With yet another storm hammering the Cape and trapping us indoors, I suppose we should talk about the underappreciated art of feeder watching.
You don’t need a super elaborate array of ten different feeder types to attract birds. The most important thing to provide is water, which can include a heated bird bath in the winter. I have one of those low voltage plug types that draws just enough current to keep the water open, even during deep freezes, and it has paid off. Several times this winter I’ve had bluebird flocks crowding my backyard bird spa, sometimes sharing it with Pine Warblers and other, more common species. The best thing about providing water is that every bird needs it, including species that would never visit your seed feeder. Fruit eaters like Cedar Waxwings and robins, and insectivores like many species of warbler will visit bird baths on occasion. Even hawks and owls have been known to visit bird baths.
If you choose to provide seed, black oil sunflower seed is the best bet. If you don’t mind taking out a second mortgage, you can get the more expensive sunflower hearts. Since they don’t have the shell, there’s no mess under your feeder and the lazy birds don’t have to do any work to get at the seeds. Unless you’re really into feeding squirrels, take it from me and invest in a “squirrel proof” feeder. The tube feeders with a weight-sensitive, spring loaded cage that closes over the feeding ports work best, and I have never seen a squirrel defeat one of mine. I like to buy a cheaper mix with mostly millet and throw some on the ground for sparrows and doves, neither of which visit most types of seed feeders. If you’re lucky, you may end up with something interesting like a Fox Sparrow, an Eastern Towhee, or a Brown Thrasher scratching around under the feeders.
If you like to watch your feeders and are able to confidently identify the birds that visit, consider submitting your sightings to Cornell’s Project FeederWatch. It’s $18 a year to participate, but it supports the good work they do at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Speaking of which, you can contribute your bird sightings everywhere from your backyard to Borneo though eBird, Cornell’s flagship citizen science project. It’s free, easy, and a tremendously important resource for birdwatchers and researchers alike. I submit many of my backyard lists to eBird using the smartphone app, especially to record interesting species or new arrivals, like the early Chipping Sparrow that showed up yesterday, and the Fish Crows that arrived to my neighborhood very suddenly a few days ago.
Paying attention to the birds in your yard can be surprisingly rewarding – among the 107 species I’ve noted in the short time I’ve been in my house in Harwich, my favorite yard birds have included the Summer Tanager that visited for a while in December, a Clay-colored Sparrow, spring transients like Swainson’s Thrush and the gorgeous Bay-breasted Warbler, and a less well-known shorebird called a Solitary Sandpiper that visited a puddle adjacent to my yard one April morning. Being aware of flying birds and listening carefully can add a lot of species to your yard list –though I live in a dry wooded area, I’ve been able to record shorebirds and waterbirds like American Golden Plover, Black-crowned Night-Herons, and Hooded Mergansers, plus Common Ravens, a few different Bald Eagles, and even a secretive marsh bird in the form of a Virginia Rail that called as it migrated over the house one night.
So as you can see, there’s probably a lot more passing through your yard than the chickadees and titmice at your feeders if you really pay attention. So get yourself a good field guide, download some apps, and start figuring out what you’ve got out there – you might be surprised who shows up.