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Water for winter birds. October 1, 2014

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Building on our previous post on feeding winter birds, our friend Ben would like to address the issue of providing water. Most “experts” will tell you that providing water is crucial for keeping winter birds alive. Food is not enough, and shame on you for daring to simply set food out! Well, shame on them for not giving you a simple way to do that.

If you don’t have a stream, pond, or other way to provide water, go to your local Tractor Supply or hardware store and buy a black rubber water dish. We have two for our backyard chickens. Unlike a birdbath, a rubber container is flexible, which means that you don’t have to heat it. If the water freezes in cold weather, just turn it upside-down and flex it to get the ice block to come out. (If it won’t come out, you may have to turn it upside down, set it on the ground, and stomp on it.) Then rinse and refill. It may freeze again, but so what? Flex, refill, the end. No submersion heaters, open water for your wild birds.


The upside to a cold spring. March 27, 2013

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Yuck, it’s almost April, and the temperatures here in our part of scenic PA are still dropping into the 20s every night. Brrr!!! What happened to global warming?!

However, as all gardeners know, there’s one great thing about cold spring weather, even if it makes you want to hide indoors: It makes the blooms of spring bulbs and flowers last longer. Our snowdrops and crocuses are still in bloom; our hellebore flowers are still pristine. We’re hoping to see a long daffodil, tulip, and grape hyacinth season, as well as a fabulous year for our chionodoxas (glories-of-the-snow), Spanish squill, and windflowers (Grecian anemones).

Bulb blooms can wither in a day if the temperatures are unusually hot, and seldom last more than a week in normal weather. But cold, for whatever reason, keeps them vibrant, and we appreciate that.

The cold has also kept our winter birds here. We still have juncos, chickadees, and titmice, along with our year-round residents, the woodpeckers, wrens, goldfinches, cardinals, mockingbirds, and the like. (Sadly, I think our bluejays have left us.) And we also have the spring arrivals, robins, starlings, and grackles. I can’t recall a time when I’ve seen juncos and robins together on the ground!

So, despite the cold, this spring has its own gifts for those who have eyes to see. Now, if we could just persuade the juncos to stay year-round…

What’s your favorite winter bird? December 8, 2012

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Your faithful bloggers—our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders—love to watch the birds that come to our feeders each winter. And we all have our favorites. We bet you do, too. So please choose your fave(s) from our list below, or add your own. We’d love to know which birds you love!

Our favorite feeder birds (in no particular order):

* blue jay

* cardinal

* junco

* chickadee

* titmouse

* nuthatch

* red-bellied woodpecker

* downy woodpecker

* hairy woodpecker

Other contenders:

* purple finch

* goldfinch

* house finch

* sparrows

* mourning dove

We think that about covers what comes to our winter feeders. (We love our little Carolina wrens, but we’ve never seen one at a feeder. And we’re not counting hawks and crows.) If we haven’t named your favorite, please let us know what it is! (In Arizona, it might be hummingbirds; in Australia, parakeets and rosellas.) Cast your vote and let’s see which birds end up topping the list.

Feeding the birds of winter. December 6, 2012

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All three of your bloggers here at Poor Richard’s Almanac—our friend Ben, Silence Dogood, and Richard Saunders—have a soft spot for the birds that visit our feeders each winter. Silence and I like to take computer breaks by standing at our back deck door or front windows and watching the variety and interplay of birds. We think Richard has arranged a feeder view out of every one of his windows!

Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home Silence and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA, our feeder setup is pretty straightforward, and so is our seed selection. We have a cabin feeder in the front yard (the kind that’s shaped like a cabin—ours is wood—with clear panels in front to check the seed level and a roof that lifts up for refilling). In the back, we have a suet feeder with a squirrel guard that holds preformed suet blocks; two tube feeders, one the classic clear plastic Droll Yankees tube with steel perches and opening guards (no squirrel has managed to destroy it in umpteen years) and one wire mesh tube with a lift-up top for refilling; and one dome feeder with a tray under a large plastic dome.

Our seed selection is equally straightforward. We do enjoy choosing the “flavors” of suet blocks we set out for our woodpeckers and chickadees, but from our observations, they’re not picky when it comes to suet. We abandoned expensive Nyger when we a) discovered that finches seemed to love black sunflower seed every bit as much and b) found that Nyger was super-susceptible to clumping and molding when it rained, however we tried to protect it. So now we feed black sunflower seed with a portion of white millet mixed in, and have not had a bird turn its beak up so far.

We did agree to provide one extra indulgence this year: a mix of the larger grey-striped sunflower seed and (eeeewwww!!!!) dehydrated mealworms in the dome feeder. (But we assure you we’ve always had tons of birds without this “extra.”) And we do think it’s essential to sprinkle some seed on the ground under the feeders for ground-feeding birds like juncos, cardinals and mourning doves; other birds and #$!@%!! squirrels will make sure more falls to the ground as they feed.

If you love winter birds as we do, it can be tempting to blow your budget on the many “gourmet” bird-seed blends available. Packed with berries, nuts, and other high-end ingredients, they look good enough to eat: trail mix for birds! But, as is the case with so many dog and cat foods, savvy marketers are appealing to us, not to the birds (do dogs really care if they’re eating filet mignon?).

Silence and I like to use the cheese comparison when shopping for birdseed. We love cheese, and are magnetically drawn to the most expensive cheeses in any store: the artisanal cheeses, the creamy Bries and Camemberts, the wine-soaked Drunken Goat, the ones encrusted with herbs or spices, the flaky, aged parmesans, the British Cheddars, a wedge of Roquefort. But if we actually bought these cheeses, our budget would be blown skyhigh before we ever reached for an actual grocery item. What to do?

Well, here’s what we do: We buy Cracker Barrel Aged Reserve New York Cheddar as our go-to cheese, and the best crumbled blue, Gorgonzola, and feta we can find for our salads. We’ll choose one cheese indulgence a week: a wedge of Jarlsberg, Asiago, or Maytag blue; a block of fresh feta in brine; a block of Black Diamond Cheddar; a wedge or wheel of Brie. This allows us to enjoy a feeling of decadence while staying on-budget.

We suggest that you adopt this policy, as we have, to keep your birdfeeding expenses under control. Our indulgence this year was the striped sunflower and mealworm combo. Yours could be the occasional bag of gourmet birdseed. But the basis of your feeder program, in our opinion, should be black oil sunflower seed, enhanced with millet and supplemented with suet blocks. This will both keep your costs down and your birds happy.

Where are the cardinals?!! December 13, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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We’ve been having an unusually cold winter so far here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. Nights have been in the teens for weeks, causing both of us to shudder as we hear the furnace running all night, despite the thermostat being turned down to a warm and welcoming 50 degrees F. (It’s supposedly burning fuel oil, but it might as well be burning money as far as we’re concerned.) Given the extreme early cold, you’d expect—at least, we’d expect—an unusually large number of birds at our feeders.

So far, that hasn’t proven to be the case. We have a nice flock of chickadees and titmice, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches, a large flock of sparrows, our resident goldfinches in their drab winter disguise, a few house finches, a pair of juncos, red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers, a bluejay, and a lone pair of cardinals. Normally, we’d have a large flock of juncos (one of our favorite birds), maybe four bluejays, more house and purple finches, and about ten cardinals. Where are they?!

Not that the feeders aren’t emptying quickly enough, mostly thanks to a large contingent of the fattest squirrels in Pennsylvania. Our friend Ben read in today’s paper that squirrel season starts today, and God knows, ours would make some mighty fine eating. (Burgoo, anyone?)

Their appetites would be aggravating enough, but the miserable marauders are trying to eat our feeders along with our birdseed. I wonder if spraying the outsides of the feeders with the “Phooey!” spray we use to keep our black German shepherd, Shiloh, from consuming our rugs and woodwork would prove to be a squirrel deterrent? Hmmm. 

But I digress. Has anyone else noticed a dearth of birds at the feeders, or the absence or scarcity of some regular visitors? If so, please tell us what’s happening at your feeders!

The birds are back in town. November 5, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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With all due apologies to Thin Lizzy and “The Boys Are Back in Town,” our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have been enjoying the return of our winter birds here at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, located in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. We’d kept up three tube feeders through the summer, enjoying the goldfinches and occasional chickadee who came around to sample our black oil sunflower seeds. But with the advent of truly cold nights, we set out five additional feeders and added mixed birdseed and suet cakes to the black oil sunflower seeds.

This morning, our friend Ben was looking at our cabin feeder through one of the living room windows and one of our tube feeders over the deck bridge, and I realized that the birds were back. There were the titmice, the chickadees, the nuthatches, the house finches. There were still the resident flocks of goldfinches and cardinals, who live here throughout the year, as well as one bold little wren that’s called our backyard home this past year. Not everyone is here yet—the increasing cold will draw juncos and woodpeckers, bluejays, purple finches, and sparrows. We always hope for rose-breasted grosbeaks and cedar waxwings, but have yet to see them. Maybe this year!

Meanwhile, our friend Ben noticed some distinct oddities in our autumn guests. Typically, our titmice are the same size as the black-capped chickadees, but this year, they’re noticeably larger. The black-caps and Carolina chickadees are here together this year so it’s easy to tell them apart, since the Carolinas are considerably smaller than the black-caps. And lo and behold, there was a mockingbird, state bird of our friend Ben’s and Silence’s home state of Tennessee, all puffed up but clearly ready to stick it out here at our Pennsylvania feeders.

Because we’re down to two outdoor cats, we also have a very fat family of squirrels enjoying our cabin feeder. We wish they’d settled for caching our shagbark hickory nuts, butternuts, and black walnuts instead!

Gack, that reminds me, I’d better get out there and refill those feeders. The birds are back in town!

Those charming chickadees. October 8, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I love my home office, filled as it is with plants and books and (usually) cats and our dog Shiloh. But when it comes down to it, the best thing about the office is the view. The front windows look out at our enormous front island bed and shrub border, so I can enjoy the long parade of blooms and watch the songbirds at our feeders and the hummingbirds at the rose-of-Sharon flowers. But the view I love best is from the window directly over my computer.

When I look out this window, I feel like I’m in a Boreal forest—or at least in a tree house. An ancient, absolutely enormous fir tree—so big that its branches are open and the lower ones drape to the ground, and it literally towers over the house—dominates the view. Through its branches, I can see a large holly and several other large (but not that large) evergreens.

The forest feeling is enhanced by the squirrels scampering over the huge fir’s branches and the numerous songbirds flitting in and out. Recently, I’ve noticed that there are more chickadees, one of my all-time favorite birds. In the last couple of years we’ve had Carolina chickadees here as well as our usual black-capped chickadees; we might have had some hybrids as well. I love these bold, dapper little birds with their distinctive call: “chickadee-dee-dee!!!”* (It’s easy to imitate, too, and the fearless little birds will answer when you call them.)

Chickadees enjoy the black oil sunflower seeds in our tube feeders, but can be seen at our cabin feeder where we set out mixed seed, too. Now that it’s colder, we’ve started filling the cabin feeder (technically called a hopper feeder, but it’s wood and is shaped like a cabin so that’s what we call it) again and have been enjoying watching the birds—and a very fat squirrel—making the most of it. But even one tube feeder of black oil sunflower seeds would be enough to attract chickadees if they’re in your area.

Welcome back, you bold little pioneers! Now we can look forward to the other winter residents following in your wake.

           ‘Til next time,


* Actually, I’ve read that chickadees’ delightful cousins, the tufted titmice, also sometimes call “chickadee-dee-dee.” I’ll try to keep a closer watch this winter and see if I can catch them at it.

Birds in transition. September 16, 2009

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Fall is coming, and with it, the arrival and departure of some of our most-loved backyard birds. Today, our friend Rudy, who’s a “counter” at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in nearby Kempton, PA—i.e., an expert birder who tracks the identity and number of birds migrating over the Kittatinny Ridge, of which Hawk Mountain is a part—called our friend Ben and Silence Dogood to check in, see how we were doing, and see if our Wednesday Night Supper Club was on or, since our hosts Carolyn and Gary are deeply involved with the Oley Valley Fair, which opens tomorrow, if we’re skipping a week.

Sad but true, we’re skipping this week’s get-together. (But please don’t pity Silence and OFB; tonight’s menu includes baked sweet potatoes, creamy pasta, green beans, and a huge, luscious salad, possibly with a dessert of grilled peaches and cream. We’ll miss the good company, of course, but otherwise I think we’ll survive.)

OFB was out walking our black German shepherd puppy Shiloh in the Independent Park that our township has generously opened just down the road from us when Rudy called, so I, Silence, took the call. Of course I asked Rudy what he’s seen while he was up on Hawk Mountain monitoring migrants, and he said the most notable birds right now are warblers, perhaps 20 species, heading South.

I pointed out in turn that we still have ruby-throated hummingbirds at our rose-of-Sharon flowers (Rudy says all of his have already migrated South); our goldfinches, year-round residents, are still gold; and we’ve suddenly started seeing chickadees, doubtless coming down for the winter and recalling our feeders. Doubtless our cardinals, juncos, sparrows, woodpeckers, bluejays, and other winter residents are on the way.  We’re looking forward to seeing them!

The first junco. November 23, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, here today to talk about my favorite feeder bird, the little junco.

We’ve had enough nights in the twenties here in our part of Pennsylvania to give the earth a chill. The ground is frozen, and the last green plants are stiff and bent with cold every morning, eventually thawing as the sun warms them. Our friend Ben tells me that the little stream at Hawk’s Haven, Hawk Run, has frozen over, and the container water gardens are circular ice cubes. OFB and Silence Dogood have been keeping busy switching off the water dishes for the chickens, bunny, and outdoor cats to make sure they have unfrozen water to drink, and their comments about carrying the ice-cold bowls of frozen water back to the house don’t really bear repeating here.

But I don’t need to look at the frozen ground, turn on the Weather Channel, hear the report from Hawk’s Haven, or even look at my indoor-outdoor digital thermometer to know that winter has arrived, because yesterday, I saw the first junco at my feeder. (But I confess that my indoor-outdoor thermometer is totally addictive. Thank you, L.L. Bean!) I guess I should say that I saw the first junco on the ground under my feeder, since these little birds prefer ground-feeding to perching on any kind of feeder, though they will fly up to a hopper (cabin-style) feeder or even a tube feeder if they must. Juncos are typically the last birds to arrive at my feeders, bearing winter on their wings. They’re also my favorite feeder birds.

Not that I don’t love the bolder, more colorful birds that arrive before them: the cardinals, bluejays, nuthatches, and woodpeckers. I welcome the new flocks of lovable, talkative chickadees and titmice that join the year-round regulars at the feeders. I love seeing the goldfinches, now in their more discreet winter plumage, jostling with house and purple finches at the tube feeders, and the many types of sparrows (and occasional wren) that come to the cabin feeder. These days, I usually have a mockingbird or two who’ve opted to stick around despite the cold, and there are always a few mourning doves waddling around under the feeders with their big bodies and tiny pinheads.

And of course, I miss the birds who don’t come, too—the towhees and flickers I’ve seen here in years past, but not for the last decade. It feels strange to see bird populations change like that in my lifetime: mockingbirds moving up, towhees moving—where? Is it global warming, pesticide pollution, rainforest clearing, the spread of the suburbs? It could be any or all of those, or even something we just don’t know. No doubt the simple act of setting out birdfeeders affects the mix of birds we see. It’s humbling to think that, given the wealth of scientific tools at our disposal, there is still so much to learn.

But back to my junco. Looking out the window, I see him poking around in a patch of vinca (periwinkle) beneath two tube feeders, sharing space with a female cardinal. Male juncos are such handsome fellows, with their charcoal-grey backs and snowball-white bellies. They are the definition of dapper come to life. The females are more discreet, with brownish backs and white bellies, while the juveniles are streaked. All are about 6 1/4 inches long (compare that with a cardinal’s 8 3/4 inches or a chickadee’s 5 1/4 inches to get an idea of their size).

As with so many bird species, the junco has fallen victim to the ornithologists’ tendency to reclassify every bird that comes within their grasp, often tossing out the beloved and well-known names of species in favor of ugly and/or obscure names and classifications with seemingly no regard whatever to either tradition or the people who actually care about these birds as individuals. (Gardeners, does this sound familiar? Grrrr.) The juncos that visit my feeder were formerly known as slate-colored juncos, which perfectly describes the color of the males’ backs. Now, however, they’ve been lumped with four other species, demoted like poor Pluto from planet status to a mere subspecies of something called the dark-eyed junco, which makes absolutely zero sense unless you’re an ornithologist comparing them to a Mexican species called the yellow-eyed junco. But even slate-colored junco wasn’t their original name. When John James Audubon painted them for his Birds of America, he called the junco “the common snow-bird,” and I still hear people call juncos snowbirds to this day.

Juncos aren’t usually solitary birds. They live in the far north during the breeding season, then make their way down to feeders throughout the U.S. as winter arrives. Typically, they winter in flocks of 6 to 9 birds, though our friend Ben reports much larger groupings at his feeders out in the country. So I assume my lone junco is just scouting out the feeder situation until the rest of his group arrives.

What do juncos like to eat when they visit your feeders? Hulled sunflower seeds, millet, mixed seed, and cracked corn are their favorite foods, according to my favorite book on bird feeding, Birds at Your Feeder by Erica H. Dunn and Diane L. Tessaglia-Hymes (Norton, 1999). This book is a summary of reports from participants in Project FeederWatch, a joint project initiated by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Bird Studies Canada, the National Audubon Society, and the Canadian Nature Federation. Backyard birdwatchers across the U.S. and Canada send data to Project FeederWatch sites to help researchers map the abundance, distribution, behavior, and food preferences of feeder birds through the winter. (You can find out more about Project FeederWatch—and about juncos or any other birds, for that matter—by clicking the link to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on our blogroll at right.)

Are you likely to see juncos at your feeder? In the words of a certain politician, you betcha. According to Birds at Your Feeder, juncos are the most commonly reported winter feeder birds, appearing at 80 percent of feeders. Since they prefer ground-feeding, you might overlook them, at least until it snows, since their dark coloration helps them blend into the winter landscape. I think these endearing little birds are worth looking for, though. Make sure you provide some of their favorite feeder foods (a blend of mixed seed should do the trick, though my juncos also like to congregate under the black-oil sunflower feeders), and don’t be in a hurry to clean up spilled seed, or you may be denying your juncos their dinner.

These handsome little birds are weathermen in their own right. Just as the juncos’ arrival tells you that winter isn’t far behind, their departure for the north and their breeding grounds lets you know that spring is coming. But much as I can’t wait to see winter give way to spring, I always hate to see the juncos leave. I miss their dapper little gatherings, where the groups of males look for all the world like Victorian gentlemen at their club or at a dinner party, dressed to the nines in their black swallowtail frock-coats and snowy white shirts. All the juncos are missing are top hats!