Thursday, May 28, 2020

Feeding winter birds in California

Have you been thinking of setting up a winter bird feeding station? Do you live in California? Then this article is for you!

This article is all about why and how to set up winter bird feeders in California and what birds you can expect to attract.


In this article
Why feed winter birds in California?
What birds come to feeders in winter in California?
Setting up a winter bird feeding station in California
Related articles


Image by GeorgiaLens from Pixabay

Why feed winter birds in California?


Winters in much of California are quite mild, even warm compared to much of the country. Do the birds need you to feed them in order to survive the winter? Probably not. Still, there are many benefits to feeding birds.

Birds need our help. Throughout the world bird populations are plummeting. Thus, we need to help them however we can. One way to help birds is to create bird-friendly yards, by landscaping and providing shelter and food to birds.

Young birds in their first year have a high mortality rate. These inexperienced birds fall victim to predators. They sometimes have trouble finding food in winter. Thus, a backyard bird feeder can provide extra food to help these birds survive, when they might not otherwise do so.

Food in late winter can be hard to find. Seeds and fruit have nearly all been eaten. Insects are in very short supply. You can help birds survive the end of winter until new food sources arrive in spring. The colder weather means that birds need extra calories in winter. You can provide that with a bird feeder.

The joy of feeding birds is good for your mental health. Just watching birds come and go about their normal daily activities at your feeder can calm the soul. They chirp and flutter, squabble and argue. Somehow that's good for us to watch!

Feeding birds gives us awareness and appreciation of the natural world. That bond to wildness and nature helps us look outside ourselves. It gives us peace of mind. Noticing birds helps us notice other wild things. This appreciation and gratitude leads to happiness. And we can all use more of that!

What birds come to feeders in winter in California?


Because of its mild climate, California has many resident birds that visit your backyard year-round. Additionally, many birds that summer in the north migrate south to California for the winter.

I've previously written an article on the most common backyard birds in California. That article also discusses identification. So if you are still learning how to tell one bird from another, then you should check out that article after you finish here.

Here, then are a few of the beautiful and interesting birds you can attract to your winter feeder in California. For each I'll describe a little about them. Then I'll tell you what to feed each of these birds to attract them to your yard in winter.

Photo of male House Finch on branch
House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson
House Finch: This species is found in rural areas of the West and in residential areas throughout the United States. They are found in all of California except the high mountains. They are found in flocks. They have a cheerful song and give constant chirping calls. Both genders are striped with gray brown. The males have reddish-orange foreheads, breasts, and rumps.

House Finches love black oil sunflower seeds from a tube feeder or hopper feeder. They also eat Niger seeds from a finch feeder or thistle sock.

Photo of male Lesser Goldfinch in willows
Lesser Goldfinch
Photo by Greg Gillson
Lesser Goldfinch: In the drier areas of the West these tiny finches replace American Goldfinches. They are found in all of California except high mountains. They frequent weedy fields and backyards. They are usually found in small flocks. They have both harsh and mournful calls. Summer songs by the male are prolonged and lilting. Males are brighter than females, with a black crown. They maintain their bright plumage throughout the year.

Lesser Goldfinches are especially attracted to Niger seed from a finch feeder or thistle sock. They also like hulled sunflower seeds from a tube feeder or hopper feeder.

Photo of White-crowned Sparrow on fir bough
White-crowned Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
White-crowned Sparrow: These birds breed along the coast and in the high mountains of California. Birds from the far North spend the winters in chaparral, deserts, woodlands, and residential areas in California. They are frequently found in brush piles and woody backyard shrubs. They sing songs with sweet and cheer notes and trills in summer, but also in winter and migration. Gives a slightly metallic pink note. They have slightly different song dialects in different regions of North America. The crown stripes of immature birds are brown and cream for the first year of life.

White-crowned Sparrows will eat black oil sunflower seeds or mixed seeds from a platform or hopper feeder.

Photo of Song Sparrow in cattails
Song Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson
Song Sparrow: This is a common wetland bird across North America that also hides out in backyards with large bushes and hedges. In California it is found throughout. It forages and hops on the ground where its heavy dark brown streaking provides camouflage in the shadows. It has a a trilled song that starts with two burry notes and a buzz. Its call sounds like chimp.

Song Sparrows will eat mixed seeds and black oil sunflower seeds from a hopper or platform feeder.

Photo of female Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco on branch
Dark-eyed Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson
Dark-eyed Junco: Breeds in mountains of eastern and western United States and across Canada. Winters throughout the United States. This tiny little sparrow lives in damp conifer forests along the coast and in the mountains of California. Northern birds migrate to California in the winter to all areas, including backyards in the lowlands. It flashes its white outer tail feathers and gives twittering and smacking calls as it feeds in flocks on the ground. The spring song is a prolonged musical trill on one pitch. This species is varied regionally. All variation types occur in California in the winter. The summer breeding birds are of the Oregon Junco variety, with brown back and black (male) or gray (female) hood.

Dark-eyed Juncos prefer the smaller seeds found in mixed bird seed. They will come to a platform feeder or hopper feeder.

Photo of California Towhee on twigs
California Towhee
Photo by Greg Gillson
California Towhee: This very large sparrow is native to the chaparral habitats of California and Baja. It is not found in the highest mountains or deserts. While other chaparral species have been pushed farther into the wilderness by urban sprawl, California Towhees have adapted to residential life. They are found in all backyards in northern California oak woodlands to southern California. Their common call is a loud metallic pink note, like two metal pipes being struck together. Their song is a fast trill of these same notes. These birds are brown throughout. The under tail has a warm cinnamon coloration.

California Towhees will eat black oil sunflower seeds and mixed seeds from a platform feeder.

Photo of California Scrub-Jay on walkway
California Scrub-Jay
Photo by Greg Gillson
California Scrub-Jay: This bold, noisy, jay is common in residential backyards along the West Coast. In California it is native in oak-chaparral away from dense conifer forests and high mountains. One common call is a single hoarse rising shreeink call. A similar call is a fast repeated hoarse shrink, shrink, shrink. It has a round blue head with an incomplete necklace of blue onto the breast. The wings and tail are also blue. The face is black. The back is gray. The under parts are white or pale gray. Because they may gobble up a lot of sunflower seeds at once, and sometimes beat up on smaller birds, they are not welcome by everyone at the feeder.

California Scrub-Jays will eat fruit, sunflower seeds, and suet from platform or hopper feeders.

Photo of Mourning Dove on tree limb
Mourning Dove
Greg Gillson
Mourning Dove: Widespread across the United States. In California these larger feeder birds are found in woodland edges and stream sides. They are common in rural and residential settings. Their cooing song sounds like sad crying, boo-hoo, boo-hoo-hoo. They often feed on the ground under the feeder, or on larger feeders. You may see them perched on wires above the road or on the peak of a roof. They are pale brown with a pinkish hue on the breast. They have some black spots on the wing coverts. The head is small. The tail is long and pointed.

Mourning Doves eat cracked corn, sunflower seeds, and mixed seeds from platform feeders.

Photo of male Nuttall's Woodpecker on broken tree trunk
Nuttall's Woodpecker
Photo by Greg Gillson
Nuttall's Woodpecker: This bird is nearly restricted to California. It is common in live oak woodlands throughout the state. It avoids dense conifers in the north coast region and mountains. It is not found in the deserts. It visits backyards with oak or sycamore trees or conifers. It is rather noisy, giving pitick calls and similar longer rattles. It is patterned with black and white like many woodpeckers, but the back is completely barred across with alternating black and white bars.

Nuttall's Woodpeckers will eat suet from a special suet feeder or cage. They may also eat fruit.

Photo of male Anna's Hummingbird on leafy twig
Anna's Hummingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson
Anna's Hummingbird: One of 3 resident hummingbird species in California, this species is common in residential areas the length of the state. They are large and fairly noisy. They give high sharp stit notes, chatter a bit when chasing other hummingbirds. The males give a prolonged squeaky and scratchy "song" in winter and spring from an exposed perch. They are green above and gray and green across the underparts. The male's whole head and throat is iridescent pinkish-ruby. The female usually has a spot of pink on the central throat.

Anna's Hummingbirds drink nectar from hummingbird feeders.

Setting up a winter bird feeding station in California


To get you started, I suggest buying two feeders. The first is a tube feeder for black oil sunflower seeds to attract the finches. The second feeder should be a hopper feeder with mixed seed (avoid milo!). Check out the bird seed article below.

Of course, if you want, you may add a suet feeder, offer various fruit, add a Niger seed feeder, and a hummingbird feeder! In the "related articles" below I describe more about the feeders and foods that are best to attract birds. Don't forget to look at my article on my recommended bird feeder setup.

Set up your feeders in October or November to get the best response. Northern sparrows will have reached California by then. In late fall and early winter birds are moving around looking for a reliable supply of winter food. By the end of December all birds are pretty much settled in for the winter. If you wait until then to set up your feeders you may have a harder time attracting birds. Birds will remain in their local wintering area until they migrate back north in March or April.

Don't forget water. You can purchase a bird bath or place out a simple saucer with water. It's often quite dry in California in fall and early winter. Birds appreciate drinking and bathing water, summer and winter.



These related articles should answer your questions on setting up a bird feeder and get you started viewing and identifying your backyard birds: 

The most common backyard birds in California

My recommended bird feeder setup

Bird seeds that attract the most birds

Different kinds of bird feeders for different birds

Bird baths that birds actually use

Binoculars for beginning bird watchers

Bird watching books for beginners



Monday, May 25, 2020

How much does a birdbath cost?

Bird baths may attract even more birds to your backyard than do bird feeders! And more different kinds of birds, too. If you are considering adding a bird bath to your bird feeding station you no doubt wish to know how much to spend on one. What is a reasonable cost for a bird bath?

Commercial bird bath costs run from inexpensive to extravagant. Many retail outlets offer bird baths for as little as $25 to more than $200. Of course, very fancy and heavy bird baths can be very expensive. Bird bath heaters and fountains add additional cost. On the other hand, you can make a simple bird bath out of a saucer at little or no cost.

Typical bird baths


Birdbaths mimic rain puddles. They are shallow basins of water. Typical bird baths contain a basin of water either on the ground, on a pedestal, or hanging from a chain.

Here is the range of prices as advertised on Amazon:

Bird baths on Amazon (affiliate link)
Marble hand carved one-piece pedestal bird bath: $2002 plus $508 shipping.
Plastic bird bath and pedestal: $32.36 plus free shipping.

At my local Walmart, bird baths are advertised for sale from $28.68 to $199.99. Their best sellers are that low priced bath to one for $139.99 that includes a solar fountain.

Before we talk about bird baths with fountains, though, lets look at the three types of typical bird baths.


Pedestal bird baths


The pedestal bird bath is what most people think of when they hear the word birdbath. These baths consist of a basin of water raised up on a pedestal.

The height of the pedestal is usually between 24 and 28 inches tall. The bowl diameter is usually between 17 and 20 inches wide. The bowl depth is 2 to 3 inches (shallow is actually better for smaller birds, but needs refilled often and may be too shallow for a fountain).

Some bird baths are one-piece. Others have the basin and pedestal come apart for cleaning or shipping.

Advantages of pedestal bird bath: This is the traditional style, so there is a large variety to choose from. The basin is raised off the ground that gives some protection from predators, such as cats.

Disadvantages of pedestal bird bath: Often the water basin is too deep for small birds. Can blow over or tip over if animals jump up on them. Then they may break.

Compare the prices of pedestal bird baths on Amazon.


Hanging bird baths

You can hang a saucer as a bird bath from chains from your house eaves, from a tree branch, or from a shepherd's hook bird feeder pole. Use a hanger made for a hanging plant. Saucers can be as simple as a plastic or glazed ceramic plant saucer.

Advantages of hanging bird baths: Can be hung on patio or other small spaces where a pedestal bird bath may not fit. You can hang these up high where cats cannot get to bathing birds. Can be very inexpensive.

Disadvantages of hanging bird baths: Because water is heavy, you will want to keep these small. They won't hold very much water; they need to be refilled often. May be hard to fill, perhaps up over your head, where it will spill on you. Mostly only used by smaller birds, such as finches.

Compare the prices of hanging bird baths on Amazon


Ground-level bird baths


Bird baths can be placed on the ground or on a tree stump or even on some cinder blocks. In this case, the bird bath is only the water basin. There is no pedestal.

Advantages of ground-level bird baths: More like a natural rain puddle. Birds will come to them more quickly. May be used by more ground-dwelling birds like doves and sparrows. Lots of opportunity for decorating, incorporating into flower garden, and do-it-yourself projects. Can "hide" in a corner where shier birds will enjoy it. Can be very inexpensive.

Disadvantages of ground-level bird baths: Leaves and debris may fall into it easier. Non-bird pests may drink from it. Predators have easier access to birds. Keep low bushes (where cats may hide) at least 10 feet away, so birds can see predators coming.

Compare the prices of ground level bird baths on Amazon

Different bird bath materials


Polyresin




Polyresin is durable. Resist cracking and breaking. Weather-proof against freezing. Light weight. Needs to be weighted down to keep from blowing over. Strong and easily molded into intricate designs. Can take a wide variety of colors and finishes. Some bird baths are colored as copper metal. Fairly inexpensive.

Granite or marble



Marble and granite are very heavy. Expensive to ship. Will last for centuries. A 22 inch diameter bowl with a height of 23 inches (all one carved stone piece) weighs 175 pounds as an example. Another weighs 250 pounds. Very expensive.

Concrete (cast stone)



Concrete is strong and long lasting. Heavy. May be reinforced with rebar. Absorbs water and can crack in freezing weather. Medium price.

Polypropylene (PP)



Plastic. Weather resistant. Light weight. Rugged and rigid. Inexpensive.

Pottery (ceramic)



Ceramics are not to be left out in freezing weather. Freezing can crack bowl. Slippery surface hard for birds to grip. May break easily if tipped over. Fairly heavy. Decorative more than functional. Fairly expensive.

Metal



Metal bird baths may be made of aluminum, copper, or cat iron. They are fairy heavy, but strong. Copper resists algae. Expensive.

Heated bird baths



Separate plug-in bird bath heaters and de-icers can cost as little as $25. Heated bird baths may be as low as $59. They go up in price to $238 or above.

Bird bath fountains



There are many types of fountains for bird baths. Some solar bird bath fountains are sold for less than $20. Some solar fountains go up to $330. Plug-in submersible pumps in fountains can be found from $58 to almost $900.

Conclusion


Bird baths can be as cheap as a $2 ceramic or plastic plant saucer on the ground to a multi-tiered marble masterpiece that costs $2000 or more. There is a bird bath for every budget. Don't let price hinder you from adding this item which will attract more birds to your backyard.



You may like: How high off the ground should bird baths be?



Thursday, May 21, 2020

What is the best sunflower seed for birds?

The seeds of the sunflower plant (Helianthus annuus) attract more backyard birds to your feeder than any other kind of birdseed. No wonder, they are good for birds. They are full of nutrients including fats, protein, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B-6, and iron.

But at the store you see different kinds of sunflower seeds. You may wonder: Are all types of sunflower seeds the same? What's the difference between black and striped sunflower seeds? And what is the difference between sunflower seeds and sunflower hearts?

This article answers those questions.

You will learn that there are three types of sunflower seeds to offer birds at the feeder: black oil sunflower seeds, striped sunflower seeds, and hulled sunflower seeds. There are different reasons to offer each type of these seeds.
  • Black oil sunflower seeds are best for attracting most seed-eating finches, sparrows, chickadees, and nuthatches.
  • Striped sunflower seeds are best for attracting larger cardinals and grosbeaks while also discouraging starlings, house sparrows, and cowbirds.
  • Hulled sunflower seeds are best for attracting many types of birds while leaving no mess behind!

Photo of male Black-headed Grosbeak on bird feeder
Black-headed Grosbeak eating sunflower seeds
Photo by Greg Gillson

Black oil sunflower seeds for birds


At your backyard bird feed store you will no doubt see black oil sunflower seeds offered for sale as bird food. Is it any good? Yes it is! Birds love black oil sunflower seed!

What is black oil sunflower seed?


This sunflower seed is exactly as the name would suggest. The hull (also called the shell or husk) is colored solid black on the outside. The kernel contains nutritious fatty acids (linoleic acid) necessary for both human and bird health. The oil of this sunflower is used for cooking oil and as a base for some cosmetics.

These seeds are a bit smaller than the striped sunflower seeds used for human snacks.

Black oil sunflower seeds sold as bird food is not as "clean" as food for human consumption. Some people complain that these seeds sometimes contain dirt, stems, or stones. These non-edible items can sometimes block the feeding ports of tube feeders. Some consumers feel that different brands of bird seed have less non-seed items than others. However, they probably have little control over quality as bird seed providers buy bulk seed from a limited number of growers.

Why feed birds black oil sunflower seeds?


Seed eating birds love black oil sunflower seeds! The hulls are rather thin compared to striped sunflower seeds. The seeds are a bit smaller. This makes it easier for small birds to extract the kernels from the hull.

Birds prefer black oil sunflower seeds so much that they will often pick through mixed bird seed to eat just the sunflower seeds. Many birds toss other kinds of seeds away looking for the sunflowers. This is wasteful. So many people switch to feeding only black oil sunflower seeds in tube or hopper feeders. Then they offer mixed birdseed in tray feeders where birds can pick through the seeds to find the ones they want.

Birds eat the internal hearts of the sunflower seed. They dispose of the shell. They open the shell either by chewing or by pounding them open with their bill.

Which birds eat black oil sunflower seeds?


Nearly all birds that come to your feeder eat and prefer black oil sunflower seeds. All finches, goldfinches, sparrows, grosbeaks, towhees, cardinals and buntings love black oil sunflower seeds. They sit on your feeder and chew them open. They drop the shells out the sides of their mouth, but grab the kernel with their tongue and swallow them.

Chickadees and nuthatches and titmouses grab seeds one at a time and take them away. Because they can't move their mouth sideways to chew, they pound open sunflower seeds on a branch to reach the edible seed hearts.

Mourning Doves, jays, starlings, cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and English house sparrows (not related to native North American sparrows), gobble them up too. In fact, these birds may quickly eat up these sunflower seeds. But these birds don't feed as well at tube feeders. Thus, offering black oil sunflower seeds in tube feeders often reduces the amount of seed these "less-desirable" birds eat.

Squirrels also love black oil sunflower seeds. Special squirrel-resistant bird feeders keep the squirrels from taking over the bird feeder and slow down consumption.

How much do black oil sunflower seeds cost?


Sunflower seeds for birds are generally sold in bags ranging from 5 to 50 pounds. The larger bulk you buy, the less expensive it is. In May 2020, the best price on Amazon for 40 pounds of black oil sunflower seeds is $40.95, which is $1.02.

Here are my research results:

Weight Low price High price Price per pound
5 pounds $21.99 $23.56 $4.40 to $4.71
10 pounds $24.00 $32.69 $2.40 to $3.27
20 pounds $29.15 $34.99 $1.46 to $1.75
40 pounds $40.95 $63.50 $1.02 to $2.05

Walmart indicates there is a 40 pound bag available at my nearby store for $28.00. Now that's a great deal!

Striped sunflower seeds for birds


Striped sunflower seeds are the same ones that people eat. But those offered to birds aren't salted and aren't as clean as those for human consumption. Birds like them, but not as much as black oil sunflower seeds.

What are striped sunflower seeds?


All sunflower seeds are from the same species of sunflower plant. But they have been bred for different purposes. Wild sunflowers have several heads. Domesticated varieties have a single head. Some are very tall. Some are grown for the beautiful flower itself. Others are grown for cooking oil and bird and animal feed. The striped variety is grown for human consumption, but also some bird seeds.

The striped sunflower seeds are larger than the black oil sunflower seeds. They are familiar as the gray and black striped snack food. They are also called confection sunflower seeds.

Why feed birds striped Sunflower seeds?


Not all seed eating birds like striped sunflower seeds. Not only are the seeds larger, they are thicker and harder to open. This presents some opportunity for this seed to discriminate against some birds.

The reason you would feed birds striped sunflower seeds is to keep pest birds from gobbling all the sunflower seeds down and taking over the feeders.

House Sparrows can be troublesome pests at some feeders. Switching to striped sunflower seeds can reduce their impact. Cowbirds can sometimes be a nuisance during certain seasons of the year, depending upon how far north or south you live. They have more trouble eating these seeds than the black oil type.

You still might want to feed black oil sunflower seeds at tube feeders for the smaller birds. Larger birds may have trouble perching on small tube feeders. Then feed the striped sunflowers at the platform or hopper feeders.

Which birds eat striped sunflower seeds?


Due to the larger size and thicker hull of striped sunflower seeds, many smaller birds have trouble opening and eating them. It's just too much work.

In fact, these seeds are harder for starlings, red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, and English house sparrows to eat. Even squirrels may not eat as many striped sunflower seeds. These seeds slow them down and make them look for something easier. If you have trouble with these feeder "pests" you may want to switch to striped sunflowers.

Of course, this means that goldfinches, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, and smaller sparrows and finches do not prefer these seeds. They will eat them, but will go for any black oil sunflower seeds first, if any are present.

The birds that like these striped sunflower seeds are the big-billed seed eaters: cardinals, grosbeaks, towhees.

How much do striped sunflower seeds cost?


Striped sunflower seeds are priced about the same as black oil seeds. But there doesn't seem to be as wide a variety of different sizes.

Below is a table for the range for such seeds at Amazon in May 2020. The best price on Amazon for striped sunflower seeds is 25 pounds for $24.98, which is $1.00 per pound. This is the same price per pound as the best price for black oil sunflower seed.

Here are my results from today, mid May 2020:

Weight Low price High price Price per pound
5 pounds $15.99 $18.25 $3.20 to $3.65
20 pounds
$43.14 $2.16
25 pounds $24.98 $55.00 $1.00 to $2.20
50 pounds
$79.99 $1.60

My local Walmart is out of stock on striped sunflower seeds today. However they do sell a 25 pound bag for $39.28 and a 50 pound bag for $57.67. Those aren't exceptionally good prices.

Hulled sunflower seeds


Hulled, dehulled, shelled, or shell-less. How can these words all mean the same thing? But they do! Birds love these sunflower seeds, too.

What are hulled sunflower seeds?


Hulled sunflower seeds have had their husks mechanically removed. That leaves only the wholly-edible kernel of the seed.

The kernel is also called the heart or meat. If the kernels are broken, then the pieces of broken seeds may be called chips. Sometimes whole kernels are called coarse chips, kernel halves are graded as medium chips, and small broken pieces are called fine chips.

I haven't seen anything directly on this, but I believe that hulled sunflower seeds are made from striped sunflowers and not black oil sunflowers. If I find out any different in the future I will update this paragraph.

Why feed birds hulled sunflowers?


The largest benefit of hulled sunflowers is that they are entirely edible. When the birds eat them there is no mess made by the shells. There are no shells. [At the end of this article I link to an article I wrote on how to feed birds without the mess. You may like to learn of other no-mess foods to feed birds.]

The shells, or hulls, of sunflowers can be quite messy as birds drop these in or below the feeder. These shells have a natural biochemical substance that inhibits growth of most plants (if interested, see Wikipedia explanation of allelopathy). So the area below the feeder often turns to mud or moldy shells in winter, with any former lawn killed. Spilled sunflower seeds often sprout, too.

Which birds eat hulled sunflower seeds?


Seed eating birds that like eating other seeds are also likely to eat hulled sunflower seeds. In addition, smaller-billed sparrows like Dark-eyed Juncos as well as small goldfinches may have trouble with sunflower seeds in the shell. They will appreciate these easier-to-eat sunflower seed kernels or chips.

From what I've seen, though, House Finches prefer black oil sunflower seeds in the shell over hulled sunflower seeds (which may be from striped sunflowers). This may be true of some other birds, too.

Wrens, winter warblers, chickadees, nuthatches, as well as sparrows, grosbeaks, finches, towhees and other seed-eating birds will eat hulled sunflowers.

This winter a Black Phoebe regularly ate from my hulled sunflower feeder! These flycatchers are only supposed to eat insects.

Of course, since it is so easy for birds to eat these seeds, some birds could really eat a lot! This would include mourning doves, jays, starlings, blackbirds, house sparrows and other big eaters. If you do offer hulled sunflower seeds you may have to ration it out each day!

One problem with hulled sunflower seeds, especially the broken chips, is that they mush up when wet or damp. So you will need to clean out your feeder more often than whole sunflower seeds in the shell. This is another reason to limit the amount of seed you put out at one time.

How much do hulled sunflower seeds cost?


Hulled sunflower seeds are more expensive than sunflower seeds in the shell. Or are they?

Lets see what I found in mid-May 2020. The best price on Amazon for hulled sunflower seeds is 25 pounds for $35.69, which is $1.43 per pound.


Weight Low price High price Price per pound
5 pounds $15.99 $20.26 $3.20 to $4.05
10 pounds $24.94 $25.49 $2.49 to $2.55
25 pounds $35.69 $58.44 $1.43 to $2.34
50 pounds $72.99 $94.99 $1.46 to $1.90

My local Walmart only carries a couple of options for hulled sunflower seeds ("sunflower hearts and chips"). The best price is an 8 pound bag for $16.93, or $2.12 per pound. Not a great deal.

Hulled sunflower seeds are less expensive than they may first appear. Why?

Up to 30% of the weight of sunflower seeds is the inedible shell (source). The best price for sunflower seeds in the shell (black oil or striped) is about $1.00 per pound. The best price for hulled sunflower seeds is $1.43 per pound. That's about 40% more. So, really, after removing the shell, it's only about 15% more by weight to have the no mess, no waste, hulled sunflower seeds.


How do they get the hulls off the sunflower seeds? With this noisy shaking machine!



Now you know that not all sunflower seeds are the same. Birds really love sunflower seeds, but different types. There is one best sunflower seed for the birds you want to attract to your yard. Make sure you have the proper kind of sunflower seeds at your bird feeder!



Please read my other articles on birdseed: 

Kinds of bird seeds that attract the most birds

Feeding birds without the mess



Sunday, May 17, 2020

How to use binoculars for bird watching

Your binocular is your most important tool for watching birds. If they are not set up correctly you will not see birds well. Worse, you may strain your eyes and give yourself a headache. That's why you need to have a good pair of binoculars and adjust them for your eyes.

This article tells you how to properly adjust your binoculars so they are calibrated for your eyes and give a sharply focused image. Then we'll discuss some techniques for using binoculars that are specific to watching birds.

Every time you pick up a new pair of binoculars you must adjust 4 things to use them properly:
  1. eye cups
  2. barrels
  3. focus
  4. diopter
After these 4 items are adjusted properly, you'll only need to adjust the focus afterward to view birds.

Once your binoculars are properly adjusted I will explain how to use binoculars to find more birds and get better views. I'll explain:
  1. aiming binoculars
  2. holding binoculars
  3. holding steady
  4. scanning: finding hidden birds

Here is a photo showing the external parts of a binocular:
Image of binoculars with labels

How to properly adjust your binoculars


If you haven't used binoculars much, especially for birds, it can take a bit of getting used to. Adjusting binoculars becomes second-nature for experienced users. Once your binoculars are adjusted for your eyes, then only the focus needs adjusting when viewing birds. The other settings will stay the same and not need readjusted unless they are moved. If you share a pair of binoculars, however, you'll constantly have to readjust them. So it is best if each person has their own pair.

1. Adjusting the eyecups


Many people wonder whether they can wear eyeglasses when using binoculars. Yes you can!

If you are only far sighted or near sighted, then you may be able to use binoculars with your eyes only. That would actually be ideal. However, most people who wear glasses also have astigmatism--their eye lenses aren't perfectly round and have to be corrected. So they (and, yes, I) must wear eyeglasses to see properly with binoculars.

Binoculars have a specification called eye relief that allows users to wear eyeglasses or not. A longer eye relief is better for eyeglass wearers. Look for a spec of at least 15.5 mm or longer. If the eye relief of the binocular is 15mm or less you won't be able to see the entire field of view with eyeglasses--the edges will be cropped from view.

To fix this loss of field of view, you need to get your eyes closer to the binocular ocular lenses. You do this by retracting the binocular eye cups.

On the other hand, with no eyeglasses, you can get your eyes too close to the binocular lenses. Then you'll see black circles in the middle of your binocular field of view. You need to move your eyes back away from the lenses. This is accomplished by extending the binocular eye cups.

Adjusting the eye cups is easy. They fold down or up or twist in or out. If you wear eyeglasses, then the eyecups should be twisted in so that the binocular ocular lenses are closer to your eyes. If you don't wear eyeglasses, then the binocular ocular lenses need to be farther from your eye. Twist the eyecup out, pushing your eyes away from the binocular ocular lenses.

Folding rubber eye cups are either up or down. Twist type eye cups may have indents to select mid-points between fully up or down.

If you don't wear eyeglasses, the binocular eyepieces (eyepieces are the ocular lenses and eyecups combined) rest on your eyebrow and cheek. That is the outer eyepiece casing, not the actual lenses themselves.

The eyepieces (eye cups) of the binoculars rest on your eyeglasses if you wear them. I find that the binoculars push my glasses up my nose and closer to my eyes. The view is fine. But my eyebrows leave an oily smudge on my glasses afterwards. It doesn't interfere with my ability to see using binoculars. But when I'm done bird watching I need to clean the eyebrow smudges from my glasses.

Another problem with eyeglasses is that they can fog over in cold or humid weather when using binoculars. This is especially troublesome when wearing medical face masks during pandemics! Sigh. (I truly hope you're reading this in the future and don't have any idea of what I'm talking about.)

I hate eyeglasses.

2. Adjusting the width of the binocular barrels


Everyone's eyes are a different width apart. This is called the interpupillary distance. For adults, the average interpupillary distance is about 65mm. Most binoculars adjust from 56-72mm. Binoculars for children usually adjust down to 50-52mm and are suitable for children "7 years or older." Children often can't properly see out of adult binoculars.

Thus, the barrels of the binoculars must be adjusted for the width of each observer's eyes. Fortunately, this is easy. The two barrels of binoculars are connected with a bridge. The barrels pivot on a central hinge.

Grasp the barrels firmly in each hand while bringing the ocular lenses up to your eyes. Push or pull to adjust the width of the binoculars so that both eyes see a single view. You should have a clear single circular view without any black crescents.

If you are seeing double images, then the barrels are not lined up properly. Change the width of the barrels to see if this helps. Collimation refers to the factory adjustment that makes the two barrels parallel. Internal prisms may be jarred out of alignment if binoculars are dropped. Collimation may also be poor on cheap binoculars. Usually binoculars must be returned to the factory for repair, if this is the case.

The hinge should be stiff so that the binocular barrels keep their distance. They shouldn't flop together or apart. On the other hand, they shouldn't be so stiff that they are hard to move.


Image of binoculars with diopter ring labeled

3. Adjusting the focus of the left eye


Most binoculars have a focusing knob or wheel on the bridge near and between the eyepieces. These are adjusted while looking through the binoculars.

Select a target object to look at, perhaps about 100 feet away.

Grasp the binoculars firmly with both hands and raise them to your eyes. With your index finger turn the knob one way or the other until you can clearly see your target object with your left eye. If it helps, place the large lens cap over the right objective lens (the "big end"). Do not squint your right eye closed, as that changes the shape of your eyes too much.

Once the left eye is in focus we move on to the right eye. Remain in place. Don't move the focus knob. Follow the next directions.

4. Adjusting the diopter of the right eyepiece


There is an adjustable ring around the right eyepiece (or sometimes in the center of the bridge near the focus knob). This is the diopter adjustment. It adjusts for differences in focus between your eyes.

If you don't set the diopter correctly, your image will appear blurry. One eye or the other will not be in focus.

Look again through your binoculars at your target object. Make sure it is still in focus with your left eye. Now, adjust the diopter ring by twisting it left or right until the right eye is equally and comfortably in focus. You should have both eyes in focus with no eye strain.

Verify that you have the correct calibration by choosing near and far objects on which to focus. If you have to, readjust the diopter. From now on the focus knob will move both eyepieces and they should remain in proper calibration. Birds should be in focus with both eyes whether near or far. Now you are ready to spot some birds!

Many diopter rings have a marker and a + or - mark as well as a 0 in the middle. These marks are on diopter rings on the underside of the eyepieces. Take note of where you have adjusted the diopter (toward the + or -). This diopter placement should be in the same place whenever you use the binoculars. Some binoculars have a locking mechanism to keep the diopter setting from accidentally moving.


Here's a brief but excellent video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology showing how to make these binocular adjustments and how to aim your binoculars.



How to use bird watching binoculars


I'm going to break this into two parts. First, we'll discuss how to get a clear view of a bird that you have spotted with your bare eyes. Second, we'll talk about some techniques to use your binoculars to look for hidden or distant birds.

Aiming: Spotting birds in your binoculars


Newer birders sometimes have a bit of trouble spotting birds through their binoculars. With a bit of practice, though, you'll soon lift your binoculars and have the bird centered in view immediately.

The key is to look at the bird, not at the binoculars. Here's the technique for spotting birds in your binoculars.

With your bare eyes, turn your body so that you are looking straight ahead and viewing the bird. Keep looking at the bird. Now--without looking at the binoculars--bring them up to your eyes. The bird should appear in view. Adjust the focus to bring the bird into view.

Many beginners look away from the bird and at the binoculars as they bring them up to their eyes. Thus they have more difficulty quickly locating the bird in the binoculars. Don't look at the binoculars while bringing them to your eyes--keep looking at the bird!

Practice with birds flying in the sky until you can "get on them" every time.

How to hold binoculars


Holding your binoculars properly will make it easier to spot birds and keep your arms from becoming fatigued quickly.

The proper way to hold binoculars is each hand holding the separate barrels. Four fingers should go over the top of each binocular barrel. Your thumbs go under the binoculars. Rest your index fingers on the top sides of the focus wheel.

This hand posture should keep the binoculars well-balanced. Different makes and models and sizes may feel more or less well balanced, depending upon the size of your hand and length of your fingers. This is a personal preference to test out, if possible, when deciding which pair of binoculars to buy. You should place your hands so that the binoculars are not overly heavy at the front or back.

Image of binoculars held properly in hands
Proper way to hold binoculars

Holding your binoculars steady


The more magnification your binoculars have, the harder it is to hold them still. They magnify any hand shakiness. The longer you hold your binoculars up to your eyes, the more wearisome and shaky your arms become.

If you are outside and it is windy, you will have an unsteady view, too.

There are a few things you can do to hold your binoculars steady.

When holding your binoculars do not hold your elbows out to the side. Instead, hold your elbows down so they are resting on your ribs. This will steady your binoculars and keep your arms from tiring quickly.

If you are looking at one bird for a prolonged time, bring your hands forward toward the eyepieces. Brace your index finger against your brow ridge (if wearing eyeglasses). Or, brace your thumb against your cheek.

If you are able to sit on the ground, try this. With your knees drawn up, brace your elbows on your knees.

You can also brace yourself against a firm unmoving object. Lean your binoculars or elbows against a corner of a house, against a tree, against a vehicle, or on top of a fence post. All these will give you a less shaky view and reduce arm fatigue.

Image showing improper way to hold binoculars
No! Elbows out, wrist bent
Image showing proper way to brace binoculars
Yes! Elbows down, wrists straight

Scanning: Looking for birds with your binoculars


Primarily you look for birds with your bare eyes. When you spot something, you then look with binoculars. Why?

It is because your eyes have a very wide field of view. Most humans have a horizontal field of view of 210 degrees. Even binoculars with a wide field of view barely see 8 degrees. You can easily notice bird movement out the "corner of your eye," away from your central view.

However, there are times when you can scan with your binoculars to look for birds you would not otherwise see.

You can scan the horizon for birds in several circumstances.

Scan the edges of a riverbank or pond--all away around, if you can. There are often birds on the edge of the shore, wading, or swimming near the shoreline.

Scan a distant tree line or ridgeline for hawks perched in trees.

Scan the horizon when looking out to sea from a sea watch or from a boat at sea.

Scan the sky against overcast clouds when searching for high-flying swifts or hawks. This is especially productive if your are in the mountains or visiting a known hawk watch site.

Scan down fence lines and fence posts. Scan down power lines and utility poles.



You may enjoy my article: How to start bird watching.



Thursday, May 14, 2020

Hummingbird nests: Everything you want to know

Hummingbirds are the world's smallest birds. Everything about hummingbirds is tiny--even their nests!

In this article I'm going to take you through the hummingbird nesting season, concentrating on the nest itself, as much as possible. We'll look at the placement and construction of the nest. We'll talk about the hummingbird eggs and nestlings. Then we'll finish up telling you how to find hummingbird nests and attract hummingbirds to your yard for nesting.


In this article
The female hummingbird does all the work!
The hummingbird nesting season overview
Placement of hummingbird nests
The materials and construction of hummingbird nests
Hummingbird eggs and nestlings
How to find hummingbird nests
How to attract hummingbirds to nest in your yard
Hummingbird house hoax
Protecting hummingbird nests


First, though, you must understand this important aspect of hummingbird nesting...

The female hummingbird does all the work!


In the bird world there are all sorts of parenting arrangements. For hummingbirds, though, the bejeweled male guards the flowers and fights over the feeder. His one purpose in life is combating the other males and looking marvelous. If the female selects him to fertilize her eggs, then he's done. He's served his purpose. That's the last they see of each other.

Some people wonder about the elaborate courtship flights of the males. The males do an aerial dance consisting of high flights, dives, and back-and-forth arcs flying maybe 100 feet across.

This makes some people wonder if mating actually takes place in flight. The answer is either no, or rarely. Most of the time copulation takes place while the female is sitting on a branch for the very brief (3-5 seconds) touch. There are reports, however, claiming to have observed in-flight copulation (by R. S. Woods in Bent's Life History of North American Birds in 1940). I can find no recent research on this subject.

After mating, the female flies off to start nesting while the male stays by the flowers and admires himself! Well,... okay, he continues guarding the feeding flowers, chasing off other males, and trying to attract other females to mate with him.

That means that, no, hummingbirds do not mate for life. They don't even stick together for the nesting season!

The female hummingbird builds the nest. The female sits on the eggs and incubates them. She feeds all the nestlings after they hatch.

The "father" hummingbird doesn't help build the nest. The male hummingbird does not sit on the nest to incubate the eggs. He does not help feed the chicks. He is nowhere around!


Photo of female Anna's Hummingbird on a nest
Anna's Hummingbird on nest
Photo by Greg Gillson

The hummingbird nesting season overview


The nesting season for hummingbirds depends upon the species. I'll consider a few that nest in the United States.

For year-round residents, such as the Anna's Hummingbird on the West Coast, breeding season may start as early as October and continue through August. It is not unusual to have nests with eggs in December and January! However, the main time for eggs is February through mid-May.

For migrant hummingbirds, males arrive on feeding territories 2-3 weeks before the females.

In the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, the common migratory hummingbird is the Rufous Hummingbird. It nests primarily from April to July.

Three days. About 3 days after the female Rufous Hummingbird arrives from Mexico to the breeding grounds she has bred with the male and starts nest construction (source). That's amazing!

In the East, the only nesting hummingbird is Ruby-throated Hummingbird. They have nests with eggs primarily between the months of March and July, depending upon how far north they live.

Hummingbirds typically raise 1-2 broods of young in a nesting season. Only rarely would a hummingbird lay eggs 3 times in a year.

Placement of hummingbird nests


Hummingbirds build their nests in bushes, vines, weed stalks, or in branches of trees. Allen's, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds often place their nests in conifers. The Blue-throated Hummingbird builds its nests on flowering plants and ferns. Other hummingbirds aren't as picky.

How high do hummingbirds build their nests? Here are some nest height ranges for a few species: 1-90 feet above ground (Allen's), 2-70 feet (Calliope), 5-20 feet (Ruby-throated), 5-50 (Rufous), 4-8 feet above the ground (Black-chinned), 1-9 feet (Costa's).

It seems hummingbirds will nest at any height above the ground they can find a good location. Perhaps the availability of tall trees for nesting limits the heights of some species. They do not nest on the ground itself, though often can be quite low.

Most hummingbirds build their nests so that they are well shaded.

Female hummingbirds defend the area around their nest vigorously from other hummingbirds--male and female alike. Thus, though I can find no information on this, I suspect that hummingbirds may not build their nest in a yard with active hummingbird feeders. (Now someone, please, prove me wrong! Let me know in the comments.)

It seems that most migrant hummingbirds return to the same area to nest every year. One question that many people ask is: Do hummingbirds reuse their nests? The nests are so fragile that they often barely last through one brood. Most hummingbirds build new nests each nesting attempt. It takes about 5 days for the hummingbird to build a nest. Some hummingbirds may build a new nest on whatever is left of the old nest, however. The Blue-throated Hummingbird is noted to reuse the same nest, with repairs, for several years in a row.


Watch this very short video that shows how a hummingbird builds her nest.



The materials and construction of hummingbird nests


Female hummingbirds will use whatever fluffy plant material she can find to build her nest.

Most hummingbirds use fluffy weed seed material such as thistle down to make their cup-like nests. Some species build their nest with bits of leaves, dried plant stems, moss, down feathers, or grass. Most species decorate or camouflage the outside of their nests with lichens and sometimes bark shreds. Hummingbirds use spider silk to bind the nest together to the branch!

Most hummingbirds make the nest by adding material and then trampling the middle down. Others build the floor first and then build up the walls in layers around them. It usually takes about 5 days for the mother hummingbird to construct the nest.

Different species place the nest in different parts of plants or branches. Nests can be built on the side of a twig or hanging from twigs. Most-frequently, hummingbirds place their nest like a saddle across a single horizontal branch. Other times they build their nest in a forked limb.

Sometimes hummingbirds build their nests in very unusual places! Rufous Hummingbirds have built nests inside sheds on knots of hanging rope and wires to electric lights! Blue-throated Hummingbirds may place their nests under eaves, bridges, and inside buildings. Anna's Hummingbirds sometimes place nests on cliffs and utility wires.

How big are these nests? You mean, how small are these nests? The larger Blue-throated Hummingbird builds a nest about 2-1/2 inches wide and 3 inches tall. That's pretty big for a hummingbird nest! The Broad-billed Hummingbird isn't much smaller, but builds a much tinier nest. It has an inside diameter of only 3/4 of an inch. The Black-chinned Hummingbird builds a nest only 1-1/2 inches across and 1 inch tall. The tiny Calliope Hummingbird builds a nest about the same size. The medium-sized Ruby-throated Hummingbird builds a tiny nest only 1 inch or 1-1/4 inches across in size.

These nests look like a little white knot or bulge on a branch. It could look as if some cotton fuzz is caught on the branch. Those with lichens on the outside are camouflaged so that they blend right into the branch. Nests may be easier to see if they are in a tree branch above you. They are often hidden under leaves from above. If they are in a small bush you may not see the nest unless you are doing some pruning and then, oh no! Such may happen pruning roses in January or February in the West when Anna's Hummingbirds may be nesting.

Hummingbird nest and eggs
Image by Astrid Zamora from Pixabay

Hummingbird eggs and nestlings


Many people have tried to describe just how small hummingbird eggs are. They say they are the size of small peas. One of the best descriptions of what a hummingbird nest with eggs looks like is this. A hummingbird nest with eggs is the size of a half walnut shell with 2 white tic-tac breath mints in them!

Most hummingbirds lay 2 eggs. They occasionally lay only 1 egg, very rarely are 3 eggs laid.

Hummingbird eggs are white and oblong. They are very small. The eggs of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Rufous Hummingbirds, and the Anna's Hummingbirds all measure about 0.55 inches (1.3 cm) long and 0.3 inches (0.8 cm) wide. The eggs of Calliope Hummingbird are a bit shorter.

Mother hummingbirds incubate their eggs in the nest from 15-18 days until they hatch.

Hatchlings are born naked with eyes closed. They have pointed but shorter beaks. At first they seem so tiny, fragile and helpless that it is amazing they can even raise their heads to beg for food. They grow fast though! Remember, these little chicks hatched out of an egg the size of a small bean! They are incomprehensively tiny!

During this time the mother must feeder herself and her young. Hummingbirds must eat almost continuously during the day. But she must also find insects to regurgitate for her young all day, too. At night the hummingbirds sleep in the nest and do not eat.

Hummingbird chicks stay in the nest about 3 weeks. About 20-23 days after hatching the young birds fledge from the nest and fly away! Some hummingbird mothers feed their young outside the nest for a few days.

Photo of female Allen's Hummingbird in a bush
Female Allen's Hummingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson

How to find hummingbird nests


For most people, finding hummingbird nests is usually a matter of luck. It is rare to find one. But it takes work to find more than one! Did I say work? Really, it takes patience. In our distracted world patience is work!

It's hard to find most birds nests. The nest with eggs or young is so vulnerable to predators. So most birds, including hummingbirds, go to great lengths to hide their nests. Often, if a bird knows you are watching, they won't go near the nest.

Remember that female hummingbirds guard their nesting area. They attack all other hummingbirds in their territory and drive them out--male or female. This means that hummingbird nests are not usually near each other. So you might fortuitously find one nest in your yard. But you are unlikely to find another nearby.

To actively find hummingbird nests it is easier to find them being constructed than already built. Once built, it is easier to find hummingbird nests with chicks than eggs. Let me explain why.

Female hummingbirds take up to 5 days to build a nest. During this time they are searching for fluffy plant seeds and similar material. So they are investigating both fuzzy weeds and trees. Cottonwoods, aspens, poplars, willows, and others have fluffy seeds that hummingbirds will use in their nests.

If you look for hummingbirds in wood edges that include these tree species you may find female hummingbirds gathering up bills full of fluff. Then follow her back to where she is building her nest.

The female is quite active while building her nest. She is rearranging the plant fibers, trampling the center, flipping around to the other side. Lots of movement.

Once the eggs are laid, though, she sits tight on the nest, incubating the eggs. She sneaks off to eat every once in a while. But this is a quiet time at the nest. So it is hard to find hummingbird nests then. You are actually looking for the nest. The rest of the time you are looking for the mother hummingbird and following her movements back to the nest.

Once the eggs hatch the female hummingbird spends 3 hectic weeks feeding her hungry young. Especially as the chicks are older and larger do they demand more food. Mom is flying back and forth to the nest every couple minutes!

Like I said, if you want to find a hummingbird nest it will take patience!

How to attract hummingbirds to nest in your yard


Hummingbirds want lots of dense foliage to nest in. Hummingbirds may nest in your yard in rose bushes or other dense shrubs, especially with thorns, it seems.

Because nesting hummingbirds are so territorial, they probably won't nest in a yard with lots of other hummingbirds. You have to decide. Do you want to have several feeders with lots of hummingbirds buzzing about? Or do you want a quiet retreat where one hummingbird can nest? You probably can't have both. At most, it would seem a single hummingbird feeder is allowable in a yard where a hummingbird can nest successfully.

You may be able to provide the fuzzy nesting materials for hummingbirds to build their nests. In this case, put out small bits of cotton fibers. Tear a cotton ball or batting into many small pieces. Hang these from a fence or other easily-seen location. It has to be easy for the hummingbird to take, but not blow away in the wind. How about putting cotton fiber shreds in an onion bag or clean suet feeder cage to hold the nesting materials?

Don't use drier lint to offer birds as nesting material! These artificial fibers aren't good and may contain residues of detergents and fabric softener chemicals.

Put out nesting material in early spring (March) and leave it out until about August.


Here is a hanger with nesting material in it. The reviews all say that nesting birds gathered the material--sparrows, chickadees, and others. There is a refill material too.




Hummingbird house hoax


Okay, there are lots of decorative little wooden or woven gourd-like nest box houses called "hummingbird houses" you can buy. Hummingbirds do not nest in cavities. There are no kind of enclosed houses that hummingbirds like to nest in. In fact, no birds will nest inside these little houses. These hummingbird houses do not work. These are ornamental knickknacks. Not sure what I'm talking about? Check out these knickknacks at Amazon (any photos showing birds using these houses are fake, they have been cut and pasted in).

The largest woven grass hummingbird houses, at 9x4x4 inches, are possibly large enough for House Wrens or House Finches. Maybe.

It's so sad. I read the online reviews. Everyone is so excited to receive their new hummingbird house. "Can't wait for the hummingbirds to come!"

They are still waiting.


There does appear to be one type of hummingbird nesting platform that does work. Duncraft sells one here (not an affiliate link). Here's a video of it.



It mimics a branch and attaches under the eaves of your house. Here strong winds are blocked and it is always in needed shade.

Still, I'm worried this Duncraft nest is too exposed. I fear that any jays or crows (or even house sparrows) that come along will find and eat the eggs or nestlings. If anyone has any experience with these, please leave a note in the comments. If it works, I'd like to be able to tell people. Thanks.

Protecting hummingbird nests


Sometimes hummingbirds may place their nests in a location that seems sure to fail. And it might. First time nesting birds often fail. But they do gain experience with subsequent nesting attempts.

Most hummingbird chicks do not live to adulthood. Think about it. Two eggs. Two broods per year. That is 4 young per year. Hummingbirds probably live an average of 4 years. One pair the first year leads to 6 birds in year two, that's 3 breeding pair. That's 12 eggs in year two. Plus the previous 6 birds is 9 breeding pairs. 36 eggs in year 3. Plus 18 previous birds. In year 4 the first pair dies. But if all eggs hatch and all grow up to breed in 4 years they would have 52 descendants and lay over 100 eggs in year 4.

Obviously, this doesn't happen. If the population is stable it means that 2 offspring every 4 years live to adulthood and replace the original pair. On average. Less than that and they go extinct eventually. More than that they take over the world.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that most hummingbird nesting attempts fail to raise birds to adulthood. In hummingbirds that is one year old.

You can try to protect hummingbird nests. But realistically, many are going to fail. Be prepared.

It is hard to protect hummingbirds from nest predators. The predators include house cats, squirrels, rats, jays, crows, snakes. Keeping the nest hidden in a bush is the best protection. That's why hummingbird nests are often camouflaged with lichens and pieces of bark to match the branch.

One way birds reduce the risk of nest predators is to hatch the eggs and get the young fledged and out on their own as soon as possible. Many birds incubate for 2 weeks and have chicks in the nest 2 weeks and they are grown. Hummingbirds take longer, as we've already discussed. 2-1/2 weeks of incubation. 3 weeks of nestlings. Keeping the nest hidden is a priority.

But the biggest hummingbird nest predator is people. We often find nests when trimming bushes. Or, if we find a nest we keep checking up on it. This can stress the mother hummingbird. But it can also lead other predators to the nest if we trample a path or bend back a branch to see.

Our "love" for birds has led to laws to protect birds from us.

Hummingbirds, their feathers, their nests, and their eggs are protected by law, as with all other birds except starlings and house sparrows. As much as you are tempted to remove the cute little nests after the breeding season, don't do it.



You may like: Why won't hummingbirds come to my feeder?



Monday, May 11, 2020

What do American Goldfinches look like?

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are rather tiny songbirds common in summer in the mid and northern parts of the United States and southern Canada. In winter many of the northern birds migrate southward so that goldfinches can be found at backyard feeders throughout most of the U.S.

American Goldfinches are unique among similar finches in that they molt in both fall and spring into a different plumage for breeding than in winter. Females have a different appearance than males. And immature birds don't look exactly like the adults. So the identification of these wonderful birds is sometimes tricky.

This article discusses how you can identify American Goldfinches. We'll look at size, shape, and plumage coloration at various times of the year. Then we'll discuss their songs, calls, and flight style. And we'll discuss these finch's behavior to help you identify them quickly.

This article is a supplement to the main overview page on attracting American Goldfinches. That page leads to other in-depth articles on range and habitat, courtship and nesting, and diet and what to offer them at your feeder. I'll link to the overview page again at the end of this article.

Photo of male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage on a branch
Male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage
Photo by Greg Gillson

Goldfinch identification, in general


Goldfinches are similar to other finches in that they have plump bodies, a larger head on short neck, short notched tail, and conical bill for eating seeds.

Goldfinches are quite small. They usually travel in small flocks and are quite social. They twitter and sing and call constantly.

When they feed they are acrobatic, clinging and hanging at all angles to find and extract seeds from plants or feeders. They frequently feed on grass seeds and small flowering plants on the ground. But then they fly up onto fence lines or into small trees.

When flying, goldfinches have highly undulating flight. I'll discuss it on more detail below in a subsection under American Goldfinch identification.

There are 177 species in the finch family (Fringillidae). The genus Spinus includes 20 species of goldfinches, siskins, and serins. They are found primarily in North and South America, with some representatives in Europe, Asia, and north Africa. Similar birds include the European goldfinches, linnets, redpolls, and twite.

Photo of female American Goldfinch in breeding plumage on a wild rose bush
Female American Goldfinch in breeding plumage
Photo by Greg Gillson

American Goldfinch identification


American Goldfinches are about 5 inches long, bill tip to tail tip. Their wingspan is about 8-3/4 inches. All goldfinches are tiny birds. However, among the goldfinches in North America, these are slightly larger than the other species.

Plumage


Male American Goldfinches in breeding plumage have bright lemon yellow body plumage, including both the breast, belly, head, and back. Males have a black cap from the base of the bill to the top of the crown. The wings and tail are black edged with white. There are wide white wing bars. The rump and the under tail coverts are white. The bill and legs are pink. The eye is very dark.

Female American Goldfinches in breeding plumage are a bit duller than males, brightest on the throat. The breast and belly tends toward a tan coloration. The back is yellow brown. The wings and tail aren't as jet black as the males.

Photo of male American Goldfinch in non-breeding plumage on tree branch
Male American Goldfinch in non-breeding plumage
Photo by Greg Gillson
In winter both genders molt into an even duller non-breeding plumage. The body is tan above, dirty white below, with yellowish throat. The males black cap is not as sharply defined. The wing bars are still wide, but tend to yellow, especially the upper wing bar.

Photo of juvenile American Goldfinch on teasel stalk
Juvenile American Goldfinch
Photo by Greg Gillson
The fall juvenile birds are quite tan, just a hint of yellow on the throat. The black wings are widely edged with tan, or even cinnamon-buff, including the extensive wing bars.

Male American Goldfinches in California aren't as bright as other subspecies in breeding plumage. Many have some brownish feathers on their back, rather than all bright lemon yellow.

Flight Style


In flight, American Goldfinches appear small and round with a short neck. They have rather pointed wings and a short tail with a strong notch or fork.

Goldfinches have a strongly bounding or undulating up-and-down flight. Birds flap with a burst of 4-6 quick wingbeats and then a close-winged pause, repeated over and over. When flapping, their flight path rises sharply. During the pause, they fall. So when flying they have a lively up and down bouncing flight path.

Flocks are rather loose. So it is sometimes hard to locate birds flying overhead against the bright sky, even when they are giving their flight calls.


Here's a short video on identifying American Goldfinches.


Voice


What do American Goldfinches sound like? The scientific species name tristis means sad. One of the common calls the bird gives is a plaintive whistle followed by a short rising whistle: dear-me? Birds seem to give this as perhaps a contact call when in a flock. They always seem to be talking to each other with short chip and swee notes.

The flight call is a 4-part chipping. Older references render this call as per-chic-o-ree. However you may hear people refer to it as the potato chip call: po-ta-to-chip! The calls coincide with the flap-bound wing strokes of the undulating flight--one call for each bound.

The songs of American Goldfinches, given by the male, often from a hidden perch, is prolonged series of sweet chip and swee and ti-ti-ti notes, punctuated occasionally with the plaintive dear-me note. There isn't any obvious pattern to the notes and phrases. They are jumbled together and may last 30 seconds or longer.


Here is 30 seconds of an American Goldfinch singing.


Similar species


There are lots of yellow and black birds. Goldfinches are the smallest and most similar. So we'll discuss those first. Then we'll look at some other yellow and black birds that might be confusing at first.

Other goldfinches


Lesser Goldfinch


In the chaparral and dry oak woodlands of the West lives the Lesser Goldfinch. They are bright yellow below and green or black (Texas, New Mexico, Mexico) on the back. The wings are black with extensive white edges and wing bars. Males have a black forecrown. They are smaller even than American Goldfinches.

Lesser Goldfinches do not molt into a dull colored non-breeding plumage in winter as do American Goldfinches. They stay the same bright yellow year-round. Then, and when flying overhead, look for the bright yellow lower belly and under tail coverts on Lesser Goldfinch. Remember that the undertail coverts of American Goldfinches are white.

Lesser Goldfinches have white wing patches that show in flight.

Their songs and calls are similar to American Goldfinch. They also have undulating flight. So the under tail coverts and wing patches are the two important field marks for separating these two species.

Photo of male Lesser Goldfinch in willows
Male Lesser Goldfinch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Lawrence's Goldfinch


In the chaparral of California lives the gray Lawrence's Goldfinches. They are often found with Lesser Goldfinches. They are often found near streams or water in the dry lands. American Goldfinches like the wetter meadows.

Lawrence's Goldfinches are small and gray including the under tail coverts. They have yellow edges to the wing feathers that show in flight. Males have a black face. Males also have a bright yellow center to the breast. Some females show this, but many are much duller. Females then appear to be a small plain gray-brown bird with some yellow marks in the wing when they fly.

Photo of male Lawrence's Goldfinch on chain link fence
Male Lawrence's Goldfinch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Pine Siskin


The Pine Siskin is a small finch. At 5 inches in length it is the same size as an American Goldfinch. It has the same pudgy body, short neck, and notched tail. The bill is even thinner than the goldfinch, but still thick at the base.

Siskins are streaked brown on tan or pale. They have yellow markings in the wing that reveal a long yellow wing stripe in flight. The base of the tail feathers are also yellow. There is quite a bit of individual variation in how pale or dark the streaking is. Some birds are more yellowish or greenish, but still identifiable.

Photo of Pine Siksin on feeder
Pine Sisklin
Photo by Greg Gillson

Other species


There are several yellow and black birds that aren't goldfinches, or even finches at all.

Evening Grosbeak


Evening Grosbeaks are large and stocky finches with huge conical green bills. They have black wings with large white patches. Males are yellow with sooty head and breast and yellow eyebrow. Females are rather gray above and buff below. They are found in conifer forests in West, but descend into lowlands to eat maple and elm buds in spring. In the East are found in mixed woods in southern Canada and adjacent northern States.

Photo of male Evening Grosbeak on bird bath
Male Evening Grosbeak
Photo by Greg Gillson

Wilson's Warbler


There are several yellow warblers, some with black facial markings. Warblers are insect eaters with thin bills. Most glean through the forest canopy as single individuals or mated pairs. They often stay hidden in the foliage. They don't flock together (though might be concentrated in isolated trees during migration). They don't eat seeds at feeders.

The Wilson's Warbler is a bright yellow bird. The wings and tail are slightly gray or olive. They have a short thin bill. A beady black eye sits in the middle of the face. The male Wilsons' Warbler has a black cap. The black cap does not come forward to the base of the bill. The under tail coverts are bright yellow, unlike American Goldfinches.

Photo of male Wilson's Warbler in sapling
Male Wilson's Warbler
Photo by Greg Gillson
These are by no means the only yellow and black birds. I wrote a pictorial guide to such birds some time ago. For additional species similar to American Goldfinches, please see my article What birds are yellow and black?


Return to my Overview page on attracting American Goldfinches.

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