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Wild WNY / Feeder birds

Try sunflower seeds to attract cardinals.


Feeding wildlife is a very popular activity. The preliminary 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation National Overview reports that fifty-nine million people participate in this activity, mostly feeding birds. Over $3 billion is spent each year on bird food.


That’s a lot of bird feeders and a lot of bird food. No wonder a country drive turns up more and more farm fields with tall sunflowers waving in the breeze.


Why are bird watching and feeding so popular? I think there are several reasons. First, the birds are found everywhere, from country woodlots to urban streets. Second, they are easy to attract. Third, and most important, you don’t have to know a sparrow from an eagle to gain enjoyment from the proximity to wild creatures that bird feeding provides.


This last was brought home to me by a personal experience. My mother never shared my interest in bird watching until, in her final years, she found herself living in a retirement home. While there, she told me about the beautiful birds that came to her windowsill when she set out a few crumbs. Her description of those birds identified them as house sparrows.


Over the years, I have noted a progression of interest among those who feed birds. They begin knowing very little about which species come to their feeders, but soon they learn a few names perhaps from neighbors or friends, or, in a few cases, from the birds themselves: chickadees and jays announce themselves each time they visit.


Then the brilliant cardinal shows up and interest picks up. What is that upside down bird? And that other bird with a crest that calls, “Peter, Peter” before it comes to feed?


Suet feeders are low maintenance.


Encouraged by their experiences, these beginners now want a bird field guide. (Several books with “feeder birds” in their titles serve this purpose admirably.) And that reference helps to fill out the list of visitors. The upside-down birds are nuthatches and that peter-bird turns out to be a titmouse. Those drab yellowish birds are goldfinches in winter plumage, the black and white birds woodpeckers, the softly striped reddish birds house finches. And those mobs of short-tailed, big-billed, white-spotted black birds turn out to be starlings.


This is when we experienced birders begin to receive phone calls and email messages that begin, “I have a strange bird coming to my feeder.” Sometimes responding can be easy: those tiny birds are kinglets, that crow-sized woodpecker with the Woody Woodpecker red crest is a pileated woodpecker, those purple “sparrows” are purple finches, and that brown woodpecker is a flicker.


But, sometimes these queries identify birds uncommon to this region, which is always exciting to those who keep records here. A “huge goldfinch” that gobbles up sunflower seeds turns into an evening grosbeak, once common here, but now rarely reported. A bird that looks like a male house sparrow but whose black head markings are different becomes a rare Harris’s sparrow. A bird whose beak is strangely twisted is a crossbill. A robin-like bird with a black bar across its throat is a varied thrush.


Many feeder watchers become excellent observers. Some join the Cornell Bird Laboratory Project FeederWatch and contribute to ornithological science. Others report the birds that appear at their feeders to regional Christmas Counts and the Buffalo Ornithological Society April, May, and October counts. But many are content simply to enjoy avian visitors and complain about “them damned squirrels” and the hawks that occasionally pick off one of “my birds.”        


Naturalist Gerry Rising is the author of Birds and Birdwatching.


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