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Those jaunty grackles. May 9, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, we anticipate the return of the grackles each spring with the same enthusiasm most people reserve for robins. Not that we have anything against robins. And of course we love seeing the golden breeding plumage reemerge on our goldfinches, who’ve been camouflaged in olive-drab all winter, and the arrival of bluebirds, orioles, hummingbirds, and even the great blue heron who terrorizes our neighbor’s water garden.

But the grackle’s cocky personality gives him an edge as far as we’re concerned. Beautiful and glossy, with black, green, purple, bronze, and even blue highlights in his plumage, he always seems to have every feather in place, ready to step out in his tux and tails for a high-society evening affair. Clearly, he knows that he’s at the top of the totem pole, too: Just watch him prancing around the deck, strutting his stuff, then abandoning dignity for a moment to snatch a piece of dry cat food from the outdoor cat’s bowl. He knows he’s entitled.

In our area, these big, bold birds—about halfway between a red-shouldered blackbird and a crow in size—come in two types: the common (or, in our area, purple) grackle and the rarer and larger boat-tailed grackle. Common grackles have purple heads, bronze bodies, and golden eyes. Male boat-tailed grackles are iridescent purple- or blue-black, with a distinctive tail that ends in an oval spoon shape. Female boat-tails are only half the size of their showy mates (who can reach almost 15 inches long with a nearly 20-inch wingspan) and brownish.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a source we very much respect, boat-tailed grackles are generally found in marshy habitats along the Gulf Coast and up the Eastern Seaboard. Though they might come as far north as scenic PA, it seems unlikely that they’d find their way inland to our Southeast PA location. Yet, they do, at least one or two each year, and it’s a thrill for us to see them.

The smaller common grackles (typically 11 to 13 inches long, with 14- to 18-inch wingspans) are the ones we see most often. Not a surprise, given their prediliction for nesting in tall conifers, such as those that border two sides of our property. They can live for more than 20 years, so we suspect that our grackles have been here before and will be here again. They’re wily, adaptable, and omnivorous—just like people. No wonder they seem so self-assured!

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that they’re really fond of corn, which certainly explains their success in our area, where farm fields dot the landscape and the chief crop is corn raised to feed dairy cows. It’s enough to make us feel guilty for loving these glossy, impudent pirates. But then, we’re pirate fans here at Hawk’s Haven, flying the Jolly Roger proudly in our own backyard. We suspect we’ll continue to enjoy our grackles’ antics until we see one setting off flares in its plumage, as Blackbeard did in his famous beard to terrify his victims by surrounding his head with a demonic aura of smoke and flame. Until then, grackles make us laugh. And we think that’s a good thing.

Onward grackles! Welcome back.

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Get out your birdfeeders! September 18, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about getting your yard ready to welcome winter birds. Our friend Ben’s post yesterday about Hawk Mountain and the autumn migration, “A wing and a prayer,” reminded me that the songbirds who spend the winter with us are starting to arrive, and the ones who stay here year-round are finding less and less to eat as the colder weather kicks in. It’s not a minute too soon to start transforming your yard into a bird-friendly paradise that you and your family will love as much as they do.

Okay, what should you do? Here’s a list of 10 things you can do to bring in the birds:

1. Start with sunflower. If you can only do one thing for the birds this fall, get a tube feeder and keep it filled with black-oil sunflower seed. (These are the little black sunflower seeds, not the bigger striped seeds. Studies have shown that songbirds prefer them to pretty much anything.) Store your sunflower seed (or any seed) in tins or plastic food-storage bins to keep out mice and bugs. I prefer tins, either the ones pet stores often give away with pet-food purchases or ornamental ones especially made for birdseed and sold at specialty bird stores like the Wild Bird Centers and Wild Birds Unlimited. Pet stores, garden centers, and home improvement stores also often carry these tins with their wild bird supplies.

2. Turn on to tubes. Tube feeders, that is. I have a Droll Yankees tube feeder that’s weathered winter snow and ice for at least 15 years and shows no signs of deterioration. It has metal feeder ports and perches. Droll Yankees was the originator of the tube feeder, in case you’re wondering. And no, birds’ feet won’t stick to metal perches. That’s an urban legend. However, last year I bought some cheap Droll Yankees Bird Lover’s tube feeders with plastic ports and perches, and saw with amazement that they instantly became my backyard birds’ favorites. Now I keep them up all year, and they’re always doing a brisk business. I suggest that you hang several tube feeders where you and the family can see them from your windows—preferably the windows you’re most likely to be looking out of, like the kitchen windows and the ones in the room where you eat, be it the kitchen, dining room, or breakfast room. If you spend a lot of time in a family room or home office, hang some outside those rooms, too. Fill them all with black-oil sunflower seed rather than a mix: This is the latest and greatest recommendation from the bird experts. Where I live, chickadees, titmice, goldfinches, purple finches, house finches, and even cardinals flock to the tube feeders.

3. Hop to it. Some birds don’t particularly care for tube feeders, and for them, the so-called hopper feeder is a great solution. These are the feeders that tend to look like little cabins that you fill from the top, by lifting up the “roof”—thus, the name “hopper.” Choose a sturdy model that’s easy to fill, and again, site it where you can see it and enjoy the avian action. I have a rustic wood model with clear plastic side panels so it’s easy to see when it’s time for a refill, and it’s attached to a tree trunk in front of one of my living room windows, so I can enjoy the view many times a day as I pass the window. Hopper feeders are the place for that seed mix. Get a good one, with plenty of sunflower seeds and millet. High-end mixes often add Nyger and peanut hearts; low-end mixes tend to have lots of sorghum and cracked corn. I like the middle ground, since I don’t want to bust my budget but do want to actually attract a wide variety of birds. Around here, I see lots of nuthatches, woodpeckers, cardinals, juncos, titmice, and finches at the cabin feeder, as well as the occasional hardy mockingbird.

4. Get down. Lots of birds prefer to feed on the ground, and they include cardinals, juncos, mourning doves, and towhees. You can toss seed directly on the ground to attract these birds, or simply allow them to eat the seed that spills from your other feeders (birds are really good at scattering seed) rather than compulsively cleaning it up. Speaking of which, this is why I don’t advise hanging feeders from your deck railing—way too much work involved cleaning up seed and bird, uh, poop.

5. Gimme shelter. Birds need getaways where they can escape predators, and sheltered spots where they can take refuge from bitter cold, harsh winds, and other winter horrors. A dense hedgerow is great for this. The best bird hedgerows aren’t cruelly sheared shrubs, but instead are a mix of bird-friendly shrubs and small trees allowed to grow naturally. Viburnums, privets, rugosa and other hip-producing roses, crabapples, raspberries, wineberries, elderberries, and other fruit-producing plants are great for this. So are bird-friendly specimen trees like Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which provide both food and shelter.

6. Grow your own seed. Maybe it’s too late to try growing your own birdseed this year, maybe not. Yes, you can actually grow a whole birdseed garden, with corn, millet, sorghum, safflower, sunflowers, amaranth, and the like. If you’ve got the room and the inclination, I think this would be a lot of fun. But if you’re an ornamental gardener, simply planting things like coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.), ornamental sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), tickseed (Bidens spp.), and other seed-bearing plants, and then leaving them in the garden after they’ve formed seedheads, will give the birds (especially finches) a huge treat. You can always clean up the garden before growth begins again in spring. Veggie gardeners, birds adore pumpkin and winter squash seeds, so when you’re cleaning them out, set the seeds out, pulp and all, for your feathered friends.        

7. Make a PB&J. Lots of birds love peanut butter and bread, and a surprising number also enjoy jelly (orioles, especially). Unfortunately, experiments have shown over and over that birds love white bread best, so save your multigrain or whole-wheat bread for your family and treat your birds to cubes of white bread smeared with peanut butter and/or tiny cubes of PB&J. You can also feed birds peanut butter in other ways to help them have some quick energy for facing the cold. My favorite is stuffing pine cones with peanut butter and then rolling them in birdseed and hanging them in the branches of nearby shrubs. Do birds prefer smooth or crunchy peanut butter? Conduct your own backyard experiment and see for yourself!

8. Don’t fight fat. Unlike ours, birds’ metabolisms can use as many calories as they can get. That’s why peanut butter and suet are such great options—they’re both calorie-dense. Suet is now available in premade cakes, so unless you simply want to head to the butcher counter of your local grocery and ask for unrendered suet, you can stock up on suet cakes for your woodpeckers, titmice and chickadees. You’ll find as many flavors and combos as there are, say, granolas and other breakfast cereals for us humans. Experiment with different flavors if you want or just buy the cheapest. The birds will thank you either way! You can find suet cages at most bird-supply stores, and boy do they make suet-feeding easy: Hang the cage, pop the door open, pop in a suet cake, close the door, enjoy the show. Replace the cake when the birds have eaten it. That’s all, folks!

9. Just add water. All birds need water, and in winter, water is especially hard to come by, since any sources tend to be frozen. Fortunately, wild bird companies have taken a tip from farmers and downsized their stock-tank de-icers so they’re small enough to fit in bird baths and keep them unfrozen all winter. Birds, like us, need water even more than food. A bird bath with a de-icer will keep your birds happy, as long as you keep it filled with fresh, clean water. Many birdbaths now come with their own de-icers built in; check out the Duncraft catalog or go to www.duncraft.com to check out some examples.

10. Forget fighting squirrels. To read about it, you’d think people enjoyed outwitting squirrels more than they did attracting backyard birds. Sheesh. If your resident squirrel population rips your birdfeeders to pieces, yes, you need to invest in a squirrel-proof feeder (most passionate backyard birdfeeders recommend the heavy-duty metal hoppers with perches that shut down the feeder ports if a squirrel lands on them). Otherwise, I’d say live and let live. The occasional plump squirrel visits my hopper feeder in the winter, but they never dominate or destroy the feeder, so I just let ’em be and enjoy the show.

Want to take your backyard birdfeeding to a more advanced level? I suggest that you click on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on our blogroll at right, then head on over to their Project FeederWatch site and check it out. You’ll find plenty of great bird-feeding recommendations. There’s also a Project FeederWatch book, Project FeederWatch: Birds at Your Feeder, that describes each bird, its behavior and feeder preferences. It’s my favorite backyard bird feeding reference. Other great references include Sally Roth’s Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and The Backyard Bird Feeder’s Bible, Don and Lillian Stokes’s The Bird Feeder Book, and the Peterson Field Guides’ Feeder Birds of Eastern North America by birding icon Roger Tory Peterson.  (Hopefully there’s also a volume for Western North America.)

But whether you throw some stale bread on the back lawn or set up a feeding station with dozens of different feeders, all that really matters is that you enjoy the birds who come to your yard. Few things provide as much pleasure over a dull, dreary winter as the cheerful twitter and color of backyard birds. Get a field guide and notebook, and get the whole family involved identifying and enjoying your backyard birds. You’ll be glad you did!