Top 10 Frequently Asked Backyard Bird
Questions by Bill Thompson, III Editor, Bird Watcher's Digest
"There's a bird question on line one. Can somebody pick
it up?" Between the telephone calls, regular mail, and e-mail,
we get about 500 bird questions a year here at Bird Watcher's
Digest. Not all of them are ones we're hearing for the first
On the Internet, the concept of Frequently Asked
Questions, or FAQs, is well-known, and incredibly helpful both
for the answer seeker and the answer giver. Here, in this
issue's Top Ten column, culled from our mail piles and
question files, are the top 10 most frequently asked backyard
bird questions. I reserve the right to add to this list in the
future, when a different set of 10 questions leads the pack.
10. Why aren't there
any birds at my feeder? Birds are
seasonal creatures of habit. Some species that eat seed at
your feeder all winter long switch to insects or fruit during
the spring and summer. And most birds take the bulk of their
diet from natural sources of food, rather than at our feeders.
So the goldfinches that stayed around until May may be off
eating weed and flower seeds in nearby meadows. A healthy
natural crop of seeds, berries, fruits, and insects is most
likely the answer. Be patient, and the birds will return to
your feeders once the natural food stores begin to dwindle.
One final possibility: a predator may be stalking around your
feeder, forcing the birds into hiding. Look for a cat or hawk
in your yard if your birds disappear all of a sudden.
9. How can I keep
squirrels from cleaning out my bird
feeders? The best solution is to prevent
these clever critters from getting to your feeders in the
first place. A quality pole-mounted baffle, suspended below
your feeder, should prevent invasion from the ground. A smooth
metal or plastic baffle placed above the feeder should prevent
assault from the air, but you must make sure that your feeders
are placed far from any object from which the squirrels can
launch themselves. A squirrel leaping from a tree to your
feeder will put the Flying Wallendas to shame. Last resort?
Offer whole ears of feed corn, or whole kernels in a
squirrel-friendly feeder far from your bird feeders. You may
lure them away with this, their favorite food.
8. Should I take down
my hummingbird feeder in the fall so the hummers know to
migrate? It's a myth that a hummingbird,
or any bird for that matter, will stick around a feeder and
neglect to migrate. As much as we'd like to think we're in
control of the birds at our feeders, we aren't. Instinct and
hormonal urges are what drive birds to migrate, and hummers
are no different. Besides, there are good reasons to leave
your hummingbird feeder up in the fall. It offers late migrant
hummers a refueling spot, long after most nectar-producing
flowers have ceased blooming. I leave my feeders up until the
nights get too cold for the solution to remain unfrozen. I've
never had a super-late hummer, but I want to be ready if one
7. Will the
birds starve if I quit feeding them? No,
birds have wings and are experts at using them to move around
looking for a source of food. Birds have evolved over the eons
to be highly mobile. Even sedentary species such as the
northern cardinal are adept at finding food. Our feeding
stations are more of a convenience than a necessity to most
birds. In extremely bad winter weather, our feeders are more
helpful, because natural sources of food can be hard to find.
Nature has given birds the tools they need to find food for
themselves, so when you go on a winter vacation, don't worry
about the birds at your feeders. It would be nice if you can
have a neighbor tend to your feeders, but most of the birds
will do just fine for a while without your help.
6. There's a bald bird
at my feeder. What happened to it? Birds
use their bills and feet to preen all sorts of nasty stuff out
of their feathers - dirt, excess oil, mites, lice, ticks. But
the one place a bird can't preen very well is its own head
(sort of like that place in the middle of your back that
itches, but you can't reach). When a bird, such as a cardinal,
gets an infestation of feather mites, it can't get rid of all
the feather-eating pests on its head. Combine this with a
bird's annual late-summer feather molt (when most songbirds
lose and replace almost all of their feathers gradually), and
you may see a bird with no feathers on its head or neck. Until
the new feathers grow in, the bird is seemingly bald. A bald
cardinal looks black-headed because its dark skin is revealed
in the absence of feathers.
5. How do I discourage the (choose one)
doves, blackbirds, house finches at my feeders?
There are two things to consider when you
wish to discourage a certain group of birds at your feeders:
food and feeder. Stop offering the food that the pest birds
seem to consume most eagerly. For blackbirds this may be corn
or mixed seed. For doves, it's mixed seed, containing milo,
millet, wheat, and other grains. To discourage house finches,
shorten the perches on your tube feeders, or order a special
house-finch-proof feeder that has the feeding holes below the
perches (goldfinches and siskins will hang upside down to
feed, but most house finches won't). As for feeders, stop
offering food on the ground or on large platform feeders to
discourage doves and blackbirds. Tube and satellite feeders
are hard for them to negotiate. To discourage house finches,
offer a limited amount of black-oil sunflower seed in a small
satellite feeder, one that chickadees, nuthatches, titmice,
and goldfinches can visit one at a time.
4. What's the best birdseed to use to get
the maximum number of birds? For most of
North America, black-oil sunflower seed works best for variety
and universal acceptance. However, in the Southwest mixed seed
containing milo seems to work best. Ask a local expert at a
specialty bird store or at your seed supplier which foods work
best in your region and climate.
3. Is peanut butter bad for birds? Will it
stick to the roof of their beaks? This
topic is hotly debated, but there is no scientific evidence
one way or the other. We humans sometimes have trouble
digesting large mouthfuls of peanut butter, so is it logical
that the same is true for birds? Not really. Birds' bills do
not have as much saliva as human mouths, so it is less likely
that the peanut butter will get gooey and stuck to the roof.
To be safe, it's smart to mix chunky peanut butter with whole
oats, raisins, cornmeal, and other ingredients to make it
drier and more solid, and thus less sticky when it enters a
bird's bill. Offer only small amounts and offer a source of
water, just in case a bird wants to get a beak-cleaning drink.
2. How can I keep a
hawk from killing birds at my feeders?
You can't, either literally or legally, prevent a hawk from
doing what comes naturally to it: hunting for food.
Sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks, the two most common backyard
birds of prey, are natural predators on songbirds and will
make a pass at the birds at a busy feeder. Enjoy this dramatic
natural scene as it plays out, and - if you can - consider
yourself lucky to witness it. Birds of prey, like nearly all
wild bird species, are protected by federal and state wildlife
1. There's a
woodpecker ruining my siding. How can I make it
stop? Your woodpecker, like the hawks in
the previous question, are just doing what comes naturally.
Woodpeckers drum, drill, and excavate in wood for many
reasons. Drumming is done to announce a bird's presence both
as a defender of a given territory and as a potential mate.
But drumming is done to make noise, not holes. If a woodpecker
is making holes it is looking for one of two things: food in
the form of wood-boring insects (ants, termites, and their
larval grubs) or a nesting cavity.
To encourage a woodpecker to look
elsewhere, try these ideas:
1. Scare the
bird away regularly by startling it.
2. Hang up something to
discourage or scare it, such as sheet metal, fencing, aluminum
pans or foil, rubber snakes, plastic owls, and so on.
3. Erect a
woodpecker nest box over the damaged area.
4. If all else fails, call your
local wildlife control office and ask for their help in
removing the bird or birds causing the damage. This final
option should be used as a last resort. Personally, I'd rather
replace the siding, but then again, I'm cuckoo about birds.