Attracting Wild Birds to Your Yard

March 30, 2015 by  
Filed under Birding Tips

Isn’t it fun to watch all the chirping little feathered friends at your neighbor’s birdfeeder? They’re so adorable! And there’s all different species there, too. But when you look at your own yard… well, let’s just say it’s a different scene. There are no singing little friends, only a lone squirrel. How can you attract birds to your yard? This article can help you out.

First, you need a squirrel-resistant birdfeeder. If you have a tree to hang a feeder from, get a birdfeeder with mesh around it that lets birds in and keeps squirrels out. If you do not have a tree in your yard, you can buy a birdfeeder on a pole and put some squirrel baffles on the pole. (Also, consider getting a tree or some shrubbery- it will help attract birds.) Put sunflower seed in the feeder- this is often the most popular food for small songbirds such as chickadees and titmice.

In fall and winter, get a suet cage and some high-energy suet. Suet is a popular wintertime food for birds; it is high in fat and will keep them going throughout the day. It also is attractive to birds such as woodpeckers, which you will not usually see at your birdfeeders, since they don’t eat seeds.

Some kinds of birds, like tanagers, orioles, and mockingbirds, prefer fruit to seeds and suet. Put out a dish of dried cherries; place a half-orange on a tree branch. Mockingbirds and catbirds are known to like grape jelly, so consider putting out a saucer of it if you would like these birds to come to your yard.

Bluebirds have beautiful plumage, accompanied by a wonderful song. They are very popular among bird enthusiasts. If you would like to attract them to your yard, put up a few special bluebird nesting boxes in your trees (assuming you have trees). Also, they like mealworms, whether alive, frozen or dried; you can obtain some at a bird specialty store. Put them in a dish near your other birdfeeders- don’t worry, the birds will find them. Some other species of birds, such as wrens and robins, also enjoy an occasional mealworm, so even though they can be a bit pricey they may be well worth it, since they will attract many avian buddies.

Bluejays are also rather beautiful birds. Their striking ice-blue and white plumage is sure to wow even someone who isn’t interested in birds. However, they can sometimes be bullies at birdfeeders, and they will chase away smaller birds. They also will mimic hawk cries in order to scare away ‘competitors’. If you would like to welcome bluejays to your yard, but you don’t want them hogging the birdseed, get another feeder and fill it with peanuts (unsalted). Although squirrels will also be attracted to this treat, it is one of the best ways to attract these beautiful blue corvids to your yard.

Consider investing in a birdbath, even a small one. Although it can be a pain to clean it out, it is sure to attract all different species, even birds that won’t eat anything you offer them. Birdbaths are an especially big hit with robins, although you can find almost any species frolicking about in the water.

Although it can be very expensive, consider adding some fruit trees and berry bushes to your yard. This is one of the very best ways to get birds to visit, and once you have purchased & planted the bushes/trees, they will supply you with free bird food! Berries and fruit are what birds tend to eat naturally, and species that are especially attracted to these foods are: Cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, orioles, bluejays, wrens, and cardinals, just to name a few.

There are many different ways to improve your yard & make it more interesting to your avian pals. Remember- whatever food you offer, make sure that it is not stale/has not gone bad, or birds will completely avoid it, or they will eat it and become ill.

Article submitted by: Eliza Kuklinski.

Tropical Birding in January (Part 1)

August 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Features

I stepped outside the terminal of Lambert International Airport in St. Louis, Missouri to a steel-grey sky spitting snow. I groaned, pulled the all-too-thin jacket tighter about my shoulders, and stiffened at the shock of the cold. As I walked to the parking lot the wind drove flakes horizontally across my field of view and stung my hands and face. Staring intently through a curtain of white, I could just discern the outline of a Red-tailed Hawk struggling in the storm at the far end of the tarmac. I instinctively raised my hand to point its position, but there was no one to show the hawk to, nor share the experience with, and I suddenly longed for the warmth of Mexico and fellow bird watchers. I had to stop and smile at the thought because it had not always been so.

I had just returned from my very first itinerated bird watching tour to Oaxaca, Mexico. Never before had I subscribed to such a guided trip, preferring to bird watch on my own, companion only to the wind and wildlife I sought. For most of my life I would not have considered paying an organization to chauffeur me around the countryside, even a foreign countryside, to locate habitat and identify birds to see….that was work I expected myself to do. But after forty-some-odd years of searching the vastness of places and time, I came to realize how isolated I really was. My conversations in the field were limited to “Pishing” or mimicked call notes, and the books I carried with me didn’t respond to queries or arguments. The 10 X 50 WB Swarovski binocular I held in my hands gave in-depth views, but couldn’t assist when I failed to find a native sparrow hidden among prairie grasses. And, no one was around when I chanced to be bitten by a snake, or fall from a tree, bury my car in a snowdrift or become lost. I had to rely on my own strength and ingenuity to overcome those kinds of inconveniences. I slowly began to think it might be more pleasurable to bird watch among other bird watchers. So after many hesitant years, I sighed, submitted to resolution, and signed up to be a member of a birding tour. As with all change, one must first be receptive to an idea before it can be considered, accepted, and finally, acted upon. I guess I was just too hardheaded to come around sooner.

The Tropical Birding tour was guided by Michael Retter, Editor and Technical Reviewer for the American Birding Association. Seven other bird watchers, ranging in experience from beginner to expert, joined me on the fast-paced, nine day tour. I knew none of the other members before the trip, but would know them all well by the time it ended. Sharing long days and long rides in a cramped tour van has a way of encouraging close relationships. The tour was a first for Tropical Birding and the Illinois Ornithological Society as well; never before had the two organizations joined ranks to offer a professional birding vacation to their members. All hotel accommodations, transportation and meals were handled and paid in advance by Tropical Birding, which lessened the individual planning involved, but didn’t diminish the excitement and stress of overzealous bird watching, as I was about to learn.

Our schedule was strict: I’d get up at 4:30 AM every morning, shower, and meet the others for a short breakfast by 6 AM. We left for the field directly afterwards, generally as the sun came up, and spent the rest of the day searching for birds. We would only stop long enough to travel to the next site or have lunch, which was usually eaten while seated on the ground near the tour van. Species actually sighted from the moving vehicle were considered “Bonus Birds.” It took my very sharp eyesight and Michael’s excellent hearing to record Roadside, Harris’ and Grey Hawks, flocks of Groove-billed Anis, Orange-billed Nightingale Thrushes, Mangrove Swallows, Red-crowned Ant Tanagers and Mexican Chickadees from the window as we sped past. Not even a rest stop at a local gas station went without scrutiny, as Blue-grey Tanagers and Yellow-winged Tanagers were spotted perching in a tree near the parking lot as we waited in line to use the bathroom!

We did not return to the hotel following our pilgrimages until well after sundown. Once there, we would review daily checklists, return to our respective rooms to shower and/or change clothes, then re-group for a long, late dinner. Discussions at the dinner table consisted of birds actually seen and those we wished to, travel plans, and other topics of nature. A professor of botany from the University of Illinois was among our group and identified the flora of the many habitats we hiked through. It was not enough for Michael to call out a Blue-hooded Euphonia perched in some tree, or a Bumblebee Hummingbird feeding from a flower….the botanist would actually give us the Latin name of the tree or flower in association with the bird! Another birder started the popular, late night tradition of “My Favorite Bird of the Day”, which required each one of us to specify a single bird, out of the hundreds seen each day, and explain why it was the most special. Each bird watcher, of course, had a favorite for the day, but it was not always the same bird for each person or for the same reasons. It was great fun to hear the individual justifications for a favorite. One tour group member suffered from a poor set of binoculars, and even poorer hearing, and for the entirety of the trip was trumped on species by Michael and me. On the very last day of the trip this particular birder stated his favorite was a Rufous-crowned Sparrow…simply because it was one he had seen that I had not! Our days typically lasted sixteen hours or more, but the personal anecdotes, scientific study and camaraderie quickly made the tour enjoyable for me.

The week-long tour was actually split into two separate vacation sites: the first being at the Casa Arnel Hotel, located not far from the Oaxaca Airport; and the second being at the Hotel Villa Esmeralda near Tuxtepec, which was across the Continental Divide on the Eastern side of the state. While at Casa Arnel, we birded local farm fields, parks, forested hills above town, Zapotec ruins and the courtyard of the hotel. Bird watching at the hotel was some of the most relaxing of the entire trip, as we could sit in the shade, sipping Corona beer, and enjoy such species as Clay-colored and Rufous-backed Robins, Dusky Hummingbirds, and Bullock’s Orioles right from the terrace. Out in the field Michael routinely used recorded tapes to call in birds he hoped for us to see. He had pre-designated sites, with inventoried species that he would take us to. He knew which birds had previously been sighted there and would systematically go down a playlist of songs to lure them within view, one species at a time. Once, quite by accident, Michael played a series of recordings that had a pygmy-owl hooting in the background and called in more birds at that one time than any other! Lesser Greenlets, Wilson’s Warblers, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, Stripe-tailed Hummingbirds, Greyish Saltators, Black-faced Grosbeaks, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a Long-tailed Hermit Hummingbird darted angrily all around us, scolding the invisible villain within their midst.

Daily field trips around Western Oaxaca yielded Tufted and Vermilion Flycatchers, Ladder-backed and Grey-breasted Woodpeckers, Ocellated Thrasher, Red-billed Pigeons, Plain Chachalacas, flocks of Grey Silky Flycatchers, Yellow-throated and Scrub Euphonias. High in the pine-oak mountains overlooking town, the haunting and fluid notes of Brown-backed Solitaires followed in our footsteps. In the early morning light, with apparitions of mist rising off the valleys, their songs gave the forest an almost other-worldly feel. As we hiked the dusty trails in single-file, my tour mates would regularly trade positions to give other members at the back a better chance of seeing birds up front. It was a very polite way of wildlife watching and I was surprised by the etiquette. After the fog broke and the sunlight strengthened, we all caught glimpses of Red Warblers, Grey-barred Wrens, Red-faced and Crescent-chested Warblers, Dwarf Jays, Slate-throated Whitestarts, Red-headed Tanagers and a very curious-looking specimen of Hairy Woodpecker. It looked so differently than the Hairy Woodpeckers of North America that I called Michael over to see it, thinking I had discovered a new species…but it was only a woodpecker I had seen many times before, sporting different colors. Unbeknownst to me, Hairy Woodpeckers of Mexico have dirty-brown breast feathers and less white in the wings.

One bird that we did not see was the famed Oaxaca Sparrow, endemic to the valley that shares its name, after calling upon it nearly every day. Perhaps the Oaxaca Sparrow was on vacation, just as we were, and tired of engaging foreign visitors in the dry, waist-high grasses of its home? We all shared in the disappointment and, as frustrating as it was to not see the bird, it only gives me a better reason to go back to Mexico and look harder.

A slow day spent at the Monte Alban archaeological site to view popular Zapotec Indian ruins was a welcome change to our hectic schedule. The ruins are immense, and their imposing outline can easily be seen from the road outside Casa Arnel, following the mountain ridge of the horizon. They are spectacular, not only in their architecture, history and breath-taking views, but also in the bird species sighted there. Boucard’s Wrens, Ash-throated Flycatchers, White-throated Towhees, Rufous-capped Warblers, Black-vented Orioles, White-bellied Emerald and Berylline Hummingbirds, and a Blue Mockingbird flitted among the ruins and caught our eye. Those are the kind of tourist attractions I like to frequent…ones where you can sight-see, shop for souvenirs, and look for new birds all at the same time.

Tropical Birding in January (Part 2)

Article written by Stacia A. Novy

Accompanying photograph of Grey-silky Flycatchers credited to Michael Retter

Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)

February 9, 2009 by  
Filed under

The Scarlet tanager, Piranga olivacea, is unusual in comparison to the other 230 species of the Neotropical Tanager family. The Scarlet Tanager differs in that its plumage changes seasonally, in fact only one other member of the family does this and that is the Tanager that comes from the South American species. Every fall the male bird changes his striking red and black plumage to olive green for a more nondescript look. The small bird is about 6.25 inches long and has a fairly stout bill. The scarlet tanager can mainly be found in treetops.

The adult male tanager is a spectacular looking bird with his vibrant scarlet red plumage set against his shiny black wings and tail. This colouring stays with the male between the spring and summer months.

The adult female has none of the famous red coloring that her counterpart has but has a more yellow plumage. The female has olive back-grey wings and tail with greenish edges at the end of the feathers, and yellow under parts. The juvenile plumage is similar to the female tanager but the males will have blacker tails and wings.

The male scarlet Tanager is very easy to identify because of its striking red coloring. The male summer and Hepatic Tanagers, on the other hand, are entirely red. The female scarlet Tanager is also easily identified as the female summer Tanager is a plain yellow and not just orangey-yellow on its under parts. The female Western Tanager has wing bars and the female Hepatic Tanager has a darker cheek and her under parts are more orangey.

During the winter the Scarlet Tanager will occupy the canopy of the South American tropical forest and then later start their nocturnal migration north with the change of season. First they migrate through Central America and then they head across to the Gulf of Mexico. Upon arrival the male bird will start singing short phrases, alternating between a low and a high pitch, similar to that of the American Robin. He will then move to the lower branches of the trees and start performing his courtship display by drooping his wings slightly away from the body, elongating his neck to show off his scarlet back, as the female takes a look from above. Once the courtship is complete and a mate has been found the male will go further up into the trees and start singing again. The female Scarlet Tanager also sings but has a softer voice then her male companion. Together they will go out and look for food and raise their young.