeon’s instrument. It finally locates a nutty morsel to its liking, clasps it in its tiny beak, then wings away. During the nuthatch’s antics I burn through a half-roll of film and try to keep my assistant from alarming the bird with his exuberant gesticulations.
Just as we’re preparing to break for lunch, a northern flicker glides across the yard, then perches on a post. A cake of suet rendered from the fat of an elk I butchered the previous November hangs from a crossbar on the post. Flickers aren’t uncommon patrons of our backyard buffet, but this one is out of the ordinary. Two sub-species of these intriguing birds inhabit the United States, the red-shafted and yellow-shafted varieties. Red-shafted flickers are most common to the Rocky Mountains and high plains, but as I squint through the viewfinder of the camera, I start sputtering with excitement when I notice the distinct, yellow hues on the bird’s tail and wing feathers. Apparently less impressed with homemade suet than its red-shafted counterparts, this bird wings away without taking a taste, leaving me with one photo and a lasting memory.
Actually, my children and I have many memories spawned by bird feeders. Maintaining backyard bird feeders and nest boxes is a year-round activity for my family, but feeding is especially pleasant in the winter. Birds are fluffed in their finest plumage and linger long enough at the table to promote careful observation of their form, color and habits. Some species, such as cedar waxwings, dark-eyed juncos, downy woodpeckers and pine siskins only grace our feeders in winter. The December solstice also brings odd wanderers to our habitation. Blue jays, mountain chickadees and the yellow-shafted flicker have all strayed in from parts unknown. On several occasions, bird-hunting Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks have swooped in on the diners. Once, a frustrated hawk perched near the feeders for nearly an hour.
Like many bitten with the bird-feeding bug, my initiation into the hobby came as an impulse purchase of a tube-feeder and a bag of generic birdseed at a local hardware store. Discovering that the feeder was a great way to bring birds into camera range, I bought a number of books devoted to backyard birds and feeding them. Before long, my set-up included numerous feeders and a heated birdbath.
The type and style of feeder isn’t critical to attracting birds, but it does play a role in determining what species will use it. Mourning doves, rock doves and Hungarian partridges prefer a simple platform feeder placed on the ground and are seldom seen at an elevated feeder. Tube feeders without perches make it more difficult for pesky house sparrows to overrun the neighborhood diner. These non-native pests chase away many resident birds such as chickadees and house finches from feeders and nesting sites. Unfortunately, in most locations feeders attract plenty of these “mice with wings” as my brother derisively describes the sparrows.
In addition to the popular tube, bird feeders come in all manner of designs and sizes. Some are elegantly created from brass and glass while others are nailed together from scrap wood in a handyman’s garage. Some people prefer a certain look to their feeders, but the birds don’t care. From a practical standpoint, though, feeders should have some type of roof to keep snow and rain from ruining the seed. Feeders can be placed on the ground, attached to a pole, suspended from a crossbar on a post or hung from a tree branch.
Foiling marauding housecats and crafty squirrels from raiding feeders and terrorizing the patrons are two common challenges of bird-feeding. A two-foot length of sheet metal wrapped around a wooden post with the feeder on top does the job. Feeders suspended from limbs should be kept out of the reach of cats. Attaching a cone of sheet metal or plastic above a hanging feeder will thwart the efforts of both felines and squirrels. However, some people enjoy feeding squirrels as well as birds. If that’s the case, you’ll want to maintain a squirrel feeder stocked with unsalted peanuts in a separate corner of the yard. The fuzzy climbers will soon learn to frequent their own feeder and leave the bird-feeders to the intended occupants — if you’re lucky.
Although generic varieties of birdseed, often labeled along the lines of “wild bird mix”, are the most common and cheapest sources of feed, they’re definitely not the best. The contents of these mixes is seldom indicated on the bag, making it difficult to determine if the various seeds are of the types preferred by the birds you want to attract. Most of these mixes contain a high percentage of striped sunflower and canary seeds, a small, round, yellowish-white seed. While striped sunflower seeds are eaten by some birds, most prefer the smaller, black-oil varieties that have a thinner hull and contain more oil and energy. Chickadees, house finches, pine siskins, evening grosbeaks, cardinals and sparrows all prefer black-oil sunflower seeds to the striped ones. Most birds ignore canary seed, although mourning doves and some sparrows will consume it. Given the amount of waste that usually occurs with generic birdseed, it’s probably not the best bargain and certainly not what the birds prefer.
A better option is to buy individual varieties of seeds. The single best seed for birds in the Mountain West is black-oil sunflower, which is often available at hardware and feed stores. Another excellent choice is millet, a small yellow seed with a distinct dark spot on one side. Millet is especially prized by juncos and towhees. Niger or thistle seed is commonly used in tube feeders with very tiny feeding ports which discourage house sparrows and starlings. All species of finches love Niger as do redpolls and pine siskins. Millet, Niger and other specialty seeds are most commonly available from stores that cater specifically to birders.
Along with traditional seeds, peanut butter and suet are excellent sources of winter energy for a variety of birds. Peanut butter for bird-feeding should be non-salted and free of added sugars. Many birds seem to love the bits of peanut found in the chunky varieties, so that’s my first choice for feeding. As noted earlier, peanut butter can be offered by forcing it into the openings on pinecones (ponderosa cones work very well) and then rolling the cones in black-oil sunflower seeds. A length of fine wire can be used to suspend the cones from branches or attach them to posts. In addition to pinecones, a peanut butter feeder can be easily constructed by simply drilling holes into a length of untreated wood, a post, or a standing dead tree. Peanut butter offered in this way provides a very natural feeding stance for nuthatches that are delightful to observe as they probe the holes for peanut butter while clinging to the feeder upside-down.
Commercially produced suet and wire suet feeders can be found in department, hardware and feed stores. However, if you’re up to rendering beef tallow or the fat from wild game animals, birds seem much more attracted to fresh, homemade suet than the packaged varieties. The fat from elk and deer creates a hard, milk-white suet. I render these fats outside, as the odor they emit isn’t particularly pleasant in the kitchen. Once the rendered fat cools, but before it coagulates, I pour it into clean yogurt tubs that contain a length of string tied to a metal washer at the bottom of the tub. The tubs are then placed into the freezer where the suet sets up around the string which is then used to hang them from branches. Chickadees, nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and flickers peck and hammer away at the suet blocks, especially on the coldest days of winter.
Maintaining feeders will bring birds to your backyard, but if providing for nature’s feathered clan becomes a real passion, landscaping with birds in mind adds to the dividends. Birds need shelter on cold, windy days. The addition of a few evergreens or a twiggy hedge will be appreciated by feathered visitors as a windbreak. Trees and shrubs that produce natural fruits and berries, such as chokecherries and mountain ash, supply additional nourishment to that offered in your feeders.
Odd as it may seem, in the most frigid weeks of January more avian visitors may be lured to your backyard with water than food. Like all living creatures, birds need fluids for their bodily systems to work properly, a commodity that can be difficult to obtain in winter. Along with the feeders, I offer birds a supply of fresh drinking water, kept ice-free in a birdbath with a small electric heater designed especially for the task, essentially a scaled-down version of the heaters used by ranchers to keep ice from covering stock troughs. In addition to drinking, many birds flutter about in the birdbath even when it’s snowing out. Hardy robins that sometimes forsake migration to winter in town love the birdbath. Cedar waxwings often bomb in, an entire flock jockeying for position. So enthusiastic are the waxwings with their bathing and drinking, that they can empty nearly the entire contents of the birdbath before abandoning their antics.
With both feeders and a water source, it’s important to keep them clean to avoid spreading disease or bacteria among birds. An occasional scrubbing with a garden hose and brush will keep most feeders clean. Make sure the feeder is dry before replenishing it with seed. Birdbaths and other water sources need more frequent cleaning as seed hulls and droppings accumulate quickly with frequent use. I scrub my birdbath with a stiff-bristled brush, using hot water and anti-bacterial dishwashing detergent.
Along with keeping feeders clean, ornithologists agree that folks who feed birds in the winter should make it a season-long obligation. Once birds come to rely on a feeder as a food-source, it needs to be available until warm weather returns. However, that seldom constitutes a hardship. Viewing, observing and photographing a variety of feathered friends from the window provides more than ample motivation to keep the birds fed up.