For the Birds


One of my favorite things to do in the winter is bird watch. I'm not sure why. I think it is because hearing the happy tweets and chirps of neighborhood songbirds reminds me that the cold will end and I will be out in my garden again soon.


This year, everyone here at City Planter has gotten bit by the birdfeeder bug. We have many different styles of feeders here in the store and all of the staff has taken one home to test drive. I even will admit that I jumped for JOY when I received a bird ID field guide as a holiday gift this past season.


In celebration of February being National Bird Feeding Month, I want to excite you about our feathered friends. Perhaps you want to participate in 2011's Great Back Yard Bird Count from Feb 18 through Feb 21. You don't have to be a professional birder, just take a moment to look out your window and record the birds you see! There are links on the page if you want to participate in other bird counts throughout the year (beware: it becomes a little addicting).


So if you've decided you want to feed the birds this year, where do you begin? I suggest a twofold approach: think about what birds to you WANT to attract to your feeder and what birds are you LIKELY to see at your feeder? This mental exercise is useful for many reasons: 

  • The type of feeder and seed matter. If you really Really REALLY want to attract Northern Cardinals to your feeder, but you only hang a Thistle/Nyjer seed feeder they are never going to come. The seeds, while great for attracting goldfinches are so small they must be offered in special feeders that cardinals are just too big to access. Plus, even if you offered the Thistle seed on the ground, it is not the preferred seed of the Cardinal, so they would likely pass over it in search of your neighbors feeder full of tasty treats like Sunflower seeds and Safflower. 
  • Your location matters. If you live in the middle of a dense urban hustle and bustle no amount of tempting with the correct seed and feeders is is going to attract a Red-Winged Blackbird. They need open areas and love wet marshes - not exactly the concrete jungle a downtown city has to offer. Now, this isn't to say you couldn't see a Red-Winged Blackbird in a city, but it might not be wise to focus all of your feeding efforts on a very elusive species for your location. I live in a fairly busy urban area, but my backyard is close to Fairmount Park which is a huge inner city forested area in the city of Philadelphia. I've seen some unusual bird species in my area because of it, so you never know what birds might be lurking around.


With that being said, what birds are you likely to see? A great resource for new birders is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They have everything you could want to know from birds in your area, to habitat preferences, ID guides, and seed preferences for different species.


The best seed out there for your money is Sunflower. Why? It is the seed that is most widely eaten. That means you get the most bang for your birding buck when you offer it as it attracts the widest number of species. It comes in 2 forms, black and striped, and the black is the easiest for the birds to crack open so it can help the smaller-beaked birds to offer the black variety. It is also available shelled which makes it very accessible  to all the different species of birds, but it more expensive this way. It does leave MUCH less mess than the shelled counterpart, because the birds eat the whole seed and there are no shells to leave behind. 


Here is a chart from Cornell to help you with other seed choices:



Food Preferences of Common Feeder Birds

  Sunflower Safflower Corn Millet Milo Nyjer Suet
Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches X X         X
Finches X X   X   X  
Cardinals, Grosbeaks X X          
Sparrows, Blackbirds X   X X      
Jays X   X   X   X
Woodpeckers X           X
Orioles, Tanagers             X
Pigeons, Doves     X X X    
Indigo Buntings X     X   X  

Results based in part on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Seed Preference Test, a National Science Experiment sponsored by the National Science Foundation, launched in winter 1993-1994.


Check out the rest of the information here. And here is a great page listing the different types of feeders and what birds are best suited for each.


Birding can be a great hobby. Just make sure, whatever you chose, to protect the birds from harm. Change the seed often (especially if it is open to the elements) to prevent mold and bacteria from growing and causing illness in your feeder birds. And make sure you mount your feeder either on your windows or far enough away from glass so they do not fly into glass reflections of open sky. This is a tragic and unfortunate killer of many city songbirds who don't understand reflection. A way to help is to mount decals on your windows. It can be of any design - the visual cue of something in the window is enough to signal to the bird "don't fly here"


Happy birding!


Just for fun: below are the birds who have appeared at my platform feeder in the middle of Philadelphia. Who knew there would be this much diversity in the middle of a major city? Can you name them all?

Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) English (or House) Sparrow (Passer domesticus) Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) Black Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)    
Purple Finch Male (Carpodacus purpureus) Purple Finch Female (Carpodacus purpureus)