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Attracting Hummingbirds

Female Ruby-Throated hummingbird
Perching Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Perching female Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Attracting hummingbirds is not much different from other birds. I think attracting hummingbirds is less expensive because you make their nectar with water and a bag of sugar. One 4 pound bag of sugar will make gallons of hummingbird nectar. Buying feed for the seed-eating birds requires buying expensive bags of seeds over and over again. What follows are the basics of attracting hummingbirds.
Female Ruby-Throated hummingbird
Female Ruby-Throated hummingbird perched on a branch. Photo: Donna L. Long.

Hummingbird Migration Dates

I spotted this female Ruby-Throat at the Schuylkill Nature Center in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia in late autumn. Longer after you would think these small, delicate birds would have headed to the warmer southern regions.
At first I heard a squeaking noise and then I realized it was a hummingbird. She flew right by me and sat on the thin branches of a tree, not more than fifteen feet from me.
Several days later, another female Ruby-Throat hovered less than six feet from me when I was at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope Bucks County in late autumn.

Tiny as these birds are most fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in Mexico and Central America.

Here are both the north and south migration dates for North American Hummingbirds. Hummingbird migration northward starts earlier than you would think. And hummingbirds stay later in the autumn than we think.

This chart covers the eight most common species that breed in North America.

Eastern Northward Southward
Ruby-throated late February to mid-May late July to late October
Western Northward Southward
Allen’s January to March mid-May to September
Anna’s does not migrate; shifts to local areas with more food
Black-chinned mid-March through mid-May mid-July – November
Broad-tailed March to May August to October
Calliope March to May late July to September
Costa’s late January to February September to October
Rufous February to May late June to September
male ruby-throated hummingbird perched on stake
Male Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on a tomato stake, defending his territory. Photo: Joe Schneid, Louisville, Kentucky, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Ruby-Throats are the Northeast’s Only Hummer

The Ruby-Throated hummer is the only hummingbird that lives and nests in the Philadelphia area and in eastern North America. The male as a sparkly deep ruby red colored feathers on its throat. The female has plain white feathers.

Another hummingbird the Rufous Hummingbird is a regular rare visitor to Pennsylvania during migration. This hummingbird frequents backyard hummingbird feeders during their migration from August to December. The Rufous doesn’t nest in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania. The Ruby-Throated does nest in the state.

birds annas hummingbird drinking nectar
Anna’s Hummingbird drinking from feeder in San Diego County. Public domain.

 

When to Put Out the Nectar

Now it a good time to put out hummingbird feeders to attract hummingbirds to your garden. Many of these small birds will be passing through on their migration south to Central America or north to parts of North America.

The hummingbird migration dates vary according region of the country. This information is helpful in knowing when to place your nectar feeders out in your backyard habitat gardens.

If you don’t live in the Philadelphia area, any bird field guide will tell you which species you can expect to find in your neighborhood. For Philly it is a Ruby-Throat most of the time. Some lucky folks may spot a Rufous or other rarity.

We can put our nectar feeders out early enough to attract hummingbirds in the spring. At leave them out late into the fall to help hummingbirds on their trip south.

 

hummingbirds at feeder
Hummingbirds at feeders. Centpacrr at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Recipe for Homemade Hummingbird Nectar

Use the hummingbird migration dates to know when to put out to attract hummingbirds.

This nectar recipe mimics the water to sugar ratio of flower nectar, the main food of adult hummingbirds. They do feed their young insects and spiders along with nectar.

The Key: Four parts water to one part refined white sugar.

Four parts means four units of water to one unit of refined white sugar. So, take a coffee cup or a glass or a measuring cup. Fill it with water four times. Then take the same container and fill it once with sugar.

  1. Pour the refined white sugar in the water.
  2. Dissolve the sugar in the water and place it hummingbird feeder.
  3. Change the sugar water frequently as it can spoil quickly in the sunshine.
  4. I would make it fresh every time I change the nectar in the feeder.
female ruby throated at Cardinal flower.
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird sampling Cardinal flower nectar. Photo Donna L. Long.

Plants to Attract Hummingbirds

There are many plants which attract hummingbirds. The birds are very attracted to red, tubular flowers. They also like orange-red and pink. So, if you are at the garden center or choosing a variety from a nursery catalog keep those colors in mind.

You can also plant native flowers that will attract hummingbirds. Make sure you plant flowers that bloom during migration season. Plant flowers that bloom in the spring using the dates in the chart. And don’t forget autumn-blooming flowers.

Plant the flowers in clumps of at least three plants. Three or more plants give enough nectar sources that it’s worth a hummer’s time to visit. It also creates a larger splash of color to catch the attention of hummingbirds searching for food.

Spread out the bloom time of the flowers to provide nectar throughout the seasons the hummers are in your area.

  • Bee Balm (Monarda spp.)
  • Cardinal Flower
  • Columbine (Aquilegia spp.)
  • Creeper, Scarlet (Ipomoea cristulata)
  • Creeper, Trumpet (Campsis radicans)
  • Honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.)
  • Lantana (Lantana spp.)
  • Penstemons (Penstemon spp.)
  • Sages, Salvias, spp. (Salvia spp.)

Here is a list of spring hummingbird attracting flowers for Philadelphia and the MId-Atlantic region.

Use the Audubon Native Plant Database to find flowers for your area. After entering your zip code a list of plants is generated. Next you can filter for the type of birds you want to attract.

Perches and Shelter

Trees and shrubs with thin branches and twigs provide perches that the small feet of hummingbirds can grasp. Trees and shrubs with large leaves provide shelter from rainy weather.

Provide Nesting Materials

Hummingbird nests are  made of spider webs, cottony seed material, the wooly surface of some leaves, plant fibers such as thistle down and cattail fluff or soft bird feathers. The outside of the nest maybe camouflaged with lichen, mosses, or other similar materials.

You can collect cattail fluff, moss, lichen, thistle down and make it available for the birds.

 

b=hummingbirds around a bird bath
Hummingbirds around a birdbath. Photo courtesy Mike’s Birds from Riverside, CA, US, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

Provide Water for Drinking and Bathing

Hummers like to bathe. Provide a swallow basin that allows the birds to bathe safely without drowning.

 

Conclusion: The Key Steps in Attracting Hummingbirds

  1. Learn the hummingbirds species which live in your area and when.
  2. Make hummingbird nectar and put out a feeder.
  3. Plant red, orange-red or pink tubular flowers in group of three or more.
  4. Plant several varieties of plants that bloom during the months the hummingbirds are present in your area. Annual flowers will bloom from spring until frost.
  5. Provide places for hummingbirds to perch.
  6. Provide nesting materials.
  7. Provide a bird bath.

I hope this information is useful. Let me know in the comments below if you have any experiences successes and failures attracting hummingbirds to your garden.

 

 

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Birdhouses: Choosing, Maintaining, and Attracting Birds

Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant

It’s migration and nesting season. And as backyard birding thoughts turn to birdhouses, I am considering putting a birdhouse or two in my city garden. 

Rob Carter of LoveNest Birdhouses in Atlanta, Georgia has graciously offered to answer our questions about choosing and placing birdhouses in our backyards and habitat gardens. 

Full disclosure, LoveNest Birdhouses will be gifting one of their WiFi video camera birdhouses to me, so I can actually try having a birdhouse in my urban backyard.

If you buy a birdhouse from Rob at LoveNest Birdhouses, I’ll receive a small commission which will go to support this blog.

And here’s Rob. 

lovenest birdhouse
Lovenest Birdhouse

Basic Birdhouse Questions

Q: Do birds actually use birdhouses? 

A: They really do! And, the need for birdhouses has increased greatly due to the reduction in naturally-occurring places for many bird species to build their nests and raise their young.

Q: Which types of birds use birdhouses?

A: The birds that use birdhouses are known as “cavity nesters” – meaning species that build their nests in enclosed cavities. There are roughly 80 cavity-nesting bird species in North America, including a variety of woodpeckers, owls, songbirds, falcons, and ducks. Certain birds like woodpeckers create their own cavities by excavating holes in trees and sometimes (sorry homeowners!) other wooden structures. Other birds are “secondary” cavity nesters, meaning they use cavities created by other birds.

Q: What is the purpose of birdhouses?

A: Birdhouses provide critical habitat for cavity-nesting birds which rely on a supply of viable locations for nesting and fledging. Birdhouses increase the supply of available cavities capable of protecting nests from predators and the elements.

Residential development and environmental challenges over recent decades have had a very negative impact on bird populations. Birdhouses offer important support to counter these threats.

Q: Do birds use birdhouses in the winter?

A: They do! Birdhouses offer shelter for birds seeking an enclosed space where they can protect themselves from cold, wind and wet weather. They will often congregate together in the same space and generate heat by fluffing their feathers and shivering.  

barn swallow and nest box
Barn Swallow nest box at John Heinz NWR at Tinicum in Philadelphia. Photo by Donna L. Long.

 

Urban Birdhouses

Q: Rob, I live on the outskirts of a large city (Philadelphia, Pa). Is there anything us urban birders should know? 

A: The big thing I would say is that birdhouses are perhaps most critical in more urban environments where there are so few naturally occurring cavities to support cavity-nesting species.

Dead trees and limbs which are really helpful for excavating cavities are undesirable and/or unsafe for homeowners and tend to be taken down, eliminating viable habitat. And, in urban environments, they are almost nonexistent.

The result is that cavity nesting species tend to dwindle and vacate those areas. Plentiful birdhouses can help reduce the trend of dwindling urban bird populations.

Q: What about discouraging Starlings and House Sparrows? 

A: House sparrows are a widespread, invasive and particularly aggressive species that competes for food and habitat with other species like popular songbirds. For example, house sparrows are known to attack adult bluebirds and their offspring, and even destroy eggs.

Because they are not a native species in North America, along with starlings, house sparrows are not protected by law, and you are allowed to destroy their nests and eggs.

Paying attention to the type of bird food and bird feeder one puts out can discourage house sparrows from frequenting one’s yard, as can the removal of wet (and dry/dusty) birdbath locations. A birdhouse without a perch is less attractive to house sparrows, and waiting until early April to put up your birdhouse can help since that is often after the time house sparrows have chosen nesting locations.

If you find a house sparrow or starling has begun to occupy your birdhouse, simply cover up the entrance hole for a few days and wait for the bird to go elsewhere.

Generally, starlings need a birdhouse portal 1.5 inches wide to enter, and house sparrows need 1.25 inches. You could consider using a smaller portal such as 1.125 to discourage unwanted species, though that will also eliminate certain more popular birds such as bluebirds from using the birdhouse. 

Nest in the Wissahickon Forest in Philadelphia
Birdhouse in the Wissahickon Forest in Philadelphia

Choosing a Good Birdhouse 

Q: What makes a good birdhouse?

A: Generally speaking, a “good” birdhouse would be any one that allows the occupants to successfully build a nest and fledge their young. Beyond that, different birds prefer different size birdhouses and different size entrance holes (portals).   

Q: How do I choose the right birdhouse?

A: There are countless birdhouse designs out there. Many are delightfully creative and fun in their appearance. That said, many designs are not necessarily conducive to producing the best outcome for the birds or attracting the species desired by the person putting out the birdhouse.

If you just want a birdhouse in your yard and don’t care what species occupies it, then most birdhouses will suffice, and chances are you may get a bird of some sort to occupy it.

Otherwise, if you want to attract particular species, research what nestbox and portal dimensions are most well suited to those species and purchase a birdhouse that conforms to those specifications.

Beyond dimensions, the structure of the birdhouse can play an important role in keeping the nest dry and discouraging insects and rot.

Q: Does it matter what color a birdhouse is?

A: Generally, any birdhouse is likely to attract an occupant. However, birdhouses that are more natural in their colors and material are more likely to be preferred by birds looking for a suitable nesting location. 

Q: Do birds like a hanging or swinging birdhouse?

A: A birdhouse should be mounted in a manner that is stable and prevents it from becoming unstable in wind. 

Q: What size holes for what size birds?

A: Here are some common size entrance holes (portals) for popular cavity-nesting species:

  • 1 1/8 inch [chickadee, house wren, prothonotary warbler]
  • 1 ¼ inch [nuthatch, titmouse, downy woodpecker]
  • 1 ½ [eastern bluebird, Carolina wren, hairy woodpecker]
  • 1 9/16 [western bluebird]

Q: Are some birdhouse materials bad for the birds? 

A: Bear in mind that any color applied to a birdhouse which constitutes a paint or a stain may contain chemicals which are harmful to birds, and therefore not a good idea. Be sure to check whether the material used is safe.

For example, our LoveNest Birdhouses are built with long-lasting, insect-repelling cedar, and we use no paints or stains.

 

Attracting Birds 

Q: How do I attract birds to a birdhouse?

A: Having a supply of desirable food somewhat nearby can make a big difference – both in the form of traditional bird feeder food like sunflower seeds as well as items like suet and mealworms (great for attracting bluebirds).

Nearby water like a birdbath can be helpful, as well as shrubs and plantings that offer a sense of privacy and a source of nesting materials.

That said, don’t place your birdhouse too near any birdfeeder or birdbath because activity there of too many birds can cause territorial conflict and dissuade nesting birds from choosing that location.

Q: What do I put inside a birdhouse?

A: We would argue: nothing! Birds are very picky about what materials they want to use in building a nest. What one bird might find helpful, another may find a deterrent.

Instead of placing anything inside the nest box, we recommend making some good nest building materials available somewhat nearby for birds to choose from.

Good options would be: a pile of twigs; grass clippings; pine needles; clumps of pet hair (which can be hung up in an empty suet feeder for cleanliness and easy access). See Put Out Nesting Materials March 1

Placing a Birdhouse 

Q: Where should you place a birdhouse?

A: Generally, most birds prefer relatively sunny locations that may also benefit from some afternoon shade. It is considered a best practice to have the front entrance facing east, opposite prevailing wind direction, and away from any bird feeder location.

Bluebirds and some other species prefer a birdhouse location that is accessible across a large open field of low grass, while other species prefer a more secluded location in the vicinity of nearby shrubs and trees. Place the birdhouse at least 5 feet above the ground.  

 

Q: How many birdhouses can I fit in a backyard? How far apart should birdhouses be placed?

A: The answer here depends on the specific birds involved. Some birds are less sensitive than others to the distance between nesting locations and can handle as little as 15 feet apart. Most prefer distances more like 50, 100 or 200 feet.

Generally speaking, the more you can work to keep the nesting locations apart from one another physically and visually, the better. Some birds, like wrens, will fill up “competing” nest boxes with material just to keep other birds from nesting there if they feel their territory is threatened. 

Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) leaving cavity nest.

Birdhouse maintenance 

Q: How and when should I clean a birdhouse?

A: A birdhouse should be cleaned out right after any new crop of baby birds has fledged. It’s best to take the birdhouse down, remove any nesting material, and thoroughly scrub the interior surfaces where the nest was located using a solution of 1 part bleach and 9 parts water.

This will ensure the nest box provides a fresh and healthy environment for the birds you want to attract. It can also be a good idea to clean the box again right before nesting season each year (around February-March).

With proper maintenance, you may find that the birdhouse is used by nesting birds multiple times each year from March through June and during the rest of the year for roosting.

Q: What other maintenance should I do?

A: Be sure to make sure the birdhouse is in good shape structurally and does not have any hazardous conditions present, such as an insecure mounting connection, protruding screws/nails, rotten wood, or insect infestation. 

Q: How do we protect the birdhouses from predators like opossum, raccoons, cats, etc. What about rodents, large and small?

A: Placement on a tree or fence is not recommended. Placing the birdhouse on a dedicated post or pole can make it difficult for predators to access, as can placement up high on the wall of a house or other structure impossible for a predator to climb.

The addition of a pole/post baffle underneath the birdhouse can be very helpful. Additionally, the smaller the entrance hole (portal) of the birdhouse, the more difficult for a predator to achieve success. 

 

Tell Us About LoveNest Birdhouses? 

Q: Can you tell us about your birdhouses? 

A: The idea for the LoveNest came from my then teenage son asking for a birdhouse with a camera in it for Christmas nine years ago. Our family had so much fun and were so fascinated watching that eventually I decided to create a business making them for other people.

The birdhouses are made of long-lasting, insect-repelling cedar with no harmful paints or stains, and they are built to last for many years. They come as fully assembled product, designed specifically for capturing all the activity inside and outside the birdhouse (the LoveNest comes in 1 and 2 camera versions).

The product features high quality, state-of-the-art electronics and easy-to-use software for viewing and recording the birds. The quality of the LoveNest experience is far superior compared with trying to add a stand-alone camera to a birdhouse not designed for the purpose.

The LoveNest also features the ability to have the birdhouse plugged in 24/7 to maintain year-round viewing without the need for inconvenient battery removal/charging.

That said, the birdhouse can operate on its own internal battery for extended periods of time depending on the amount of bird activity and the software settings used. We encourage people who are interested to visit our website and watch some of the videos posted there.

Q: Where can we find your birdhouses?

A: Our website is www.lovenestbirdhouses.com  

Q: Are your birdhouses handmade?

A: They are! And we take great pride in making our product by hand right here in the United States. 

Q: How does a video camera add to the bird watching experience?

A: There is so much fascinating information to learn about birds. But without the ability to witness them up close as they live their lives, much of that remains a mystery. A video camera birdhouse gives viewers a wonderful window into the lives of these fascinating creatures. 

Q: What should I teach my children about birdwatching with birdhouses?

A: The future of our planet depends on future generations caring about the well-being of other species with whom we share the planet.

Witnessing the behavior of birds as they raise their young in our backyard birdhouses offers an exceptional learning experience about what we all share in common, and it enhances our motivation to support the natural world around us.

Maintaining a birdhouse for our local birds involves us directly in being caretakers of nature. Raising children who value this role is essential if we wish to wind up with a population that works actively to preserve the environment.  

Eastern Bluebird perched on birdhouse
Eastern Bluebird and birdhouse (courtesy US Fish &Wildlife Service;Dr.Thomas G. Barnes/University of Kentucky)

Conclusion

Whew! Rob did a great job answering our questions. I learned that a birdhouse is useful all-year round. You can put up a birdhouse anytime and join bird conservation efforts. 

Please support backyard bird conservation and this blog by purchasing you bird house from LoveNestBirdhouses.com (Made in the U.S.A.!).

More Information on LoveNest Birdhouses

LoveNestBirdhouses.com

See videos of birds in LoveNest Birdhouses at “The Secret Lives of Birds” on LoveNestBirdhouses.com

More FAQs on LoveNest Birdhouses 

More Information Attracting Backyard Birds

Cavity Nesters

Put Out Nesting Materials March 1

Places to Raise Young – Creating Your Backyard Habitat

How to Attract Birds to Your Garden

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The Great Backyard Bird Count

2022_great_backyard_bird_count

2022_great_backyard_bird_count

What is the Great Backyard Bird Count?

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a free and fun citizen science program that takes place annually in mid-February. To participate, look out your window and see what birds are in your backyard or at your feeders during the four days of the count. You will need to submit a checklist online or through the smartphone eBird app to add your sightings to all the data collected from around the world.

The Great Backyard Bird Count, like Project FeederWatch, monitors the abundance, distribution, and winter movement of birds in North America.

birds_canada geese
Head of a Canada Goose. Photo by Donna L. Long

Since 1998, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has sponsored this project.  Today the project is jointly sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds Canada, and the National Audubon Society.

I think it is important to count and submit data on urban birds particularly. A 2010 article, in the scientific journal Nature, revealed that ecologists had neglected the study of urban ecosystems.  Those of us who live in urban areas can correct this mistake by entering data in this and other citizen science projects. 

There is a notion afoot, that animals and plants must disappear (die off) in the presence of humans. The numbers are often reduced, but many animals live in cities. What I often write about is how we can provide good lives for all the inhabitants of the city, human and non-human.

bird_northern_mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

When the Great Backyard Bird Count Takes Place

The annual count collects data on bird populations before the great spring migration. The count takes place each year in mid-February over four days. The count takes place over a weekend, Friday through Monday. In 2022, the Count will take place February 18-21, 2022.

How Can You Participate?

The Count has participants worldwide. You can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count in your backyard or at a favorite birding spot. You can participate as an individual, a household or in a group.

Male Hairy Woodpecker eating from upside down suet feeder in my backyard.
Male Hairy Woodpecker eating from upside down suet feeder in my backyard.

How Do You Sign Up?

If you have a smartphone you enter your data through the eBird app available in the iPhone App store or for Android phone the Google Play store. Search for the eBird app and download it. Create an account or sign-in to an existing account with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

If you have the Merlin app you can’t use it for the Count. The Merlin app is for identification of bird species. It a free field guide on your smartphone. The app is available through the Apple App or Google Play store.

Your Great Backyard Bird Count and eBird accounts are linked. Any sightings you enter during the Great Backyard Bird Count dates will automatically counted in the project.

Next record your sightings. The instructions on observation are below and on the Great Backyard Bird Count website. It couldn’t be easier.

If you don’t have a smartphone you can enter your sightings online at

https://www.birdcount.org/ebird-on-computer/

perching Northern Goshawk
Northern Goshawk Gillfoto, Juneau, Alaska, United States, CC, via Wikimedia Commons

How to Participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count

It’s not much different from Project Feederwatch. I think of it as a mashup of Project Feederwatch and the Christmas Bird Count. You can count in your backyard like FeederWatch or count in a group. You also have the option of observing at a favorite sight.

If you want to go out in a group, check your local birding organization or environmental centers for opportunities.

Step 1: Decide where you will watch birds.

Step 2: Watch birds for 15 minutes or more, at least once over the four days, 

Step 3: Count all the birds you see or hear within your planned time/location and use the best tool for sharing your bird sightings:

(from https://www.birdcount.org/participate/)

Birdcount.org has a free webinar on how to participate in the count.

Last year’s participants could download a participation certificate after the count.

bird_starling
A Starling eating suet in my backyard.

Conclusion

I hope this takes some of the mystery out of joining a citizen science project. Gathering scientifically relevant data for scientists is not hard.

If you have suggestions for others or questions share them in the comments below. 

This post will take the place of our regular Saturday blog post.

 

More Winter Birding Information

Rare Bird Alerts

Sign up for rare sightings for an area of your choosing using eBird https://ebird.org/alerts.

More Birding Citizen Science Projects

Project FeederWatch Info, Tips and Nature Journal Ideas

Christmas Bird Count

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Arctic Birds that Visit in Winter (with video)

American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) Jocelyn Anderson [CC BY https://creativecommons.org/%5D

Arctic birds spend the summer nesting season in the Far North at the Arctic Circle. Some are year-round residents of the chilly North. But when winter weather  approaches or food is hard to find, these Arctic birds migrate south to areas with more food. This is your chance to see them without embarking on a costly trip.

What I didn’t realize when I was a new birder was that some birds I wouldn’t see in my local area except in winter. It seems so much emphasis is placed on the spring and summer migrants, that I didn’t realize winter could yield exciting sightings, too.

 

Where to Find Arctic Birds Further South

Experienced birders participate in forums, alerts, and social media pages to be aware of sightings of winter visitors from up north. Unless you travel to points near the Arctic Circle, the winter migrations maybe the only way you get to see these birds.

Normally these birds can be found in ecosystems similar to where they live up North. Snowy Owls will be seen in open fields and grasslands. Red-throated Loons will winter on the shorelines of oceans and bays.

Your backyard may be an area with more food for species such as Bohemian Waxwings or American Tree Sparrows.  Or Snowy Owls maybe show up in a grassy field in your area. Some birds may hang around as late as April until they move back north to breed and raise young.

Snowy Owl landing
Snowy Owl landing in field in winter.

Arctic Visitor: The Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls spend their summers in the Far North of the Arctic Circle. It is an uncommon to rare sight in the lower 48 states of the U.S. When birders in the lower 48 states see this spectacular bird it is big news. Look at your bird field guides range map of the Snowy Owl. Looking at just how far north these birds live, you might rush over to the open fields or marshes to spot a Snowy Owl visitor, too.

Piping plover (Charadrius melodus) walking on the beach
Piping plover (Charadrius melodus)
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Public domain.

Shorebirds in WInter

Shorebirds are a group of birds which share characteristics such as living and feeding along the water’s edge. Most of the 53 species in North America breed in the Arctic and winter along the coastlines.

Instead of camping out on the summer tundra where I hear there are murderous swarms of insects, take a trip to the seashore. Shorebirds will be numerous on beaches where humans frolicked in summer.

Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Red-breasted_Nuthatch_(Sitta_canadensis)5 By pbonenfant

Arctic Birds Species Common at Winter Feeders

Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) breed in the far north and often winter in southern Canada and the northern U.S. In irregular years the birds venture as far south as Pennsylvania through the midwest U.S. Trees and shrubs that hang onto their fruit into the winter will attract these birds. When a winter flock of Bohemian Waxwings is spotted in nearby forests, birders gather to see these elegant birds.

The American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) breeds in the north and spends winters over much of the United States. They might visit your feeder. The American Tree Sparrow winter diet consists of small weed and grass seeds. They will select the small millet and nyjer seeds from trays set on the ground.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) lives in coniferous forests and feeds on the seed in cones of spruce, fir, and other conifers. If the seed harvest from cones is less than what the Red-breasted Nuthatch will irrupt south of the coniferous forests, They can be found in coniferous trees, grasslands, and backyard bird feeders. At feeders they favor sunflower seeds or suet.

Evening Grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) live in the coniferous forests in the western U.S. and Canada. This species may irrupt in large flocks. These birds prefer their sunflowers in platform feeders or on the ground.

white pine tree grove
White Pine Trees in a cluster. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Ecosystems Where Arctic Birds are Found

Arctic Birds that Visit Backyard Feeders

  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch

Observing on Wetlands, Ponds, Rivers, Bays, etc.

  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Red-throated Loon

Observing along the Coastline of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans

  • most of the 53 species of shorebirds in North America

Observing at Grasslands

  • Willow Ptarmigan
  • Rough-Legged hawk
  • Snowy Owl
  • Northern Goshawk
  • Snow Bunting
  • Northern Shrike

Observing at the Shore

  • Glaucous Gull
  • Iceland Gull
  • Bonaparte’s Gull

Observing in Forests

  • Bohemian Waxwing
  • Red Finch
  • Common Redpoll
  • Red Crossbill
  • White-winged Crossbill
  • Pine Grosbeak
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet

Breed in the Arctic and Winter in British Columbia

  • Yellow-Billed Loon
  • Peregrine Falcon

Birds that Nest in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and Winter in the U.S.

  • Long-tailed Duck
  • Snow Bunting
  • American Tree Sparrow
  • Glaucous Gull
  • Rough-Legged Hawk
  • Common Redpoll
  • Red-throated Loon

Birds to Watch for in Winter (Video)

Lesley the Bird Nerd created a very helpful video which highlights the species to watch out for, why they may arrive further south, and where to locate them.

Conclusion

I hope this article clarifies why birders make such big deals over winter sightings of birds. And I think it also shows that birding is a year-round activity. If you have questions or can add to our understanding,  please leave your comment below.

Works Consulted

Barker, Margaret A., and Jack L. Griggs. The FeederWatcher’s Guide to Bird Feeding. 1st ed. A Cornell Bird Library Guide. New York, NY: Harper Resource, 2000.

Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Second edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Stokes, Donald W., and Lillian Q. Stokes. Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Shorebirds. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 2001.

Related Posts on Winter Birding 

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Migrations and Irruptions

Common Winter Birds Across North America

Winter Bird Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard (with video)

Learn the Fall and Winter Colors of These Common Birds

 

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Project FeederWatch Info, Tips, and Nature Journaling Ideas

male Northern Cardinal with a peanut in his mouth
The gang’s all here. House Sparrows in my garden eating Nyjer seed.

I have participated in Project FeederWatch and love helping the conservation and winter survival of the birds I adore. Here is a how-to-do-it article with tips from my experience.

I started with Project FeederWatch in 2011-2012. I skipped some years when there was so many stray cats that feeding the birds in my backyard just created an easy hunting grounds for cats. The mysterious eye disease of the past summer is subsided. And I’m back to feeding winter birds. I’m ready to jump back in to Project FeederWatch.

Over the years, I’ve spotted Mourning Doves, Carolina/Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos. Northern Cardinals, House Finches, and House Sparrows at my winter feeders. More than 100 species winter in North America.

mammals_squirrel_eastern_gray
A squirrel eating suet from a basket in my backyard.Photo by Donna L. Long.

What is Project FeederWatch?

Project FeederWatch is a citizen science program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada.  The program measures the abundance and distribution of winter North American birds. It is an early warning mechanism to spot when a species is in decline or trouble. Participants also record any sign of disease or other problems. The project data helps us take action before its’ too late to save a species.

This winter count gives us a picture of North American birds without the tropical migrants that arrive from other lands in the warm weather breeding seasons.

The numbers from Project FeederWatch have been used in numerous scientific studies. By participating in this project, we are doing citizen science. It provides weekly updates about bird population and location that would take thousands of scientists and research assistants to accomplish. We are those thousands of research assistants. 

Project FeederWatch runs from November through April. The website is https://feederwatch.org/

A male Cardinal and Mourning Dove eating from a platform feeder.
A male Cardinal and Mourning Dove eating from a platform feeder in my backyard during Project FeederWatch.

Who Can Participant?

U.S. residents can participant in Project FeederWatch. Canadian residents though Birds Canada. Both countries residents can find links to sign up at https://feederwatch.org/.

What You Get for Your Project FeederWatch Fees?

It costs $18 a year to support and take part in the project for U.S. residents. U.S. residents who are Cornell Lab members pay $15 a year. Canadian residents can participant by donating any amount to Birds Canada. You can chose to join the project, renew you participation or donate to support the project.

According to the website, the program which is partially funded by the fees from the participants. The money goes toward materials, staff support, web design, data analysis, and the year-end report.

You will also receive:

  • tools to track the birds on the website or mobile app
  • the year-end summary, Winter Bird Highlights
  • digital access to Living Bird magazine
  • poster of eastern and western common feeder birds
  • Bird-Watching Days calendar
Bird feeding in my backyard during winter.
Bird feeding in my backyard during winter.

What You Have to Do to Participate?

1. Observe birds at plantings, habitat, water or a feeder.

2. Count birds.

3. Enter you data online or use the smartphone app.

I choose two consecutive days to count, I choose Saturday and Sunday. I look out my window periodically during those days and count the birds. I record the highest number seen at one time of each species. This number I will enter online.

Male Hairy Woodpecker eating from upside down suet feeder in my backyard.
Male Hairy Woodpecker eating from upside down suet feeder in my backyard.

What Will Participating Project FeederWatch Cost? 

The program website says you don’t even need a feeder. Just an area with plantings, habitat, water or food that attract birds.

A dish of water or bird waterer is good to have. Water is free and the birds appreciate the ease of getting drinking water. If you can’t afford to buy birdseed, providing water is the least expensive way to attract birds to your backyard.

My neighbor’s yard has a dense yew shrub that the house Sparrows use for shelter after the breeding season is over. Starlings gather before roosting in a tall Tulip Poplar in another neighbor’s yard. Another neighbor has a Bradford Pear tree whose tiny fruits remain into the winter. It attracts birds as long as the fruits lasts.

If you decide to feed bird seeds, you’ll need bird feeders and feed. I buy my bird seed from my local Environmental Center (Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education) here in Philadelphia. I get a discount as a center member. Plant nurseries, garden center, and big box home centers often carry bird seed.

On the program website you can download the manual and tally sheet. The tallies can be entered into your naturalist’s journal to keep records for your own knowledge and enjoyment. .

Beyond a pencil to keep notes and access to a computer or smartphone app, that is it.

Mourning Dove drinking form a water dish in my backyard.
Mourning Dove drinking form a water dish in my backyard.

Feeder Supplies Needed for Project FeederWatch

Here’s my recommendations for bird feeders. Right now I have three feeders hanging in my backyard.

1. A Squirrel Buster feeder for sunflower kernels. Squirrels are too heavy to use the feeder. A Squirrel Buster on Amazon.com (affiliate link). I have the Squirrel Buster Plus which currently have exorbitant prices on Amazon.com (January 2022). The Squirrel Buster I link to is smaller than mine but has a lower price. 

2. A suet feeder that birds must hang upside down to access. A selection of suet feeders on Amazon.com (affiliate link). 

3. A Perky Pet Waterer that I keep filled with clean water. When the temperatures are freezing I put out the waterer with warm water that stays warm for awhile. The Perky Pet Waterer on Amazon.com (affiliate link). 

For my own sanity sometimes I put out corn and peanuts in a hanging tray for the squirrels. I located the tray across the yard from the bird feeders. The squirrels usually go for it and the birds can feast in peace.

Mourning Doves perched on a branch over my backyard.
Mourning Doves perched on a branch over my backyard.

What Bird Seed to Use?

Sunflower seeds are the bird seed that is the most popular with the birds that visit my feeders. I put up suet cakes for the Nuthatches, Chickadees, Jays, and Woodpeckers. I add a Perky Pet Waterer and I’m done.

If I want to attract ground feeding birds such as Doves then I put corn in ground trays. I generally don’t put feed on the ground. I don’t want to attract rodents or other pests.

I stop buying other seed types because the birds finished off the sunflower kernels and left everything else. I buy the kernels (shells removed) because I got tired of cleaning up the shells the birds dropped on the ground.

I will sometimes put out Nyjer (Thistle) and millet to cut down the use of expensive sunflower kernels. If the other seeds are all that is available someone will eat it.

birds_cardinal_dark-eyed_junco
A male Cardinal and a sparrow eat at my feeders in winter.

Project FeederWatch Website Has Helpful Information

Data and reports are available

  1. Bird Summaries by State
  2. Trend Graphs
  3. Participant Map
  4. Top 25 Birds -the winter birds to learn

Other Helpful on the Project FeederWatch Website

  • Common Feeder Birds
  • Tricky Bird IDs
  • Birdspotter Photo Contest
  • FeederWatch Cam
  • Project FeederWatch Participant Photos
  • Project Blog
  • Sick Birds and Bird Diseases

Project FeederWatch and Your Nature Journal

All that data you record for Project FeederWatch can also be entered in your nature journal. The data you collect consists of a whole bunch of numbers. But you can fill out the information with your observations, such as:

  • Who eats first?
  • Is there a ‘pecking’ order? I see this among the House Sparrows.
  • When do you see the largest number of birds?
  • Who arrives late? The Cardinals (male) arrives in the late afternoon.
  • Who eats what? Who drinks the water?
  • What is the species of trees or shrubs that birds use to roost?
  • Take photographs of the activity.
  • Make sound records of the chatter of the birds. Learn their calls.
  • Use the Grinnell Scientific Nature Journal system
  • Keeping a Life List or Birder’s Journal

 

Conclusion

I hope this information is useful. Winter often we are in indoors when we would prefer to be outdoors. And with the pandemic meaning we stay home, we need a distraction. Project FeederWatch can be that distraction. Any comments? Use the comment box below.

Project FeederWatch runs from November through April. The website is https://feederwatch.org/

My Previous FeederWatch Posts

Colorful Evening Visitors: Project Feederwatch Report

Hairy Woodpecker Fights Back: Project FeederWatch Update

See also The Great Backyard Bird Count

More Winter Birding Posts

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Birding Migrations and Irruptions (with videos)

Winter Birding Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard (with video)

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds

Winter Nature Photography Tips

Starlings Murmurations: How to Find One and When to Watch (with Video)

Citizen Science and Nature Journal Keeping 

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Past Posts on Birding and Attracting Birds

birds_female ruby throated hummingbird
birds_mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird

I’ve written many post on attracting birds. With fifteen years of blog posts, there are some gems buried deep.

A reader said there are some great posts that she stumbled upon on this blog. I took that to heart and tried to revise the links to many past posts that may be useful to my readers. Here are three great posts on attracting birds.

 

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I wonder if this Eagle was looking directly at me as I took this photo.
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I wonder if this Eagle was looking directly at me as I took this photo.

The Importance of Birds to Indigenous American Peoples

Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons is a man of wisdom. I always listen to his words and reflect on them. In this video he shares the Importance of Birds to Indigenous American Peoples (video)

 

birds_female ruby throated hummingbird
Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird at a feeder.

Hummingbird Migration

It’s April and just about time to put out the hummingbird feeders. Hummingbird Migration Dates for both Northward and Southward for the Eight Most Common Hummingbird in North America.

 

birds_male Robin
Singing male Robin

Birding By Ear: Learning Birds Calls and Songs

Once the trees leaf out, you’ll hear more birds than you will see. Here are tips on learning bird calls and songs.

 

 

birds_American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch

Attracting Colorful American Goldfinches

I have been able to attract American Goldfinches to my garden by growing a few key flowers that bloom when Goldfinches need them. It also delighted me I attracted Cedar Waxwings with my Shadbush tree.

 

More Posts on Attracting Birds

Spring Warblers – Birding Tips and Techniques

Spring Bird Migration for Beginning Birders

Attracting Birds with Water

Put out Nesting Materials and Nest Boxes, March 1

Attracting Birds with Fruit Trees and Berry Plants

The Relationship Between Birds, Berries, and Fruit

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Sassafras Trees for Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Moths

Sassafras albidum glowing in the sunshine.
Sassafras albidum glowing in the sunshine. Photo by Donna L. Long

The Sassafras tree is covered with brilliant leaves in reds, oranges, and golds.

With the shortening of daylight, photosynthesis has stopped. The tree has stopped making chlorophyll and the other pigments that were always present are now able to show themselves. The red, orange, and yellow colors are a result of certain chemicals present in the leaves. (See Why Do Leaves Change Color).

Sassafras leaves (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras leaves (Sassafras albidum). Photo by Donna L. Long.

The leaves come in three slight variations of un-lobed or lobed on one or two sides. The lobed leaves look like mittens. The leaves range in size from 2 1/2 to 6 inches long on the same tree.

Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Moths

We humans like the brilliant fall color and birds like the fleshy blue fruits on bright red stalks. The seeds are disbursed by birds (See The Relationship Between Birds. Berries, and Fruit)

The fruit is produced only on female trees.

This tree beside my community garden plot doesn’t have fruit so I guess it is a male.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Photo by Donna L. Long

Not only will the birds like the trees for nesting or fruit but so will butterflies and moths. The sassafras is a known host plant for Tiger and Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies and several moths. The Sassafras is the hostplant of  Promethea, Imperial, Palamedes, Io, and Silk moths. The Butterly and moth larvae eat the fleshy leaves.

The tree’s small size and fleshy blue fruit make it a good choice for attracting birds, butterflies, and moths to your backyard or garden.

IMG_0652
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). Photo by Donna L. Long

Growing Sassafras in Your Backyard or Garden

The Sassafras tree is indigenous to Eastern North America. It ranges from Vermont and New Hampshire to northern Florida and west to Missouri and eastern Texas.

And for some reason it’s not found in northern New York state or Pennsylvania.  It can be found growing naturally in fencerows, forest edges or along roadsides. Where it chooses to grow naturally tells us how to grow it in gardens.

Since Sassafras likes forest edges that means it needs sun and not deep shade you find in a mature forest with a closed canopy. So find a sunny spot for it. The tree is intolerant of road salts. So, hellstrips in sidewalks and along roadsides that receive winter salt are not good places for it.

Once established it will adapt to most soils. It can tolerate from sandy to silty clay soils with hardpan. But apparently the plant does not transplant well. It seems because of this nurseries may not carry it.  But some nursery somewhere does. Supplying young Sassafras grown from seed is a good opportunity for small-scale home-based plant nurseries.

Closeup leaves of Sassafras
Closeup of Sassafras albidum leaves. Photo by Donna L. Long

 

But if you would like to grow this plan in your back yard habitat or garden you can become your on “plant hunter”. You can start a tree from seeds planted outdoors in the fall of the year. Or you can buy one from a nursery. The tree spread through its prolific ability to form root shoots.And there is always propagation by cuttings.

Sassafras doesn’t suffer from serious insect or disease problems. And the wood is resistant to decay. The wood is aromatic and rot resistant.All parts of the tree have a spicy aromatic scent. The tree has long been used by North American indigenous peoples and others for its medicinal qualities. The plant’s active ingredient safole,  has been found to be carcinogenic. So investigate throughly before taking or using the plant for medicinal or eating purposes. See the article on Sloan Kettering Medical Center website https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/sassafras

Sassafras albidum tree – orange wood underneath the bark. Photo by Donna L. Long.

If you scrape away a little of the bark on a Sassafras tree, the wood underneath has an orange tinge.

Sassafras albidum leaves
Sassafras albidum leaves. Photo by Donna L. Long

Sassafras Facts

Name: Sassafras albidum

Form: medium sized, upright tree up to 60 feet tall

Grow requirements: full sun, part sun; moist to moderately dry soil.

Leaves: alternate with oval-shaped un-lobed leaves or one or two lobed leaves all on same tree

Flowers: Blooms in the spring, yellow-green fragrant flowers which open before the leaves. Plants are unisexual with all female or male on a tree. You would need one male and and female achieve pollination and fruiting.

Pollinators: insects

Seeds: spread by birds

Hostplant for : Swallowtail butterflies (Tiger and Spicebush) and Moth species Promethea, Imperial, Palamedes, Io, and Silk.

Sassafras is such a beautiful tree, I hope more gardeners grow it in the future.

More resources on the Sassafras Tree 

“Sassafras” Ladybird Johnson Wildlife Center https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=SAAL5

“Sassafras albidum” USDA Plant Database https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=SAAL5

Native American Ethnobotany Database http://naeb.brit.org/

Related Posts

Leaf Colors of Common Trees Here in the Oak-Hickory Forest

Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly – Life Cycle

The Relationship Between Birds. Berries, and Fruit

Attracting Birds with Fruit Trees and Berry Plants

Butterflies and Moths: Information and Links

native fruits for birds (pdf)

Why Native Plants? 

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A Winter Bird Feeding Guide: Attract Birds to Your Backyard (with Video)

A collage of winter birds in my garden.
A collage of winter birds in my garden.
A collage of winter birds in my garden. Photo by Donna L. Long.

 

This is a beginner’s guide to winter bird feeding. The ability to find food is what determines whether birds stay around in the colder winter weather or not. Food and unfrozen water are harder-to-find in winter.

With this in mind, you can help more birds survive the winter by feeding birds in your backyard. You can bring the winter-resident birds to you. There are up to 60 species of birds that stay in northern North America during winter. An average yard may see 15 to 20 species regularly.

If there are birds around, there is a good chance you can lure them to your feeders. You just have to adjust your offerings to what your local birds want.

So, in this article, I cover the basics of winter bird feeding. I keep it simple. I discuss the basic equipment you need. And the three simple commercial feeds that draw a wide variety of birds to your yard.

birds_winter_birdfeeding
Winter bird feeding. My setup – On the left a nyger or thistle feeder. On the right, a Squirrel Buster filled with black oil sunflower seed.

Designing Your Winter Bird Feeding Setup

If you are new to bird feeding, there are places you can get ideas. A good place to study bird feeding setups is local environmental centers.

My local environmental center has several feeding stations in various sites on the property. I took notice of what food is offered and how. These setups are a good chance to see different feeder types in action.

Environmental centers may also have various habitats to see winter-resident birds. My environmental center has habitats such as grasslands, shrubland, meadows, woods, and unfrozen open water. You can create a habitat based on what birds you want to attract. Or you can just hang out the feeders and see who shows up.

 

A male Cardinal and Mourning Dove eating from a platform feeder.

Arranging Your Backyard for Winter Bird Feeding

Setting up your backyard involves three key points.

  • a comfortable viewing area for you
  • choosing food to serve
  • setting up feeding stations

First of all, let’s figure out your viewing area first.

  • Where will you view the birds?
  • Being winter, where will you view the birds?
  • Will you watch the birds in comfort from inside your home?
  • Will you sit or stand to watch your feeders? This will affect the height of your feeders.
  • Is there a window that looks out toward a suitable place to place your feeders? Will you go outside to watch them?
  • Will you have a sheltered spot to view the feeding stations?
  • Where will you place your feeders?
  • Will you place your feeders close to your house?

Window strikes

If your feeding station is placed near a large pane of glass the birds may have a problem flying into the glass reflection. During the day, if the sky or foliage is reflected in the window, it looks like a bird can keep on flying. At night it is the lighted windows that lure birds to their deaths. You need to break up that reflection. There are many objects and strategies to do this. This article on the Cornell Ornithology Lab website gives good advice.
https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/why-birds-hit-windows-and-how-you-can-help-prevent-it/

A squirrel eating suet from a basket in my backyard.

Keeping Pests Out of Your Bird Seed

Once you start feeding the birds you realize how important it is to keep pests out of your feed. Squirrels, other rodents, bears, opossums, raccoons, etc. want to eat the feed as much as the birds.

If you live in bear country, placing your feeders away from your house may be a very good idea. So, is taking your feeders in at night. Just don’t store the bird food outside or other areas a bear can get into easily. Or rodents for that matter.

Large aluminum trash cans with tight-fitting lids are good storage units. I stretch bungee cords through the lid handles to keep the lid securely on the can. I place the aluminum trash can on bricks to raise the can off the floor. And since bears aren’t usually in my city neighborhood, I keep my can in a locked garage. I haven’t had a problem with this setup in the twenty-plus years I have been feeding the birds.

 

Setting Up a Backyard Habitat to Feed the Birds

In addition, you can design your backyard feeding station as a habitat. You need cover, water, and natural places if you desire purchased food for the birds.

Plants for Cover

Birds need somewhere to hide. When a bird hunting hawk flies in, the birds need somewhere to fly to, out of harm’s way. A nearby shrub, preferably evergreen is an excellent choice.

But even leafless shrubs are useful. I have a row of leafless shrubs and a small tree less than ten feet away from my feeders. The birds used these woody shrubs when a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew into my backyard.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk perches on my garden fence. Photo by Donna L. Long
A Sharp-shinned Hawk perches on my garden fence. Photo by Donna L. Long

The best shrubs are those that provide not just cover but also are indigenous and function well in the local ecosystem. These shrubs will provide both food and cover.

  • Viburnums, various species
  • Blueberries, various species
  • Eastern Red Cedar
  • Black Elderberry
  • Praire Rose
  • American Holly
  • Mountain Laurel
  • Wax Myrtle
  • Inkberry
  • Black ChokeberryThese North American native plants have many various species depending on the local ecosystem.

The Audubon Society has a Native Plants Database. You can enter your zip code and receive a list of native plants for your area that benefits the birds.

https://www.audubon.org/native-plants

bird_dark-eyed Junco
Dark-eyed Junco. Photo by Donna L. Long

Snags and Brush Piles

Snags are dead trees. Birds create or use abandoned tree cavities for nesting sites during the breeding season. In winter, nest cavities are used for shelter during cold or stormy weather.

If you don’t have dead trees in your backyard, you can add one. Some backyard birders have taken dead trees and planted them deep in cement-filled holes.

Choose a snag with stout limbs. You can hang feeders from the limbs.

Brush piles are made of woody branches and evergreen boughs. They are great places for birds to duck into when danger or cold weather threatens.

Brush piles can be created from the trimmings from woody trees and shrubs. There should be small spaces for birds to perch in. But those shouldn’t be large spots on the ground that cats and other pesky critters can shelter or hide in. And it is a good idea to keep brush piles at a safe distance from the house. Pests such as raccoons, skunks, and rodents can make brush piles their home or base of operations.

 

Identifying Winter Birds at Your Feeders

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Birds

Plants for Natural Food for Winter Bird Feeding

Native plants provide free food for birds throughout the winter. Trees and shrubs provide fruit. Flowers, grasses, and some trees provide seeds. Both fruit and seeds can be planted in your backyard.

Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) on bare branches in early spring
Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) on bare branches in early spring. Photo by Donna L. Long t Schuylkill Center for Environmental Ed.

Fruits for Winter Bird Feeding

The fruit from my Shadbush and Blueberry shrub are eat-in early summer. But my roses and many flowers have seeds and seed heads that linger into fall and early winter.

Here are just a few plants with winter-lingering fruit. Check with your local state agencies of natural resources, county extension offices or the Audubon native plant database for more https://www.audubon.org/native-plants.

Native Fruits for Birds (pdf)

  • Crabapples
  • Dogwoods
  • Junipers
  • Sumacs
  • Viburnums
  • Mountain ash
  • Hollies: winterberry, American holly, Yaupon
  • Chokecherry

A variety of fruits humans eat can be used as bird food. Dried fruits, raisins, bananas, grapes, orange halves, apples, and pears are favorites.
Useful nuts include fresh coconut, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, chopped nuts, and more.

Berries and fruit can be picked during the harvest season. The fruit can be stored in the freezer. The fruits can be thawed before setting out if that works for your birds.

The Relationship Between Birds, Berries, and Birds 

Attracting BIrds with Fruit Trees and Berry Plants

Native Seeds for Winter Bird Feeding

Most trees and shrubs in North America rely on birds to disperse their seeds. Bird swallow seeds whole. And seeds can’t be more than three-fifths of an inch in diameter, which is the largest size a sed-eating bird can swallow. A list of trees and shrubs for birds is here.

I leave seed-producing plants standing in the garden throughout the fall and winter. Seed-packed flowers and grasses like goldenrods and asters provide for some birds like finches and sparrows.

Here is a list of summer and autumn blooming flowers that provide seeds for birds.
• Sunflowers (Helianthus species)
• Cup Plant (Siliphium perfoliatum)
• Wild Senna (Cassia bebecarpa)
• Blazing Stars (Liatris species)
• Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
• Goldenrod (Solidago species)
• Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia species)
• Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium species)
• Ironweed (Veronica noveboracensis)
• Coreopsis (Coreopsis species)
• Asters (Asters species)
• Sedums species (esp. Autumn Joy)
• Zinnias (Zinnia species)

A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.
A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.

Bird Seeds and Feed for Winter Bird Feeding

Different birds like different seeds. Your local birds may really go for a specific seed and not like others. Experimentation and asking other birders is the way to find this out.

The birds that come to my feeders in winter really only want two things, suet and black oil sunflower seeds.

The seeds available for sale to fill your feeders include several types.

  • Safflower seeds
  • Millet
  • Nyger/Thistle
  • Red milo
  • Corn
  • Peanuts
  • Black-oil Sunflower seeds
  • Striped Sunflower seeds

Peanut Butter

Peanut Butter is great, smeared on pine cones or mixed with seeds.

Male Hairy Woodpecker eating from upside-down suet feeder in my backyard.

Attracting Insect Eaters

Insects are for the overwintering birds that normally eat insects. During the winter the insect-eaters probe the crevices of trees, the softwood of rotting wood, and leaf litter. In those places, hibernating insects spend the winter.

To lure insect-eating birds to your feeders you can set out mealworms or suet.

Mealworms were first marketing as general bird feed in 1996. Before that, they were used as live fish, reptiles, and bluebird food. Mealworms were used by animal rehabilitators. Mealworms are now available dried.

A Starling eating suet in my backyard.

Suet is rendered animal fat. Yes, you can make your own by rending fat. No, you don’t want to. It stinks. I buy my suet cakes in twelve-packs.

Suet cakes come in many varieties and “flavors”. There are hot, fiery flavors to repel squirrels. Other flavors include berries, seed-filled, and insect-studded.

Rotting logs with plenty of bugs and worms are welcome protein sources for winter birds. Insect eaters like bluebirds and woodpeckers can find grubs and eggs in crevices.

The birds that like insects and suet include:

Salt Licks, Grit, and Calcium

Birds like the mineral blocks that are made for deer and other animals. Grit and gravel that is sold for caged birds also works for “wild” birds.

Winter bird feeding. The gang’s all here. House Sparrows in my garden.

Bird Feeders for Winter Bird Feeding

The feeders you choose should stand up to your areas coldest and worst weather. If it doesn’t you can take your feeders in at night or when extreme weather is on the way.

But taking the feeders inside doesn’t help the birds. I have watched as birds gathered and eat at my feeders during winter snowstorms. The winds have to be very strong for me to take down my feeders.

A squirrel eating suet from a basket in my backyard.

Squirrels love birdseed. Humans have created countless Rube Goldberg type contraptions to stop squirrels from eating birdseed. These inventions rarely work. Baffles. My neighborhood squirrels laugh at them.

The only feeder I have ever had that stops squirrels is the Squirrel Buster. It is my second Squirrel Buster. The first was knocked down and cracked by furious squirrels. But they still couldn’t get the seed. Point goes to Donna!

But I do set out seed in ground platform trays that the squirrels can get at. I even place peanuts and corn, their favorite treats in the trays. Squirrels need to eat too. But not my more expensive black oil sunflower seed.

Squirrel-proof suet and seed dispensers are available online and at specialty stores. Nurseries, hardware, environmental centers, and pet stores have selections of feeders.

A male Cardinal eating from a platform feeder in my garden.

Types of Feeders

Platform Bird Feeders – the best ones have bottoms that let water drain out. My platform feeders have a wire mesh bottom. A platform feeder can hang from a hook, rest on legs on the ground or be mounted on a post or pole.

If a platform is out in the open, the feed will get wet. A platform feeder can also have a roof.

Female Hairy Woodpecker eating at the suet feeder in my backyard.

Wire-mesh Suet Feeders
Suet feeders can be hung from a pole. The feeder itself can in the form of a wire basket or even a log with drilled holes. The suet can be placed in the holes. Squirrels like suet.

Hopper Bird Feeders

Hopper feeders hold the seed in a holder that dispenses seed a little bit of at a time. Notice the squirrel in the photo above.

Tube Bird Feeders
Tube feeders are great for protecting the seed from foul weather. The plastic tubing keeps the feed dry.

My favorite tube feeder is the Squirrel Buster Plus. I have had this squirrel-proof feeder for years. The tough plastic ring is spring weighted. A heavy squirrel will trip the weight and close the holes. Squirrel won’t be able to get at the seeds. The [amazon_textlink asin=’B016KVKVQU’ text=’Squirrel Buster’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’connectingw0b-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’7409e270-9077-4e62-a218-090d1eb1e3d5′] is available on Amazon.com (affiliate link).

Winter bird feeding. House Sparrows eating at a wire nyger or thistle feeders in my backyard.

Thistle Socks  and Tubes
Thistle socks are nylon mesh tubes that are filled with nyger seeds. Squirrels like these.

Globe or Bubble Feeders
These feeders are clear plastic. Choose thick, tough plastic that predators have trouble chewing it. I have never used one of these. But the ones with deep bowls and domes are rumored to work very well.

Window Feeders
These are those clear, plastic regular feeders that attach with suction cups to glass windows. I have never used them either. I would expect that

Anti-Collision wing clings are various colorful stickers to prevent window strikes by birds. You place these on the window to break up window glare.

Empty garbage can lid and flower pot saucer used as water feeder trays. In my backyard.

Water and Birdbaths for Winter Bird Feeding

Water Dispensers
There are many varieties of water dispensers available. I have used plastic plant pot saucer for winter feeding. The plastic saucers are cheap, recyclable, and easily replaced.

  • trash can lids
  • plastic plant saucers
  • used plastic containers headed for the recycling bin

Water containers can’t be too deep. A heating element to keep the water for freezing is nice but not necessary. Some birds simply put out the water when the birds are at the feed. And remove the dish before the water freezes.

Winter bird feeding. A male Cardinal and Mourning Dove eating form a platform feeder.

What You Need to Start Right Now for Winter Bird Feeding

  • Water dispenser
  • Suet
  • Black-oil Sunflower and Nyger seeds
  • platform feeder – one on the ground, one hanging on a pole
  • an anti-squirrel feeder for expensive commercial seed
  • Nyger seed tube feeder or sock
  • bird identification guide
  • binoculars (maybe)

The suet, nyger seed, and black oil sunflower seed should draw in a variety of birds.

 

Citizen Science Projects for Winter Bird Feeding

Winter is the time of the citizen science project, Project FeederWatch sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Project FeederWatch runs from November through April. I participated in Project FeederWatch for several years. I enjoyed contributing to science for the health and welfare of the birds.

For the project you list the species that come to your feeders, you note any abnormalities in the birds like a disease. Then you enter your observations into an online database. The data is used by scientists to monitor the health of bird populations.

Another winter citizen science project is the Christmas Bird Count.

birds_cardinal_dark-eyed_junco
Winter bird feeding. A male Cardinal and a sparrow eat at my feeders in winter.

Keeping the Costs of Winter Bird Feeding Down

My final thoughts on bird feeding are to keep it simple and low-cost. The only thing I would splurge on would be a squirrel-proof feeder. As you choose a feeder I would pay attention to reviews and recommendations of bird feeding friends.

Some feeders can be improvised from objects around the house. This works mainly with water dishes and platform feeders.

And bird feed costs can be cut down by buying in bulk. I keep the types of feed I put out to just three: suet, black-oil sunflowers seeds, and nyger. My neighborhood birds don’t eat the other seeds as well.

If you have access to the raw ingredients you can make some bird feed.

A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.
A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.

What Else You’ll Need to Enjoy Winter Bird Feeding

Finally, as you watch bird you’ll need a poster or feed guide to help you identify the birds.

My favorite guides are Peterson Field Guide to the the Birds of North America and Sibley Guides.

You can buy these guides on Amazon.com or another retailer. I also often see field guides at used book sales.

Certainly, a pair of decent binoculars will come in handy. If you don’t have a pair, RedstartBirding.com is a website that sells and reviews birding binoculars. https://redstartbirding.com/collections/binoculars

They sell binoculars in a wide range of prices.

And binoculars are also found at secondhand shops, pawnshops, and online retailers like Ebay.

In conclusion, I hope you find it useful. Write in the comments below any thoughts or questions.

More Winter Birding Posts

Winter Birding: How to Master It (with video)

Winter Bird Migrations and Irruptions (with video)

Learn the Fall and Winter Colors of These Birds

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Woodpeckers

Winter Feeder Birds: Identifying Blue Bird

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The Relationship Between Birds, Berries and Fruit

ripe pokeberries in autumn are a favorite bird food. Photo by Donna L. Long
The late-summer berries of native Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Photo by Donna L. Long.
The late-summer berries of native Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana). Photo by Donna L. Long.

The relationship Between Birds, Berries and Fruit have much to teach us about life on Earth. I have been watching the ripening of the fruit on the Shadbush tree in my garden. The birds take almost all the fruit every year. But, I don’t mind. I know they depend and cooperate with each other.

 

Seed Dispersal Courtesy of the Birds

In the eastern deciduous forest, where I live, over 300 species of plants depend on birds to disperse their seeds. Most trees and shrubs in North America depend on seed-dispersal by birds. Seedlings need distance from their parent plants because seeds that attempt to grow under or in close proximity to their parents often won’t do well. The tiny seedlings compete for moisture and light with well-established plants. If you watch birds you know they don’t stay in one place too long. The eat and run. They carry the seeds in their bodies and then deposit the seed as waste a distance away from the parent plant.

Seeds Birds Like

Fleshy fruits with single hard seeds are primarily eaten by birds. Birds don’t chew and rip apart the single seed to digest it, but swallow them whole. The seed a small bird swallows is no more than three-fifths of an inch in diameter, which is the largest size seed a seed-eating bird can swallow.

 

The whole seed is expelled as waste. Seeds pass quickly through a bird’s digestive system. In scientific studies on Robins and Thrushes, berries pass through the digestive tract in less than an ½ hour. The seed goes through scarification in the bird’s digestive system, which wears away some of the hard coating and improves the seeds chances of taking root once it is expelled in the bird’s droppings and onto soil. The bird’s droppings act as nitrogen-rich fertilizer to nourish a seedling.

berries of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) Photo by Donna L. Long.
berries of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) Photo by Donna L. Long.

Birds, Plants, Fruits and Fall Migration

Most bird-dispersed fruits are bright red in color. Some plants have blue, black or white fruits when ripe, but the fruits are often on a plant that has red stems or brilliant red, orange or yellow fall foliage. Green or yellow seeds signal un-ripeness. Poison Ivy, a bird favorite, has ripe white berries against red stems and brilliant red fall foliage. Virginia Creeper displays ripe dark blue berries against brilliant red-orange fall foliage. “Wild” Grapes have dark blue fruits against deep yellow fall leaves.

Over 70% of bird-dispersed fruit ripens in the fall, just in time for migration. Migrating birds prefer fleshy fruit which is high in fat (lipids). Low-fat fruits will be left on the plant and eaten by the winter resident birds.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird has its' fat deposits checked
Migration Bird Banding – a Ruby-throated Hummingbird has its’ fat deposits checked at Powdermill Nature Reserve

The high fat fruits help the birds to build up fat-energy stores which they will need on long flights. The fat is stored in several places in the body. I watched a bird-banding operation in the Allegheny Mountains several years ago. The bird-banders would hold a bird on its’ back in the palm of their hands. The bander would gently blow on the bird’s belly feathers to see fat stores and gauge the health of the bird.

red berries of American Holly (Ilex opaca). Photo by Donna L. Long.
red berries of American Holly (Ilex opaca). Photo by Donna L. Long.

HIgh-Fat and Low-Fat Fruits for Birds

High-fat fruits – Spicebush, Flowering and Gray-stemmed Dogwood, Southern Magnolia, Southern Arrowwood, Sassafras, Virginia Creeper, and Black Tupelo (Black Gum).

Low-fat fruits – Hawthorns, Sumacs, Chokecherries, Mountain-ash roses, Mapleleaf Viburnum, Fox Grape, Poison Ivy, hollies, Red Cedar and Common Juniper. Most flower in the fall. Less than 10% fat (lipid) by weight.

 

Fattening for Migration

In the fall, birds will eat enormous amounts of food and fatten rapidly. Some birds will double their body weight. Fat yields two times more energy and water than protein and carbohydrates. Birds usually don’t fly straight through to their winter destinations, but fly several hundred miles and pause for a one or two day rest and refueling.

 The Deep Relationship Between Birds, Berries, and Fruit

The birds, the plants and the fruits have more than a connection, they have a deep relationship. Each helps the other to survive and promote the optimal continuation of life here on Earth. I deeply believe that humans are put here to do the same. Birds eat millions of insects which eat our crops and just plain annoy us. We can help the birds and they in turn will help us. By planting native fruits, we too can enter into a deep relationship between plants, fruits, humans and birds.

For a list of the favorite native fruits of birds, get the free pdf download .

native fruits for birds

For the role that fruit chemicals also play in birds and feather color, read Cardinals, Berries and Making the Color Red.

See also

Attracting Birds with Fruit Trees and Berry Plants

Attracting Cedar Waxwings to Your Backyard

Bird Migration Facts

Winter Berries for Winter Birds (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Download a Planting Palette from Cornell University to help you plan your backyard habitat.

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Attracting Birds with Fruit Trees and Berry Plants

A Shadbush tree in my garden.
A Shadbush tree in my garden. A bird food favorite
A Shadbush tree in my garden.

By planting fruit and berry plants you can bring a wider variety of birds to your garden or backyard.

There are many birds that are primarily fruit eaters and they may not visit your seed feeders. A way to draw them into your garden is by providing fruit. But supplying birds with dried fruit is expensive. The least expensive way to provide fruit for birds is to grow native plants which the birds have had thousands of years of experience eating.

Seed Dispersal by Birds

Most trees, and shrubs in North America rely on birds to disperse their seeds. In the eastern deciduous forest, over 300 species of plants rely on birds to disperse their seeds. And 70% of those plants ripen in the fall just in time for migration.

I researched the relationship between birds and fruit and found out very fascinating facts like what color a berry or fruit needs to be to catch a bird’s attention. And when and why most fruit ripens when it does. I’ve written about the relationship between birds, berries, and fruit before.

 

red berries of American Holly (Ilex opaca). Photo by Donna L. Long.
Red berries of American Holly (Ilex opaca). Photo by Donna L. Long.

Characteristics of Berries Eaten by Birds

Bird swallow seeds whole. And seeds can’t be over three-fifths of an inch in diameter, which is the largest size a seed-eating bird can swallow. By swallowing the seed whole it remains intact and can grow into a plant. Rodents (mice, squirrels) chew seeds and destroy can chance of the seed growing into a plant.

  • size: 5/3 of an inch in diameter
  • color: red or blue, black or white berries (with red, orange, or yellow somewhere on the leaves or stems)

 

Fruit makes up a large part of the diet of these birds.

  • Mimic Thrushes: Bluebirds
  • Thrushes: Robins, Catbirds, Mockingbirds, Thrashers, and European Starlings
  • Waxwings: Bohemian and Cedar
  • Vireos: White-eyed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, and Yellow-throated
  • Tanagers: Scarlet Tanager
berries of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) Photo by Donna L. Long.
berries of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) Photo by Donna L. Long.

Top Fruit Trees for Birds

This list includes the top fruit trees and berry plants favored by birds.

Fruit Plants for the Birds – Top Plants  
Common Name Scientific Name Species of Birds That Eat Fruit
Shrubs
Blackberry Rubus 45
Red Mulberry Morus 40
Elderberry Sambucus species 29
Holly Ilex species 27
Sumac Rhus species 27
Small Trees
Cherry Prunus species 47
Serviceberry (Shadbush) Amelanchier 36
Dogwood Cornus species 31
Hackberry Celtis species 24
 
Larger Trees
Black Tupelo Nyssa sylvatica 31
Red Cedar Juniperus virginiana 54
Hackberry Celtis species 24
Vines
Virginia Creeper Parthenocissus 35
Grapes Vitis species 52

 

 

Fall Ripening Berries for Bird Migration

These berries ripen in time for fall migration. The fruits ripen depending on the climate. Berries in cooler climates will ripen before the same plant in a warmer region further south. If a berry ripens in August in New England, the same plant will ripen later in Virginia. This means the birds can eat ripening fall berries as they migrate southward.

 

American Cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum)

American Elderberry (Sambucas canadensis)

American Plum (Prunus americana)

Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)

Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

Common Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

Hawthorns (Cratagus species)

Inkberry (Ilex glabra)

Rose (Rosa virginiana)

Sassafras (Sassafrass albidum)

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Viburnums

Winter Berries that Attract Birds

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)

Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum)

Possum Haw (Ilex decidua)

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

 

Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Photo by Donna L. Long.
May 16, 2019 Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum). Photo by Donna L. Long.

Berries in My Garden

Many of the native trees and shrubs listed are small and can fit in small backyards or gardens. I have a Shadbush, grapes, highbush blueberries and volunteer mulberries in my garden. When I gather berries to eat, I take just what I need. I leave some for the birds.

 

For More on Attracting Birds

The Relationship Between Birds, Berries, and Fruit 

Attracting Birds with a Serviceberry

How to Attract Birds to Your Garden

Attracting Cedar Waxwings to Your Backyard

 

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Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Pollinators

great spangled fritillary butterly
squirrel eating bird seed
Squirrel eating from the feeders in my garden. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Providing food is the surest way to attract birds, butterflies and other animals to your backyard nature habitat.

I like the challenge of managing my small backyard habitat. I choose plants, try them out and replace them if they aren’t popular with the animals I want to attract.

In choosing what to put in your backyard, there are a few key points to remember.

Start with who is in your neighborhood

What butterflies do you see in the area? What small mammals? Are there squirrels, opossum, and chipmunks? Bees, hummingbirds and other pollinators? Get to know your local animals and provide what they need. Read field guides to learn their requirements for life.

Who do you want to attract?

Would you like songbirds to frequent your balcony? Do you like watching squirrel acrobatics? Are you fascinated by beetles and other insects? Do you like observing just about any animal or plant? This will give you a topic to focus on and learn about. For example, learn about butterfly life cycles to do things to attract them.

Provide for every level of your backyard habitat

From insects and birds to reptiles and mammals, by providing for many different species, you’ll attract a greater variety of animals. Your ecosystem will be healthier too. So, provide for both young animals and adults.

Plan your habitat from the ground up

Healthy soil supports invertebrates like earthworms and beetle larvae.
These animals provide something to eat for snakes, other reptiles and amphibians.

This may require stopping the use of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides in your garden. And birds eating insecticide covered insects can’t be good. Remember Robins eat earthworms.

A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) feeding in the grass. Public domain photo courtesy Ken Thomas.
A male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) feeding in the grass. Public domain photo courtesy Ken Thomas.

 

The leaf litter, the layer of fallen leaves and old plant stems, supports the invertebrates and insects, that birds of the Thrush Family eat. Robins and Mockingbirds can often be seen scratching through the underbrush. So, not raking up all the leaves in a yard will support the life that depends on the leaf litter environment.

Arciegara Flower Moth (Schinana aragera) on the New England Asters in my garden.
Arciegara Flower Moth (Schinana aragera) on the New England Asters in my garden.

The next layer are the plants like Goldenrod, asters, and Milkweed which provide food for insects. Insect attracting plants like goldenrod, milkweed, sedum, and asters are sure to attract beetles, flies, and bugs of all sorts. And birds will come to feed on the insects. Most songbirds feed their young almost exclusively on insects.

Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) in a Zinnia.
Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) in a Zinnia.

In my backyard habitat, I provide butterfly larval host plants like milkweed and violets. Butterfly host plants are where butterflies lay their eggs. These plants provide food for the very hungry caterpillars after they hatch.

Each butterfly species has their preferred host plants. Monarchs prefer milkweeds. Many of the butterfly larva host and nectar plants are beautiful garden flowers.

In my backyard, I also have plants and shrubs such as mulberry, pokeweed, and native rose hips for fruit-eating birds in the thicket at the end of the garden. I also have several feeders for birds and squirrels.

Tall trees surround my backyard and provide food, water, cover, and places to raise young for an assortment of woodpeckers, chickadees, and squirrels.

So, from ground level to high above, a backyard habitat can food good things to eat for many different species.

male house sparrow and male goldfinch
A male American Goldfinch and a male House Sparrow eat from the feeders in my garden. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Providing food all year round

By providing something to eat during all seasons, you can attract animals to your yard all year round. For birds provide feeders in winter and a mixture of plants that provide food throughout the year.

Many birds and some butterflies migrate long distances. Monarch butterflies use late summer and fall-blooming nectar plants to provide fuel for the long journey to Central America. Migratory birds fill up on high-energy fatty fruits for their journey south.

There are roughly thirty birds that stay all winter in the north. They eat dried seeds, fruit, insect eggs, and hibernating insects. Trees and shrubs that hold their fruit throughout winter provide much-needed food.

Not removing leaf litter, dead logs and branches in autumn, gives insects a place to lay eggs and hibernate. And birds a place to find and eat them.

Hibernators, such as chipmunks and snakes, need plenty to eat and fatten
up for long winter sleeps.

Keeping feeders filled and planting plants that provide something to eat all year, will help make your habitat a center of activity.

great spangled fritillary butterly
Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly sipping nectar from Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in my garden. Photo by Donna L. Long.

Plant Native Plants

Native plants are the best plants to attract native animals. Animals recognize their food and other useful plants. The animals and plants have lived together for millennium. They have developed mutual dependence and relationships.

Invasive alien species hurt our natural ecosystems. And native insects often will not eat alien species. If there the native food is not there the insects disappear. Then the birds, frogs and other animals that depend on them disappear, too.

Why Native Plants?

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like 

And So to Start Your Mini-Nature Preserve

  1. Make a list of the animals that you see where you live.
  2. Choose what species you want to attract.
  3. Read field guides on the needs of those species.
  4. Assess your backyard, balcony, deck or woodlands, etc. What
    is missing and what can you provide right now.
  5. Plan to add plants and features that help the animals and
    will attract them to your yard.

Structures to Build

There are many posts on this blog to get you started.

Creating a Backyard Wetland (pdf)

Creating a Backyard Pond

Building Nest Structures, Feeders, and Photo Blinds (pdf)

 

Plant Lists

Native fruits for birds (pdf)

Pollinator Syndromes: How to Predict Which Flowers Insects Will Like

New England Asters: A Pollinator Magnet for Your Garden

The Relationship Between Birds, Berries, and Fruit

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Spring Blooming Flowers to Attract Hummingbirds

Female Ruby-Throated hummingbird
Female Ruby-Throated hummingbird
Female Ruby-Throated hummingbird

These spring-blooming nectar flowers are for attracting hummingbirds to your backyard, garden or balcony. Planting several flowers for each season creates your own hummingbird garden.

 

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Hummingbird Migration and Blooming Flowers

Hummingbirds arrive in the spring months of March, April, and May in much of the northeast. And the flowers listed here will be in bloom when they arrive. All the plants listed are native to Philadelphia, the Delaware Valley, and the Mid-Atlantic region.

Scientific Studies have shown that the Ruby-Throated migrates northward as three key flowers come into bloom. Those plants are Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia), Clove Currant (Ribes odoratum) and Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). These flowers are all red.

When these plants are in bloom, the hummingbirds have probably arrived in your area.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds help pollinate 19 species of plants (U.S. Forest service) in eastern North America. We often find the bird in areas rich in flowers. This includes mixed woodlands, eastern deciduous forests, city parks or other spots with an abundance of flowers.

Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in my garden. Photo by Donna L. Long.
Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in my gardenPhoto by Donna L. Long.

Flowers to Attract Hummingbirds

  • Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), red, sun/part shade, height 4′ – 6′
  • Columbine species (Aquilegia spp.), varies, sun/part. shade, height 2′ – 3′
  • Coral Bells (Heuchera species), red, part sun/shade, height  2′
  • Fire Pink (Silene virginia), red, sun to partial shade, height 1 – 2 feet
  • Fringed Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia),  pink, shade to sun, height 12”
  • Indian Pink (Spigela marilandica), red, part sun/light shade, height 2″- 18″
  • Lupine (Lupinus spp.), varies, sun, height varies
  • Penstemon digitalis (Foxglove Beardstongue, Tall White Beardstongue), white, sun to partial shade, height 24-48 inches tall)
  • Solomon Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), white, shade to partial sun, height 1 – 3 feet
  • Scarlet Bee Balm (Monarda didyma)
  • any of the many Salvia species which are indigenous across North America

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Trees that Attract Hummingbirds

  • Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), white, sun, height to 75 feet
  • Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), deep pink, sun to shade, height to 25 feet
  • Flowering Crabapple (Malus spp. ), color varies, light sun/part shade, height varies
  • Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida),  white,  sun/light shade, height varies
  • Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra), white, sun/part sun, height up to 144 feet
  • Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia), red, sun/part sun, height 10′ – 25 feet
  • Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), green with orange centers, sun, height 100+ feet

 

 

Common Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
Common Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Shrubs for Hummingbirds

  • American Cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) white,  sun, part sun, height  5′ – 15′
  • Arrowwood Virburnum (Viburnum dentatum), white,  light shade/sun, height 6′ – 12′
  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occendentalis), white, sun, height to 9′
  • Red-osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), white, sun/light shade, height 3′ – 10′
  • Rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp. ), color varies, partial sun/shade, height varies

 

Hummingbird Ground Covers

  • Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), white, partial sun/shade, height 4′ – 10′
  • Creeping Mahonia (Mahonia repens), yellow, sun/shade, height 2′ – 3′

Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Photo by Donna L. Long.
Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Photo by Donna L. Long. Vines

Vines that Attract Hummingbirds

  • Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), orange-red, sun/partial sun, height  4′ – 15′
  •  Trumpet Vine or Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), orange to red, sun to partial sun, length 8′ to 33′

 

Related Posts on Birding

Attracting Hummingbirds

Hummingbird Migration Dates

Spring Bird Migration for Beginning Birders 

Spring Blooming Flowers to Attract Hummingbirds

Making Hummingbird Nectar

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A Backyard Habitat Garden: What You Need to Start One

Great Spangled Fritillary on Echinacea purpurea
Monarch butterfly on Zinnia
Monarch butterfly on Zinnia

Attracting birds, hummingbirds, butterflies and other animals to your garden is a rewarding pastime.

I like the convenience of walking into my garden and seeing butterflies sipping nectar at my flowers and birds eating seeds at the feeders. I always have ready-made models to photograph, draw and study.

I have what is called a naturalist’s garden or a backyard habitat. You can see some photos of my naturalist garden on my Flickr site.

It is easy to start a naturalist’s garden. You can take an inventory of your garden and replace plants one at a time, to those that attract native animals.

Or you can simply feed the birds from balconies and decks.

My backyard habitat makes nature journaling in my own garden convenient and fascinating.

By learning what it takes to attract birds, hummingbirds, and butterflies, I have learned about the life cycles and natural history of many animals and plants.

Sitting camouflaged in my garage, I watch the activity down at the feeders. Right now, over twenty House Sparrows, mostly females, perch on the stems and branches of the thicket at the end of the garden. After eating expensive hulled sunflower seeds, a bird will fly down to the water dish for a sip or two.

My feeders have attracted birds to the garden that I didn’t even know were in the neighborhood.

Squirrels, Cabbage White butterflies, Monarchs, Eastern Garter Snakes, beetles, bees, etc. are all living and breeding in my little Philadelphia garden. I love going in my garden at midday and watching a giant Monarch butterfly drinking nectar from a Zinnia. I attract butterflies by planting both nectar and host plants.

And after many years I have finally been able to attract hummingbirds to my garden. Planting Coral Honeysuckle Vine did the trick.

My garden is only about 15 feet wide by 48 feet long, so don’t let size stop you. You can also create a mini-nature preserve where you live.

Imagine simply walking outside to sit and observe, butterflies laying eggs, a male House Sparrow feeding a chick or a small snake slithering through the grass. Then writing or drawing about it in your nature journal.

If you already feed the birds (and squirrels), adding a few choice plants and features can turn your garden into a wonderful place for animals to live and grow. The following pages will help you along the way.

To create a mini-nature preserve in your own garden all you need is:

Each page will give guidance and examples on planning and managing a mini-nature preserve. As time goes by you can
develop your garden into a very well-planned, extensive and beautiful place to study and connect with nature.

The National Wildlife Federation also has a Certification Program. This program aims to establish wildlife and native plant-friendly places across North America.

My current favorite book is this one, The Wildlife Gardener’s Guide (Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide). It gives more information on why certain plants attract moths, or bees, etc. And it has great regional plant lists.

Further Information

Creating a Wildlife Habitat in Your Backyard

https://www.angieslist.com/articles/creating-wildlife-habitat-your-backyard.htm

 

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How to Attract Birds to Your Garden

A cardinal feeds in my garden.

 

A male Cardinal and Mourning Dove eating from a platform feeder.
A male Cardinal and Mourning Dove eating from a platform feeder.

To attract birds to your garden is pretty easy. And you don’t need too much special equipment. On a cold winter’s day you can watch the birds from a window and draw and sketch them in your nature journal. No cold feet and hands.

Birds are pretty simple in their needs. Food, watershelter and a good safe place to raise their young. You may have things around the house which you could use in attracting birds. Let’s start with water.

stone water bath
stone water bath

Water to Attract Birds

Water is one of the hardest things bird and animals need to find. Especially in urban and suburban areas. I put for years all I did to attract birds was put out a dish of water. In the summer, I’d fill my dish about once a day, because the water evaporates so quickly. In winter the water stays filled for much longer or freezes.

I use a 12 inch diameter swallow plastic plant pot saucer. I just fill it with regular tap water and keep the water 2 inches deep or less. Small birds appreciate the swallow water. I put a couple of big rocks in my dish as a handy perch for birds. I placed my bird bath against a fence so the birds have a perch to scout the area for predators, before taking a dip.

Mourning Dove at bird bath with Water Wiggler
Mourning Dove at bird bath with Water Wiggler

The white-top contraption is a API 4WW Water Wiggler Water Agitator for Bird Baths on Amazon.com. It runs on 1 “D” for a year or more. It stops mosquitoes from laying eggs and creates movement that the birds love.

In the winter the water freezes you can a solar heated water container or bird bath heater for the birds. It keeps the water unfrozen by solar power alone, down to about 25 degrees F.

There are also heating elements for ceramic dishes, not plastic, that can be used in freezing cold weather. Bird Bath Heaters on Amazon.com (affiliate link).

A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.
A Downy Woodpecker at my bird feeder.

Food to Attract Birds

If you can afford it, putting out bird seed is a rewarding hobby. And a great way to have posing subjects for your nature photography.

Most of the birds that visit the backyard feeders eat seeds. To feed these seed eaters would take an awful lot of plants. So, filling a container with the all-time bird favorite black oil sunflower seeds or hulled sunflower seeds, will be sure to attract many diners to your backyard. Do yourself a favor and buy the hulled (shelled) seeds. No shell cleanup.

And don’t forget you can plant those black oil bird seeds in a planter, too. Speaking of plants, there are many plants they you can plant to feed and shelter the surrounding animals.

Sleeping Robin chick on the eaves of my front porch
Sleeping Robin chick on the eaves of my front porch

Shelter and Nesting

If you have trees or shrubs nearby, the birds will appreciate it. They provide prime nesting sites, shelter during the cold and snowy winter months and a place to hide from predators.

Some birds will nest in birdhouses. Birdhouses are sized for different birds. These guidelines are good for when you want to buy or make houses for your backyard.

Providing nesting materials would help out the birds as they build their nests. String, dryer lint, yarn cut up from an old sweater, cotton batting, all make good nesting materials. A nylon mesh bag or an empty suet basket is a good container for putting out nesting materials.

So, if you provide these things water, food, shelter, and nesting sites or materials, and you will attract birds to your yard.

 

More Posts on Attracting Birds

Attracting Birds with Water

Put out Nesting Materials and Nest Boxes, March 1

Attracting Birds with Fruit Trees and Berry Plants

 

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Put out Nesting Materials and Nest Boxes March 1

Nest in the Wissahickon Forest in Philadelphia
abandoned bird nest
abandoned bird nest

March 1 is the date to put out nesting materials and nesting boxes. The winter resident birds are in courtship and nesting mode. Since these birds winter in your neighborhood, they can pick the prime nesting spots and early insect food before the migrants arrive.

Cavity Nesters Need Nest Houses

Birds that use nest boxes are cavity-nesters meaning they nest in holes in trees. This includes Bluebirds, Woodpeckers, Titmice etc. Some nest in snags or standing dead trees.

If you have the space, you can place nesting boxes in your backyard habitat. Each bird species because of its body size requires specific nest box dimensions. If you don’t have a place to put up a nest box, you can still put out nesting materials.

Birdhouses: Choosing, maintaining, and Attracting Birds is an interviews with Rob Carter of LoveNest Birdhouses on the ins and outs of birdhouses.

Nest materials – Lavender twigs, lavender springs, and string put out for nesting House Sparrows in my backyard.

Nesting Materials to Put Out for the BIrds

But even many cavity-nesters place soft cushiony materials in the bottom of their nests to provide a soft holder for their eggs. Both cavity nesters and nest-builders will use the nesting materials you offer.

Many of these items can be bought at craft stores or gathered from around the house. Choose the materials that are the most natural, without dyes or chemicals.

  • straw
  • cotton string or twine (cut in length less than 6″ to avoid tangling or strangling a bird or chick)
  • fresh moss (gathered from the outdoors)
  • dried sphagnum moss
  • Spanish moss
  • onion skins
  • sticks and twigs
  • mud ( a human made mud puddle will attract mud-nest building thrushes)
  • vines (cut into short lengths)
  • ferns
  • soft feathers
  • fur or hair (animal, human, horsehair, horse etc.)
  • unspun sheep’s wool
  • dried grass and leaves
  • paper strips (cut 1″ wide, 8″ long – recycled is fine)

Where to Leave Nest Materials

Place these materials in easily accessible places. Dead leaves, twigs, moss, etc can be placed under bushes or on the ground. Some items can be hung in mesh bags and hung from poles and in baskets. Experiment. I don’t have nest box hanging space in my city backyard, but my selection of nesting materials is always popular.

Nest box in the Wissahickon Forest in Philadelphia
Nest box in the Wissahickon Forest in Philadelphia

Conclusion

Backyard bird conservation can be as easy as providing places to raise young and native plants which provide food (insects and caterpillars) to feed young birds.

Helping the birds can be as simple as putting up an inexpensive water feeder or birdbath. And as cheap as putting out string and a pile of thin broken twigs.

As always if you have a question or comment leave it in the comment box below.

More Information on Backyard Bird Nesting

Citizen Science – NestWatch (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) – Do you want your own birdhouse with WiFi cameras? Check out my affiliate LoveNest Birdhouses. I earn a commission for each birdhouse you buy.

Birdhouses: Choosing, Maintaining, and Attracting Birds

Cavity Nesters: Birds Who Use Holes in Trees (these are the birds which use birdhouses)

Choosing a Nest Box

What is a Naturalist’s Garden?

Water in Your Backyard Habitat 

How to Attract Birds to Your Garden 

Building Nest Structures, Feeders, and Photo Blinds (pdf)

Landscaping for Nesting Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology