Thursday, January 30, 2020

The very best birding binoculars under $500

In January 2020 I found these binoculars to be the very best under $500. The specs are all excellent and the materials are all the very best. On paper, these are all very similar. So I've scoured the internet looking for accurate reviews to help guide you in making a purchasing decision.

The very best birding binoculars under $500 are these:

  • Vortex Viper HD 8x42
  • Hawke Frontier ED 8x42
  • Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 8x42
  • Zeiss Terra ED 8x42

  Summary: They are all good. I own and recommend the Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 8x42.  

  Check today's price at Adorama affiliate link

  Check for a deal on Amazon affiliate link


I also have found 4 binoculars in the $250 to $350 price range to recommend for birding.

  • Athlon Optics Midas G2 UHD 8x42
  • Bushnell Engage EDX 8x42
  • Barska WP Level ED 8x42
  • Celestron Trailseeker ED 8x42

Read on to learn why I do NOT recommend the best selling birding binocular!

Many of the binocular reviews I found online are outdated or just plain wrong.

A review from Bird Watchers Digest that ranks at position 2 in Google for "birding binoculars under $500" was written in 2003!

Most binocular articles are slanted toward general use or hunting.

Even if the articles have been updated, they often still have old specs. Many binocular models have been updated with the best ED glass and BaK-4 prisms in recent years.

Many models have also recently become unavailable, across manufacturers. So I have to wonder if there is a supply or trade problem.

The good thing, though, is that there are more binoculars than ever before with excellent glass and materials. You really do have a wide choice from many excellent manufacturers at all price ranges.

But this can make reaching a final decision more difficult and confusing. With any of the 8 here you will have no regrets.


Photo of Nikon Monarch 7 binocular
Cognitive bias says that since I recently bought
these Nikon Monarch 7 binoculars
I should say they are the very best.

What makes a good birding binocular?

Birders demand more from their optics than any other user group.

Bird watching binoculars must be sharp and bright, even in low-light conditions, such as dawn and dusk or deep woods. The color rendition must be perfect, edge-to-edge. They must handle any weather by being waterproof and fog proof. They must be rugged and stand up to handling that might be considered abusive by some.

Additionally, the field of view must be as wide as possible for scanning the horizon and quickly locating a distant bird flying overhead. They must have sufficient comfortable adjustment for eyeglass wearers. They must be lightweight for carrying in the field all day. They must focus down to birds in the bushes nearly at arm's length or at a window feeder without having to step back.

Notice that I didn't say that they should magnify an image as large as possible? If you want to magnify distant birds you want a spotting scope, not a more powerful binocular.

The best magnification for bird watching binoculars are full-sized 8x42. These have the ideal magnification and best light gathering ability for bird watching. They have the widest field of view, which I value above many other specs for bird watching binoculars. Read my article on why 8x42 binoculars are the ideal size for bird watching.

Bird watching binoculars near $500 are in the "best value" range. Paying more money above this price has less and less return. You can pay $2000+ and get binoculars that are only optically 5% better. You can pay $2000 and get binoculars that aren't any better at all than the $500 pairs. On the other hand, if "status symbol" binoculars are important to you, then you'll be willing to pay the higher amount.


What do you look for in a birding binocular?

Below is a table of specs that I look for with an optimal range and a minimum acceptable range. These are my desired specs; they may not be yours. After the table I'll talk about why I desire the optimal specs listed. There are hundreds of binocular models. Only a very few, at any price, do I consider optimal in all specs.


Desired Birding Binocular Specs
Specification Optimal Minimum acceptable
Magnification 8x 7x to 10x
Objective lens >40 mm >32 mm
Field of View 8x >420 ft @ 1000 yds >390 ft @ 1000 yds
Field of View 10x >350 ft @ 1000 yds >330 ft @ 1000 yds
Close focus <6 ft <10 ft
Exit pupil >5 mm >4 mm
Eye relief >17.5 mm >15.5 mm
Weight <24 oz <30 oz


Why? 8x almost always gives a larger field of view, closer focus, larger exit pupil, longer eye relief, and lighter weight than the 10x version of the same model binocular. These are all good things. They make finding and viewing birds easier and give a brighter, more crisply-focused image.

Eye relief is only important if you wear eyeglasses. These binoculars may last you 20 years. If you don't wear eyeglasses now, you will likely do so in 20 years! Longer is better, especially if the bridge of your nose sticks out farther than normal from the plane of your cornea. Did I just say you want longer eye relief for a big nose? Yes, I guess I did. However, larger eyeglass lenses also sit farther from your eyes, and will need more eye relief than smaller eyeglass lenses. This is a very important spec for me.

Close focus is for viewing close birds in the brush, hummingbirds at your window feeder, butterflies at your feet.

Wide field of view helps you more quickly locate birds. This is especially true for warblers hopping and flitting through the forest canopy or single swallows zigzagging high in the sky. It is necessary for scanning the horizon or doing a sea watch (where you spot birds by scanning with wide angle binoculars and then switch to a spotting scope when you've seen something). This is perhaps my most desired spec, all other things being equal.

The exit pupil of 5mm or above is simply the magnification divided into the objective lens size. Thus, 8x42 is 5.25, while 10x42 is 4.2. A spec for relative brightness is simply the exit pupil squared. So 8x42 has a relative brightness of 27.56 and a 10x42 binocular has a relative brightness of only 17.6. All this to tell you that in low light situations (dawn, dusk, forests, overcast) the 8x42 will be noticeably brighter and colorful. In full daylight in open country you will not see the difference.

Desired Birding Binocular Materials/Construction

Once you cross over $200 mark almost all binoculars will now be made with the very best materials. The rest of the cost is in how well and how much the manufacturer applies the materials and controls quality assurance.

All my recommendations for birding binoculars are the straight-barrel roof prism design. They are more rugged and easier to make waterproof. They are easier to align and keep in alignment. They don't have as good as depth-of-field as the zigzag Porro prism design. 

Roof prism binoculars are a bit more expensive at the low end of the price scale (you might get a better optical quality Porro prism for $300, but it might not be as rugged as a roof prism binocular at the same price). If your birding is going to be of birds out the window at your feeder, you might rather have a Porro prism binocular.

The best glass is extra low-dispersion (ED) glass. HD glass doesn't actually mean anything. It just sounds nice, like High Definition TV. Make sure all glass surfaces are "fully multi-coated."

The best prism material is BaK-4. They should be "phase coated." Dielectric mirror coatings on the prisms are better than silver coating.

Binoculars should have o-ring seals to keep out water and should withstand submersion in at least 3 feet (1 meter) of water for at least 10 minutes ("waterproof"). They should be filled with either nitrogen or argon inside to remove any water vapor and keep your binoculars from fogging on the inside ("fog proof"). Then you can take these out in rain or snow and be able to use them perfectly at all times.

The outer lenses are sometimes coated with a film that makes water bead up and run off, and keeps oil and dirt from sticking, and is scratch resistant.

Most birding binoculars now come with a soft rubber "armor" surface. That will enhance the ruggedness and, perhaps, provide some insulation to keep your hands warmer in cold weather?

The last thing to mention is the warranty. Most binoculars provide a repair or replacement for manufacturing defects for the life of the original buyer (or 25 years). That's as long as you still have proof of purchase ("limited lifetime warranty"). Some manufacturers have a lifetime "no fault" warranty. If you drop them off a cliff or drive off with them on the roof of your car and smash them or drive over them accidentally, they will be replaced. As long as they aren't lost or stolen, they will be replaced at no cost. Now that's standing behind your product!

For more information on binocular specs and materials, please see my birding binocular buying guide.


Best birding binoculars $400 to $500

There are four birding binoculars available at an online price of about $450-500. There is no additional competition until about $800, and these may still be better.


Model
Size
MSRP FOV @
1000 yds
Close
Focus
Exit
Pupil
Eye
Relief
Weight
Vortex Viper HD
8x42
$639 409 ft 6.5 ft 5.25 mm 18 mm 24.5 oz
Hawke Frontier ED
8x42
$519 426 ft 6.6 ft 5.25 mm 18 mm 24.4 oz
Nikon Monarch 7
8x42
$479 420 ft 8.2 ft 5.25 mm 17.1 mm 22.9 oz
Zeiss Terra ED
8x42
$449 410 ft 5.25 ft 5.25 mm 18 mm 25.6 oz

Specs and materials

Despite the manufacturers suggested retail price, Vortex Viper HD are consistently advertised online for under $475.

The Nikon Monarch 7 has wide field of view and light weight, but not enough so as to make it seriously better than the others. It weighs a bit less than the others but, again, probably not noticeable. The eye relief and close focus is adequate.

The Zeiss Terra ED has the closest focus. If butterflies and dragonflies are on your list of frequently-viewed wildlife, then getting 3 feet closer than the Nikons may be an important determining factor.

The Hawke Frontier ED has nearly optimal specs throughout.

There are no significant spec differences and no material differences that make any of these binoculars better or not. They are very similar. All the specs are good to optimum, with no short-comings. All use fully multi-coated ED glass and BaK-4 prisms with phase coatings and dielectric coatings. They are waterproof, fog proof, and have rubber armor.

Both the Vortex Viper and the Hawke Frontier come with the excellent "no fault" warranty that covers accidental damage. Zeiss and Nikon have a limited lifetime warranty against workmanship defects only.

I eliminated from consideration the Bushnell Forge 8x42 at $459, as it weighs over 30 ounces and also has close focus of 10 feet. The Vanguard Endeavor ED II 8x42 at $499 has only an average field of view at 377 feet and were tending toward the heavy side at 27 ounces.


Reviews

Last summer I purchased the Nikon Monarch 7 8x42 for myself. At the time I was mostly comparing with the Nikon Monarch 5 8x42. The real clincher for me was the difference in field of view: 420 feet for Monarch 7 versus only 330 feet for Monarch 5. That is a huge difference! For me it was worth the $200 price difference. That is the only real difference between those two binoculars, now that the Monarch 5 has been updated with ED glass. 

I found no chromatic aberration in the Monarch 7. There is some softness in focus at the very edge of the wide field. I'm very happy with my purchase. I replaced an old pair of Bushnell Legends 8x42 (the version before the great Legend L that recently went out of production). These were only 330 feet field of view and I wanted something better. Plus, I didn't heed the lens cleaning instructions and scratched away the lens coatings by using paper towels and my shirt tails to clean them! Lesson learned.

An Audubon buying guide from 2017 (audubon.org) selected the Zeiss Terra ED as its number one choice among several reviewers in the $200-$500 price range, with the Nikon Monarch 7 in second place. This same review selected the Vortex Viper as a clear winner in the $500-$1000 range. Though online they can be bought for the same under $500 price.

Best Binocular Review includes the Hawke Frontier in its list of best birding binoculars. This binocular won the 2019 "best birding binocular" award.

The Nikon Monarch 7 is listed in the Top 10 nature viewing binoculars by Optics4Birding, praising its extreme affordability and impressive image quality.

opticsreviewer.com names the Nikon Monarch 7 as the best binocular for 2019 in the $400-$799 range. Paul Johnson describes the wide field of view for Nikon Monarch 7 as giving a "picture window view." Indeed, that can be said for all 4 of these binoculars.

opticsreviewer.com then goes on to name the Zeiss Terra ED as the best birding binocular in the $300-$399 range, even though the manufacturers suggested retail price is $449, only $30 less than the Monarch 7. Elsewhere, Johnson declared the Zeiss Terra ED as preferable to the Nikon Monarch 5 ED, because of the focusing knob turns (1 rotation from close to infinity) and the wider field of view of the Zeiss.

Outdoor Gear Lab chose the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 as the Editor's Choice. "The only models that bested the Viper HD in our image quality testing were those that cost more than two thousand dollars." High praise. It received a score of 92 when compared to the 100 of the Swarovski EL 8.5x42 ($2954). The 10x Nikon Monarch 7 received a score of 87. But it has poor field of view, close focus, and eye relief compared to the 8x version. Still, a comparison point.

Conclusion for birding binoculars priced $400-$500

There is no clear winner among these 4 binoculars priced between $400 to $500. Nikon and Zeiss are perhaps better-known names in the United States. There are no bad choices here.

If you force me to choose one, then it is the Nikon Monarch 7 8x42. I have done a complete review of just the Monarch 7 here.

My second choice would be the Vortex Viper. The reviews are all good. Perhaps I am swayed by the typical $170 online savings that brings them well into this price range.


Check prices at these affiliate links (clicking these links will take you off my page):

Vortex Viper HD at Amazon
Vortex Viper HD at Adorama

Nikon Monarch 7 at Amazon
Nikon Monarch 7 at Adorama

Hawke Frontier ED at Amazon
Hawke Frontier ED at Adorama

Zeiss Terra ED at Amazon
Zeiss Terra ED at Adorama


Best birding binoculars $250 to $350

I have selected 4 birding binocular models to compare. I also added the Nikon Monarch 5 because it is a best selling birding binocular. But I think that the very narrow field of view should really eliminate it from contention as a birding binocular. [See the special note on Nikon 5 below.]


Model
Size
MSRP FOV @
1000 yds
Close
Focus
Exit
Pupil
Eye
Relief
Weight
Athlon Optics Midas G2
8x42 UHD
$361 426 ft 6.5 ft 5.25 mm 17.2 mm 23.3 oz
Bushnell Engage
8x42
$343 426 ft 6.0 ft 5.25 mm 19 mm 23.5 oz
Barska WP Level ED
8x42
$329 425 ft 6.0 ft 5.25 mm 17.5 mm 24.8 oz
Nikon Monarch 5
8x42
$279 330 ft 7.8 ft 5.25 mm 19.5 mm 20.8 oz
Celestron Trailseeker ED
8x42
$267 426 ft 6.5 ft 5.25 mm 17.2 mm 23.5 oz

Specs and materials

As you can see there are 4 binoculars that have superior field of view compared to the Nikon Monarch 5. The other specs are also optimum on all the other 4 brands.

The Bushnell Engage has excellent specs. It excels at eye relief for eyeglass wearers assuring that they don't lose any field of view while wearing their eyeglasses.

The Barska WP Level ED is the only one of these binoculars with an open bridge. Instead of a single closed bridge the Barska has a hinge near the focus knob and another small one near the end of the binoculars at the objective lens.

As with the more expensive range, all these binoculars have fully multi-coated ED glass, BaK-4 prisms with phase coatings and dielectric coatings. They are waterproof, fog proof, and have rubber armor.

Athlon Optics has a warranty for damage from normal use as well as workmanship. The others are limited lifetime warranties against workmanship defects only.

I do not consider here the Vortex Diamondback HD 8x42 as it has only average field of view (393 feet) and does not have ED glass. It is priced under $200. Two other binoculars well under $200 to consider are the Wingspan SkyView Ultra HD 8x42 and the Celestron Nature DX ED 8x42. Both of these do have ED glass and BaK-4 prisms.

I did not include the Wingspan Optics Thunderbird 8x42 at $279 as it is over 30 ounces in weight. The opticsreviewer.com praises the Carson 3D ED at $284 as the best birding binocular in the $200-$300 range. However, the narrow field of view at 341 feet and the poor 9.8 feet close focus, drop this out of contention as a good birding binocular for me.


A special note on Nikon Monarch 5 8x42

Nikon Monarch 5, the best selling birding binocular, is not a good choice as a birding binocular any more, in my opinion. The optical qualities are excellent. However, the field of view is much too narrow--like looking through a straw.

In about 2014 Nikon improved the Monarch 5 by adding ED glass and improved the optics over what it was. This was likely to compete with the Zeiss Terra ED. This was Zeiss's first venture into a low or mid-priced binocular, priced similarly at the time. As a result, according to opticsreviewer.com, the Monarch 5 became equal in optical quality to the Monarch 7, which sells for $200 more. The only substantial difference between the Nikon Monarch 5 and Monarch 7 (see my article) is that the Monarch 5 has a very narrow field of view (330 feet @ 1000 yards). The Monarch 7 has a very wide field of view (420 feet @ 1000 yards).

Field of view is very important to me in defining a birding binocular. If the field of view was even average on the Monarch 5, say, 375-390 feet, then the excellent optics of The Monarch 5 at such a low price would make the Monarch 7 perhaps unnecessary. As it is, the Monarch 5, though the best selling birding binocular, is NOT a worthy bird watching binocular because of its narrow field of view. There is now lots of competition in the around $300 price range, as the table above shows.


Reviews

At binocularsinsight.com he reviews and compares several binoculars, though none of the price/performance competitors directly. As expected, the Nikon 5 8x42 is clearer and brighter than the under $200 non-ED glass Vortex Diamondback. Likewise, the triply more expensive Vortex Viper is optically superior to the Vortex Diamondback. And the Celestron Trailseeker ED has better optical performance than the under $150 Celestron Nature DX. These fit with the maxim 'you get what you pay for' when the prices are significantly different. In general, up to at least $1000 with well-known manufacturers, the more you pay the better optical image you get.

Also at binocularsinsight.com he reviewed the Bushnell Engage 8x42 and was impressed with the sharp, clear, and "fantastic" contrast of this binocular. He noted this binocular seemed to have a brighter image than other "under $300" binoculars. That should include all the binoculars in our table of $250 to $350 binoculars, including the Nikon Monarch 5, which has always been praised for superior optics.

Wirecutter selects Athlon Optics Midas ED 8x42 as best birding binocular under $350.
https://thewirecutter.com/reviews/the-best-binoculars/

BBR (bestbinocularsreviews.com) had a favorable review of the Celestron Trailseeker ED. It praised the bright image in low light. Minimal chromatic aberration was noted. The image was sharp nearly edge-to-edge. It took 1.5 turns of the focus knob to reach from near to infinity. BBR prefers 1.0 turns.

Outdoor Gear Lab tested and compared 16 binoculars across all types and prices. Of note to our discussion is that the Athlon Midas 8x42 did not produce an image clarity as good as the Nikon Monarch 5 8x42. The brightness and construction quality were also rated a step below. In a separate review they received 72 out of 100 for various features as compared to Swarovski EL 8.5x42 ($2954). The focus knob was "finicky" in their review. For comparison purposes, the Monarch 5 8x42 received a score of 78.

Binoculars Guru noted slight chromatic aberration at the edge of the field of view on the Bushnell Engage. Clarity also diminishes somewhat at the edge.

Optics4birding found that the Barska Level ED is a worthy replacement for the out-of-business Eagle Optics Ranger ED, the "champion of the mid-$300 price range."


Conclusion for birding binoculars priced $250-$350

The Bushnell Engage seems to be the replacement for the wonderful Bushnell Legend L birding binocular. The Barska Level ED seems to be an equal replacement for the Eagle Optics Ranger ED. These would be my first two choices to buy as birding binoculars in this price range. The goal is to have as good of optical image quality as the Nikon Monarch 5, but with wider field of view.

I'm confused by the Athlon Midas ED reviews, perhaps because one model became unavailable recently and the new model (G2 UHD) is different? How can one reviewer call it the best binocular under $350 and other reviewers say it has poorer optical qualities than the Monarch 5?

I haven't seen the Celestron Trailseeker compared directly with any of these binoculars. But at the lower price point can't imagine it is as good as the Nikon 5. The Trailseeker is supposed to be optically better than the Celestron Nature DX. Yet one reviewer said to get the Nature DX at half the price of the Athlon, without recommending the Trailseeker. Lots of conflicting opinions.

Here's a review of the Celestron Trailseeker by BBR.


I'm going to keep my eyes open for further comparison reviews, but for now the Bushnell Engage and the Barska Level ED are my choices here. Again, these are all acceptable birding binoculars. Any of these are of better quality and optical performance than binoculars under $200. But these are not as good as the $400-500 binoculars in the top list.



Check prices at these affiliate links (clicking links will take you off my page):

Bushnell Engage EDX at Amazon
(Not currently available at Adorama)

Barska Level ED at Amazon
Barska Level ED at Adorama

Nikon Monarch 5 at Amazon
Nikon Monarch 5 at Adorama

Athlon Midas G2 UHD at Amazon
Athlon Midas G2 UHD at Adorama

Celestron Trailseeker ED at Amazon
Celestron Trailseeker ED at Adorama



Please read my in-depth Nikon Monarch 7 8x42 review.

If this price range is still a bit high for you, see my article on birding binoculars priced under $200

The binocular I recommend under $200 is the Celestron Nature DX ED 8x42. See my in-depth review.



Sunday, January 26, 2020

7 Secrets to feeding wild birds cheaply

Feeding wild birds is a very enjoyable pastime. It takes some time for birds to find feeders at some homes. Others have the opposite problem. Some home owners have so many birds at their feeders that it becomes expensive to keep feeding all of them!

If feeding birds has become too expensive for your budget and you are looking for cheaper alternatives, perhaps you will find help in my recent research that I present here.

Feed birds cheaply by offering inexpensive kitchen scraps and choosing carefully at the bird shop.

I also have recommendations for how you feed birds, not just what you feed them.


Photo of White-breasted Nuthatch at bird feeder
White-breasted Nuthatch at feeder
Image by GeorgiaLens from Pixabay

Feed wild birds more cheaply from your kitchen


What can you feed birds besides bird seed? Well, you may be throwing away potential bird food from your kitchen and not even knowing it!

Not all food that people eat is good for birds, but many foods are. 

Just remember, though, not too much at a time. Too much human food left out can attract raccoons, opossums, bears, rats or other pests. You should only feed birds the amount of kitchen scraps they eat in a single day.


Cheap bird feeding secret #1. Kitchen food scraps that birds can eat


The first thing that probably comes to mind when you think of feeding birds kitchen scraps is bread. Most birds will eat bread, some eagerly so. However, bread, while filling, is not nutritious. Birds who eat a diet high in bread become malnourished. So bread should only be an occasional snack for birds, not a daily routine.

What can you provide instead? You can try cooked rice. Pasta, cooked or raw, is eaten by birds. Break the pasta into more bite-sized pieces. Don't feed birds rice or pasta if it has been salted, or after you have added any sauce to it.

You can save bacon grease until you have enough to make your own suet. Save it in a small tin in the freezer. Add some seeds or nuts to it, or serve it plain. Place it in your suet cage. Bacon grease stays solid in the winter; it melts at 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

You can also make a suet-like peanut butter snack. Add a spoonful onto the bark of a tree to attract many birds.


Cheap bird feeding secret #2. Damaged fruit


Have you noticed that it's hard to find a store that sells oranges individually? You have to buy a whole net bag. And what do you find?

Most of the fruit is not ripe. You put it on your kitchen counter to ripen up for a few days. What happens? It never really gets ripe, but it goes soft on the bottom. Bird food!

Or you buy a cluster of grapes. When you wash them off for your kids you find that some are bruised or split. Rather than grind them up in the garbage disposal or saving them for the recycle pile, save them for the birds!

Bruised or soft fruit can be cut into slices. Then place on a tray feeder or impale them so larger birds like jays or crows don't fly off with them.

In the fall tree fruit often falls to the ground. Wasted. Gather some up and freeze it. Offer it a few slices at a time throughout the winter.

Oranges and apples are frequently mentioned as being favorites with birds. But grapes, raisins (soaked overnight in water to make them soft), and bruised bananas are also mentioned as being eaten by birds.

See my article: 10 Fruits you should be feeding backyard birds.


Cheap bird feeding secret #3. The last bite


I know you save table scraps for your dog, don't you? You can save the last bite of certain foods for your wild birds, too!

Apple cores. An orange slice. A couple of raisins. The last bite of your sandwich. A dry piece of bread or cheese. All these items are eaten by birds. Give them a try!


Feed wild birds more cheaply when purchasing from your local bird shop or online


You can save money by making more informed decisions when purchasing bird seed. The lowest price doesn't always mean the best value. If most birds won't eat your bird food, then a low price isn't a good deal, is it?


Cheap bird feeding secret #4. Say "no" to milo in your mixed bird seed


Very few birds eat milo. Milo is a very cheap seed. Up to three-quarters of the seeds in some cheap mixed bird seeds may be milo. Why?

Well, chicken scratch.

Milo is fed to chickens, along with cracked corn. It is thus very available to farmers. Chicken scratch makes cheap bird food to sell to unsuspecting customers. Are you fooled into buying the least pricey bag of bird seed to feed wild birds?

Quail, turkeys, and pheasants eat milo. So do Mourning Doves, Brown-headed Cowbirds, and House Sparrows. Other birds? Not so much.

Are these the birds you want to attract? Or do you want cardinals, grosbeaks, sparrows, juncos, goldfinches, chickadees, house finches, woodpeckers and more?

Look at the ingredient list of your mixed bird seed. Is milo the first ingredient? One of the first 3 ingredients? Buy another brand.

Does the bird seed contain cracked corn? Oats? Wheat? Chicken scratch! You want white proso millet and sunflower seeds.

Safflower? Some birds eat it, and most squirrels don't.

Pieces of peanuts? Sure.

But milo? No!

Look at the seed visible through the clear parts of the plastic bag. How many black oil sunflower seeds can you see? The darker the seed mixture, the more sunflower seeds there are, and the better birds will like it.

See my article on what kind of bird seeds attract the most birds.


Cheap bird feeding secret #5. Fill feeders with only one type of seed


Each species of bird has a food it prefers over all others.

If given a choice--such as at your bird feeder filled with a never-ending supply of mixed seed--the birds will pick through the seed looking for their favorite.

What do birds do with their "less favorite" seeds? They throw it out on the ground! That's right, birds toss seeds they don't want out of the feeder in order to find their favorite.

This seed waste may be eaten by other birds on the ground. Most of it will be waste, though, accumulating uneaten under the feeder. Or, worse, it may attract rodent pests, insects, or squirrels.

The secret to saving money on bird seed is to fill each feeder with a different single food item. That way only the birds that like that food will visit that feeder.

More of the food goes to birds that like that food, less to waste.

You can have a black-oil sunflower seed feeder, suet feeder, millet feeder, thistle feeder with Niger seed, hummingbird feeder.

Each feeder will attract it's own type of birds. The birds that eat at the feeder will not throw less desirable seeds on the ground.

Find more details in my article on setting up a bird feeding station.


Cheap bird feeding secret #6. Purchase hulled sunflower seeds in bulk without the shell


An article in Watching Backyard Birds stated that sunflower seeds are 35-40% waste by weight (source). That means that hulled sunflowers, also known as kernels or chips, may not be as expensive as it first appears.

Black oil sunflower seeds on Amazon are $1 to $2 per pound (cheaper if you buy larger quantities).
This 50 pound bag of Wagner's black oil sunflower seed was the lowest price I found on Amazon (check today's price).

The cheapest bulk 50 pound bag of hulled sunflowers I found (EazyGo coarse chips) was about $1.40 per pound on Amazon (check today's price).

What does this mean? At $1 per pound for the whole seeds, and 35% waste, that's 32.5 pounds of edible seed in a 50 pound bag. That's $1.50 per pound for the edible portion. In this case, the coarse hulled sunflower chips are actually less expensive!

If you buy smaller quantities it is less favorable. And medium-sized chips were more expensive. But there's no waste or mess with the sunflower chips.

If you have a choice between in-the-shell and chips, at the same weight, it is a better deal to buy the chips even if half again more expensive.


Cheap bird feeding secret #7. Feed only a limited amount of bird food each day

Birds will eat all day at your feeder if you provide food for them--even if they are not really hungry.

Note how much they eat from dawn to mid-morning. Only place that amount in your feeder about a half hour before sunset.

When they run out they'll go elsewhere. But they'll be back in the morning if you set them up on such a routine.

See my article on how often you should refill your bird feeder.


Don't forget water!


Birds need to drink water every day.

They need to bathe and thereby keep their feathers in good repair.

Birds will keep coming to your yard for water, even if you are out of bird food. And water is pretty cheap in most places!

You don't have to buy an expensive bird bath. Birds will drink and bathe in shallow pans or bowls.
I use the little saucers that catch water under ceramic flower pots.

Try some or all of these ideas to see how feeding birds can be done cheaply.

Enjoy!

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Where do hummingbirds migrate to?

Hummingbirds show up in spring, buzz around the yard for a few weeks, and are gone. Even if you live in an area where hummingbirds nest, the adult males disappear in mid-summer. Where did they come from? Where did they go? This article answers that question for 8 of the most widespread hummingbirds in the United States and Canada.

Where do hummingbirds migrate to?

Hummingbirds migrate to where the flowers are blooming so they can eat nectar and insects! For many hummingbirds that breed in the United States that means migrating to Mexico for the winter. Some of our western hummingbirds are resident, staying in the same place year-round. 

Let's follow 8 common and widespread North American hummingbird species throughout the year. Let's find out where they migrate to each season.

Where do Ruby-throated Hummingbirds migrate to?


Winter range: The winter range of Ruby-throated Hummingbird includes a very few birds from Florida to southern Texas. Primarily, though, the winter range is the entire south half of Mexico south through Central America to Costa Rica and Panama.

Spring migration: Birds leave their wintering grounds in January and begin moving north. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds start reaching the southern United States the first week of March. They reach the Northeast US in early April; the upper Midwest by late April. By early May they have reached Canada.

Males migrate separately from females and about 2 weeks ahead.

In spring migration many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds fly over 500 miles non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to reach the southeastern United States from Mexico. Birds depart the northern Yucatan and may reach landfall anywhere between Texas and Florida,... up to 18 hours later!

Summer breeding range: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the only nesting hummingbirds in the Eastern United States. In fact, they nest east of the 100th meridian in most of the United States and southern Canada to Prince Edward Island. The western edge of their range extends northward from eastern Texas to eastern North Dakota. The southern boundary for nesting is from eastern Texas all the way to Florida. They also extend a bit westward in southern Canada to central Alberta.

Breeding habitat: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are found in lowland gardens and woodland edges. They show a preference for stream borders. They do not handle cold weather as well as some of the hummingbird species found in the mountains of the West.

Fall migration: Adult males may start moving south in August. Immature birds lag behind and may remain in the United States until November. It seems many birds tend to migrate to Texas and follow the eastern coastal lands of Mexico south. Fewer birds fly across the Gulf of Mexico in fall than during the spring return migration.

Photo of male Rufous Hummingbird at feeder
Rufous Hummingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson

Where do Rufous Hummingbirds migrate to?


Winter range: Rufous Hummingbirds winter in southwestern Mexico south to the States of Guerrero and Veracruz. A very few also winter regularly in the southeastern US.

Spring migration: Males migrate a week or 2 ahead of the females. Males may arrive along the Oregon and Washington coast by mid-February. Rufous Hummingbirds reach Southeast Alaska by mid-April. They may not arrive in more interior and snow-bound mountains until May.

Summer breeding range: This is the most northerly-breeding hummingbird in the world. Rufous Hummingbirds nest in southern Alaska and southern Yukon south to southwestern Alberta and western Montana, northern and western Idaho and westward to southwestern Oregon.

Breeding habitat: These birds breed in openings in coniferous mountain forests, clearings, stream sides, lowland brushy areas.

Fall migration: Adult males disappear from breeding areas by July. Move up into the mountains and follow them southward in August. Females and immature Rufous Hummingbirds look similar to Allen's Hummingbird, so determining fall migration for them in California is more difficult without trapping. Wanders regularly to the coastal areas of the Southeastern United States, where they sometimes spend the winter.

Where do Black-chinned Hummingbirds migrate to?


Winter range: Most Black-chinned Hummingbirds winter in western Mexico from Sonora south to Guerrero. Rare in Gulf Coast States.

Spring migration: Black-chinned Hummingbirds migrate north into Arizona and Texas in early March, California in late March. They arrive in Colorado and eastern Washington in mid-April.

Summer breeding range: Black-chinned Hummingbirds breed from southern British Columbia southward through eastern Washington and Oregon, throughout California. They also nest from Idaho to Colorado and south into Texas. They breed across the entire width of extreme northern Mexico.

Breeding habitat: Black-chinned Hummingbirds are partial to dry oak woodlands, pinyon-juniper woodlands, and sycamore riparian zones.

Fall migration: Black-chinned Hummingbirds depart most of their breeding range by the last week of September. They depart Arizona by the end of October and Texas in November.

Where do Broad-tailed Hummingbirds migrate to?


Winter range: Broad-tailed Hummingbirds winter in central and southwestern Mexico. Some winter in coastal Texas.

Spring migration: By the first week of March Broad-tailed Hummingbirds have returned to Arizona and New Mexico. They arrive in Nevada and Utah in mid-March. They arrive in Colorado the 2nd week of April, Idaho in late April.

Summer breeding range: Broad-tailed Hummingbirds breed from southern Idaho and Wyoming south from Nevada to Colorado, then southward to northern Arizona, New Mexico, western Texas. These hummingbirds breed in the mountains of Mexico to Mexico City.

Breeding habitat: Broad-tailed Hummingbirds nest in dry mountain forests and aspen groves.

Fall migration: Broad-tailed Hummingbirds depart Idaho and Nevada in mid-September, Utah and Colorado in October, Arizona and New Mexico by mid-November.

Where do Calliope Hummingbirds migrate to?


Winter range: Calliope Hummingbirds winter in southwestern Mexico to Guerrero State. Some birds very rarely winter in the southeastern United States.

Spring migration: Calliope Hummingbirds migrate through Arizona (where they do not breed) starting in mid-March. Early birds reach Nevada in mid-March and Oregon in late March. The first spring migrants arrive in Idaho during the 1st week of April.

Summer breeding range: These birds nest from central British Columbia and southwestern Alberta, south through Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California to northern Baja California. Calliope Hummingbirds also nest in Idaho, western Montana, Utah and western Colorado.

Breeding habitat: Mountainous regions generally above 3500 feet of elevation. Breeds in riparian meadows and willow thickets.

Fall migration: Calliope Hummingbirds follow blooming mountain flowers southward. They migrate south through many areas where they do not breed. They depart Idaho and Nevada in late September. Some depart Oregon as late as mid-October. Birds migrate through Colorado primarily from July to the 3rd week September. Birds migrate through Arizona and New Mexico from mid-July to early October.

Photo of male Anna's Hummingbird on branch
Anna's Hummingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson

Anna's Hummingbird


Special case: A resident hummingbird, not migratory. Formerly (60+ years ago) restricted to California and northwestern Baja California. But it has been expanding its range since at least the 1970's by following hummingbird feeders and non-native flowering plants in the fall to establish new breeding outposts.

Winter range: As the breeding range, below, plus more of Baja California, southern Arizona, northern Sonora. Occasionally to New Mexico.

Spring migration: None, as it breeds in winter and very early spring (see below).

Summer breeding range: Anna's Hummingbirds nest (late December to March) in lowlands of California south to northwestern Baja California. They reach western and southern Nevada. Recently expanded to western Oregon, western Washington and southwestern British Columbia; also expanded into western and southern Arizona.

Breeding habitat: Anna's Hummingbirds live in residential and gardens in lowlands, oak and chaparral regions.

Fall migration: Even though Anna's Hummingbirds are primarily resident, some birds disperse eastward into the desert Southwest starting in May. They then make their way back in December, although some individuals stay to create a new breeding location.

Allen's Hummingbird


Special case: Allen's Hummingbirds are almost completely restricted to nesting on the California coast. The northern California population is migratory. The southern California population of Allen's Hummingbirds is non-migratory.

Winter range: The migratory form of Allen's Hummingbirds winter from northwestern Mexico to Sinaloa, centered around Mexico City.

Spring migration: Allen's Hummingbirds start noticeably increasing in numbers in southern California from January to March. Early Allen's Hummingbirds arrive in Oregon in mid-February.

Summer breeding range: The migratory form of Allen's Hummingbirds breed from southwestern Oregon (barely 35 miles into the state) south along the coast to Ventura County, California. There is a resident subspecies of Allen's Hummingbird found on islands off southern California and recently (last 30 years or so, and increasingly) on the mainland from Los Angeles to San Diego (first nesting 2001). They have become rather common the last 10 years or so in San Diego.

Breeding habitat: Allen's Hummingbirds breed in coastal chaparral and low riparian woodlands.

Fall migration: Allen's Hummingbirds completely depart their tiny breeding range in Oregon in August. Males leave in June. Female and immature Allen's Hummingbirds are identical to Rufous Hummingbirds of the same age except for tail feather measurements. Only adult males are easily identified by sight. Males of both species migrate south early in summer. Females and immatures seen in fall in California are mostly unidentified as to both species and as to whether they are late migrants or the resident Allen's. Winter female or immature birds in southern California are assumed to be Allen's, but Rufous will be migrating through for "spring" in late January.

Costa's Hummingbird


Special case: Generally nomadic in the desert Southwest, following blooming flowers, Costa's Hummingbirds in San Diego County of southwestern-most California nest in the interior low desert in early spring (February to April). They nest in coastal slope chaparral and coastal sage scrub from April to June. In summer and fall, then, they may migrate southward well into southwestern Mexico.

Winter range: At least a few Costa's Hummingbirds winter over most of their breeding range (see below), from southern California and southwestern Arizona, southward into southwestern Mexico. This is hard to determine, as late winter is the breeding season in the desert regions. So late summer and fall is the non-breeding season they may move.

Spring migration: Desert nesting birds in San Diego arrive on territory in December. Chaparral nesting birds in San Diego arrive in April.

Summer breeding range: Costa's Hummingbirds nest (February to June) from central California, southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, to southern Baja California including nearshore Islands from Santa Barbara southward. They also breed from southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico into Sonora and Sinaloa.

Breeding habitat: Costa's Hummingbirds are found in California chaparral habitat and Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. They nest in desert shrubs and cacti (palo verde and ocotillo).

Fall migration: In Anza-Borrego Desert (San Diego County) nesting birds depart the desert in June. Some Costa's Hummingbirds migrate southward into Mexico.


References


eBird. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (Accessed January 2020.) www.ebird.org

Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. Pete Dunne. 2006.

San Diego County Bird Atlas. Philip Unitt. 2004.

The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds. John K. Terres. 1980.

The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition. David Allen Sibley. 2014.

Check-list of North American Birds, 5th Edition. American Ornithological Union. 1957.



Read next: When to put out and take down your hummingbird feeders

Have you read? Steal your neighbor's hummingbirds!



Monday, January 20, 2020

Where do Red-breasted Nuthatches like to nest?

Red-breasted Nuthatches live in conifer woods primarily in the north and West. In winter some of the northernmost birds migrate south, irregularly in large numbers. Then they may show up out of place or at your feeder. If the habitat is right, they may even stay around to nest.

Have you seen Red-breasted Nuthatches at your backyard feeder and wondered where they nest? Do you wonder if you could convince them to stay for the summer if you offered some kind of birdhouse or nest box?

Red-breasted Nuthatches may rarely use a nest box that you provide. Usually, however, they prefer to excavate their own nest in a dead branch of a tree. They like to dig out a new nest cavity every year.

This page is a supplement to my overview of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. The overview page leads to other more in-depth pages on identification, food and diet, range and habitat, and back to this page on nesting and reproduction.

Photo of a fledgling Red-breasted Nuthatch on lichen-covered branch
A young fledgling Red-breasted Nuthatch recently out of the nest
Photo by Greg Gillson

Nesting habits and reproduction of Red-breasted Nuthatches


The nesting season for Red-breasted Nuthatches runs from May to July throughout most of their large range. But since some birds nest in Alaska, some in Arizona, some in the lowlands, and some in the mountains, the nesting season can often be extended beyond this. Even so, nesting behaviors are pretty much confined to the time period from late April into early August.

In spring the nesting habits include courtship behaviors to strengthen pair ponds. Then they begin excavating their nest. When the nest is complete they lay and incubate the eggs. Soon the eggs hatch and the busy parents are flying back and forth to the nest to feed their hungry young. It isn't long before the young leave the nest and soon the nesting season is over. Each of these steps are discussed below.

All nuthatches are monogamous and mate for life. The pair defends their territories from other nuthatches. They usually only produce one brood of young per year.

Courtship and mating


Courtship and pair interaction starts the breeding season. Most nuthatches only make nasal call notes and run these together, either more loudly or more rapidly, to form a song. However, the male Red-breasted Nuthatch also includes a soft musical song during courtship.

The male courts the female by singing and swaying motions, often with their back turned toward the females and their crown feathers raised. Pairs may also slowly fly together with fluttery wingbeats and glides.

Because the pair may remain together all year round, it is hard to discern exactly when courtship begins in the spring.

Nest building


Females start inspecting dead branches or taller rotten tree stumps for a suitable place to start excavating the nest. Usually the female does most of the work building the nest.

Red-breasted Nuthatches really like mature conifer forests because these contain larger dead trees and branches. On the other hand, they may seek openings in the trees where aspen trees grow along streams. Aspens have softer wood making it easier to excavate nest cavities.

Nest cavities are built anywhere from 5 to 40 feet high. The average height of the nests are about 15 feet above the ground.

The male sometimes helps the female excavate the nest. Frequently, though, the female does the work. Her mate may bring her food, though, while she works.

Red-breasted Nuthatches become very territorial and aggressive during the nest building time. They chase away any other Red-breasted Nuthatches from their territory. But they also chase away other hole-nesting birds that might compete with them for a good place to build a nest. They chase away White-breasted Nuthatches, House Wrens, and Downy Woodpeckers.

Red-breasted Nuthatches take quite a while to build their nests. One source says they take about 18 days to dig their nest. Another source says it takes 1 to 8 weeks to complete excavating their nests!

As an example of the time of year that Red-breasted Nuthatches excavate their nest I use the Breeding Bird Atlas results from Oregon and San Diego, California. Volunteers found these nuthatches building nests from April 18 to June 14 in Oregon. In San Diego County where these birds are rather rare in the mountains, volunteers looking for breeding evidence found a Red-breasted Nuthatch excavating a nest on May 23.

When the hole is completed the nuthatches line the bottom of the cavity with mosses, grass, strips of bark, feathers, and other plant material. They may even steal nesting material from the nests of other hole nesting birds such as chickadees!

An interesting behavior is that Red-breasted Nuthatches smear pine pitch around the entrance hole of their nest. They may use their bill to do this. Sometimes they may use a piece of bark to spread the conifer pitch around. Thus, if you find a small hole in a dead tree with pitch around the entrance in spring, it is likely an active Red-breasted Nuthatch nest.

The pitch around the nest hole may keep other predators and insects away. The nuthatches avoid the sticky pitch by flying straight into the nest hole, and not crawling into it from below.

Red-breasted Nuthatches prefer to dig new nest holes. But sometimes they may reuse a nest cavity from a previous year. They may also use old deserted nesting cavities of smaller woodpeckers.

You can encourage Red-breasted Nuthatches to nest in your backyard by planting conifers, especially pines. Don't cut down dead trees right away or eliminate dead branches completely. Keep them up as long as possible. Nuthatches may not nest in a dead tree until the bark has died and peeled off, and maybe the inside of the tree is softer with rot. Of course, if the tree presents a hazard, of if dead trees are not allowed by your city code, then you must cut them. But if you are able to have a "wild" edge to your yard, then allow dead trees and branches to persist for wildlife.

Nest boxes


If there are conifers around but not many dead trees or dead branches in which to dig their nests, then Red-breasted Nuthatches may rarely use artificial nest boxes, also called birdhouses.

If you want to build your own nest box, or look for one to purchase, the inside dimensions should be about 4 inches wide by 4 inches deep. The height should be about 9 inches high with an entry hole about 7 inches up from the bottom. Place about 1 inch of wood shavings on the floor of the nest box.

Hang your nest box 12-15 feed high in a tree or place on a tall pole. You may also place the nest box on the side of a building.

Most important, the entry hole size should be 1-1/4 inches in diameter. Any smaller and they can't get their rather large heads in the hole. Any bigger and the nest hole may be taken over by larger birds such as House Sparrows and bluebirds.

The entry hole size of 1-1/4 inches will also allow other small cavity-nesting birds to use the nest box. Other species that like that size entry hold include some Bewick's and House wrens, Mountain, Black-capped, and Chestnut-backed chickadees, Oak and Tufted titmouses, and even Prothonotary Warblers and White-breasted Nuthatches.

Even House Sparrows might wriggle their way into this size birdhouse. But to help keep other birds from enlarging the nest box entry hole, use a copper birdhouse portal. This metal guard screws onto the wooden nest box with an entry hole just the right size for the bird you want. I include this ad from Amazon to show you what it is.



If you are interested in buying a nest box, rather than making your own, this Stokes Wren & Chickadee nest box (ad below) has good dimensions. Remember, don't buy a nest box with a dowel perch on the front--this allows too many undesirable birds to get access (European Starlings and House Sparrows, for example).



In cold weather nuthatches, wrens, and chickadees may roost in nest boxes in winter. Usually, though, they will only use them for nesting.

Eggs


Throughout their range, Red-breasted Nuthatches lay eggs from April to June. The Oregon Breeding Bird Atlas determined that most eggs were laid in that state in May and June, judging by the 24 days before young birds leave the nest and are much easier to see.

A pair of nuthatches lays 2 to 8 eggs, though 5 to 6 eggs is typical. Eggs are white or creamy and speckled with reddish-brown spots. Eggs are about 0.6 to 0.7 inches long.

The female does most of the incubation, probably especially at night. The male brings food to the female. The incubation period is about 12 to 13 days.

Young--nestlings and fledglings


Birds hatch from eggs; they are not "born," as such. Young birds in the nest are not "babies." They are nestlings. When young birds leave the nest they are called fledglings.

When the egg hatches the nestling is naked (without any feathers) and helpless. This is called altricial. Human babies are also altricial, requiring long parental care. Birds are much faster, though.

The mother bird continues to be the primary parent that incubates the nestlings and keeps them warm. Both the father and mother feed the nestlings.

The young are fed mostly, or entirely, insects and spiders.

Nests with young were found on the Oregon Breeding Bird Atlas from June 7 to July 12.

Nestlings grow down and then some juvenile feathers before even leaving the nest. This is amazing, as young leave the nest only 18-21 days after hatching! The juvenile body feathers do not last long (weeks) before the young birds molt again into the formative plumage and appear very similar to adults. The Red-breasted Nuthatch in the photo at the top of the article is undergoing preformative molt. (Source: Molt in North American Birds. 2010. Steve N. G. Howell.)

Records of the Oregon Breeding Bird Atlas found fledglings outside the nest cavity and accompanied by their parents from June 14 to July 21. In San Diego County, fledglings were noted from May 31 to July 23.

Back to the Overview page for Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Where do Red-breasted Nuthatches live?

Red-breasted Nuthatches are favorite birds at many people's backyard feeders. Do they visit your yard regularly throughout the year or only in winter? Or perhaps they visit only irregularly? Or perhaps you've not seen this bird in your backyard yet?

This post discusses the habitat requirements and seasonal movements of these active little tree trunk climbers. In general, Red-breasted nuthatches live in conifer forests across Canada, the Northeastern United States, Appalachians, Alaska, and mountains of the West. In winter, the most northern populations move south. But the movements aren't consistent from year-to-year, depending upon the cone seed crop in northern forests.

This page is a supplement to my overview of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. The overview page leads to other more in-depth pages on identification, food and diet, nesting and reproduction, and back to this page on range and habitat.

Photo of a Red-breasted Nuthatch on top of Douglas-fir
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Range and seasonal movements of Red-breasted Nuthatch


First I'll discuss the geographical and regional distribution, both in the summer breeding season and in winter. Then I'll talk about the specific habitats these birds like and perhaps what trees you can plant in your yard to attract these birds someday.

Where do Red-breasted Nuthatches live in summer?


The breeding range of Red-breasted Nuthatches is generally in the north from southeast Alaska eastward across Canada to Newfoundland. They occur southward to California and eastward to southeastern Arizona, Colorado, to South Dakota and Michigan. From southern Ontario they breed through the Appalachian mountains to western North Carolina. They also breed south to New York and Connecticut.

That's the general range. I'll try to get more specific now. To get this list I looked at eBird records in June only during the years 2015-2019. The more specific I get, the more chance I have of missing something. And remember, some of the places where the nuthatches breed less commonly they may also not breed every year.

Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Northeast United States


Breed in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, in scattered places across Pennsylvania, and northern New Jersey.

Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Southeast United States


Breed in extreme northern Georgia. Breeds in western North Carolina. Breeds in eastern Tennessee. Breeds in western Virginia. Breeds in eastern West Virginia.

Does not breed regularly in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Deleware, Maryland, or South Carolina.

Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Midwest United States


Breed in northern Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, northern and northeastern Minnesota, widely scattered locations in North Dakota, and western South Dakota.

Does not breed regularly in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, or Indiana.

Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Rocky Mountains of the United States


Breed in western and southcentral Montana, northwestern and southeastern Wyoming, western Colorado, northern and southeastern Idaho, eastern Utah, and near Lake Tahoe in Nevada.

Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Southwest United States


Breed in high mountains in northcentral Arizona to southeastern Arizona. Breeds in mountains of northcentral New Mexico and scattered mountains to the south and southwest parts of the state.

Does not breed regularly in Oklahoma or Texas.

Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Pacific region of the United States


Breed in western, northeastern, and southeastern Washington State. Breeds in western and northeastern Oregon. Breeds in northern California south in coastal mountains to San Francisco, south in interior mountains to Bakersfield, then less commonly in high mountains south to San Diego.

Alaska


Breed from Kodiak and Denali to southeastern Alaska.

Canada


Breed in southern Yukon, British Columbia, southwestern Northwest Territories, central and southwestern Alberta, scattered locations in Saskatchewan, southern Manitoba, southern Ontario, southern Quebec, southeastern Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edwards Island, and St. Pierre and Miquelon.

Where do Red-breasted Nuthatches live in winter?


For the most part, Red-breasted Nuthatches live year-round in the same area in which they breed, as listed above.

However, the northernmost breeding Red-breasted Nuthatches in Canada migrate southward in winter. These include birds in northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario.

Fall migrants may start showing up in non-breeding areas in late July and continue into November. Then they stay in place for the winter. In spring some nuthatches start moving north again in mid-March, while others are still moving north in early June.

What is an "irruption" of Red-breasted Nuthatches?


An irruption describes an unusual migratory movement of a large number of birds well south of normal wintering areas. It is usually thought to be caused by a failure of food resources. In the north, that usually means that pine cone seed crops from several tree species failed across a wide region.

Several species of northern birds eat cone seeds. When these fail most, or all, of these species irrupt. Other species that may move south in winter at the same time as Red-breasted Nuthatches include Pine Siskins, Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, and sometimes others.

The distance that Red-breasted Nuthatches migrate south in winter is variable from year-to-year. In some winters large numbers of nuthatches move far to the south of the normal breeding range. In other years they don't migrate as far south, if at all, beyond the typical breeding range.

How far south do some birds go? In the winter of 2018-2019 Red-breasted Nuthatches were found all across the United States, except for peninsular Florida and extreme southern Texas. In the winter of 2016-2017 nuthatches moved into the Midwest and Southeast, but were sparse in the Rocky Mountains and Southwest. In the winter of 2015-2016 there wasn't a noticeable movement of Red-breasted Nuthatches to the south of the normal range, even though birds left the northernmost parts of the Canada breeding range.

The ecology of Red-breasted Nuthatches


Red-breasted Nuthatch habitats in the northern conifer forest


Red-breasted Nuthatches breed in the northern conifer forest biome. This is an area south or below tundra. It is also called the boreal forest or taiga. Winters are long, cold, and snowy.

Across most of Canada the habitat consists of conifer trees composed primarily of black spruce, white spruce, and larch. Balsam fir is more common eastward. (https://dendro.cnre.vt.edu/Forsite/ncfbiome.htm)

Red spruce and Fraser fir are the conifers in the Appalachians.

In the Great Lakes region the predominant tree species where Red-breasted Nuthatches live include white spruce, red spruce, and jack pine.

Red-breasted Nuthatch habitats in the temperate conifer forest


Red-breasted Nuthatches also live in the temperate conifer forest biome. These have warm summers and wet winters. It also includes mountainous forests where snow can be heavy.

In the narrow coastal zone in the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast Alaska the habitat includes conifer trees such as Sitka spruce, western hemlock, shore pine, western red-cedar, and yellow cedar.

Inland in British Columbia and Alberta the forest is primarily lodgepole pine and jack pine, with some black fir and white fir. The coastal forests of British Columbia are dominated by western hemlock, western red-cedar, and silver fir. Inland in southern British Columbia the northern Cascades begin and feature mountain hemlock, silver fir, and yellow cedar.

In western Washington and Oregon the primary conifers where Red-breasted Nuthatches live are western hemlock, western red-cedar, and Douglas-fir. In the Cascades the lower and wetter western-side forests of Douglas-fir and western hemlock give way at higher elevations to mountain hemlock, noble fir, subalpine fir, grand fir, and silver fir, with Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine at the summit. The drier eastern slope of the Cascades has lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine.

Coastal northern California includes the redwood forests with Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and Sitka spruce. In the Sierra-Nevada mountains ponderosa pine, Jeffery pine, sugar pine, incense cedar and white fir are common conifers where Red-breasted Nuthatches can be found.

In the Northern Rocky Mountains the conifers present include western hemlock, western red-cedar, and subalpine fir at lower altitudes, with some Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, western white pine, and larch. At higher elevations in the subalpine zone there are Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir.

Finally, Red-breasted Nuthatches live in Southern Rocky Mountain conifer forests. This forest is dominated by lodgepole pine. Engelmann spruce and Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir, and subalpine fir are also included.

Backyard trees to attract Red-breasted Nuthatches


As you can see, you can plant nearly any kind of fir, spruce, or pine in your yard to attract Red-breasted Nuthatches. Check with local nurseries to see what grows best in your area. Native trees will probably grow best. Pines are more open than the dense spruces and firs. Conifers tend to be slow growing, so don't expect to have a conifer forest sprout up right away!

By the time a conifer is 8-12 years old it should be old enough to be attractive to Red-breasted Nuthatches if there are any in your neighborhood. Start now!

What niche does the Red-breasted Nuthatch fill?


Red-breasted Nuthatches search for bark beetles and similar insects on the trunk and branches of conifers. They don't stay exclusively on the bark--sometimes working out on the needles, or even flycatching. But certainly the majority of their foraging time is spent diligently searching each crevice in the bark. In this foraging style they are competing directly with the Brown Creeper and various woodpeckers including, especially, the Hairy Woodpecker.

Uniquely, nuthatches are known for starting at the top of the tree and working their way down, head-first! This upside-down approach may help nuthatches find insects that are missed by the creeper and woodpeckers.

Back to the Overview page for Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

What do Red-breasted Nuthatches look like?

Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) are small songbirds common in conifer forests of North America. They will frequent backyards and bird feeders in such habitats. Sometimes it only takes one pine tree to attract them to your yard from other conifers some distance away.

This page is a supplement to the overview page on attracting Red-breasted Nuthatches. The overview page links to more in-depth articles on foods and diet, range and habitat, nesting and reproduction, and back to this page on identification.

This page discusses the identification of Red-breasted Nuthatches. We'll look at size, shape, plumage coloration, flight style, and voice. Then we'll discuss several similar species.

Have you seen one? Well, what do they look like? To identify a Red-breasted Nuthatch, let's start with the generic nuthatch description.

Nuthatch identification, in general


Nuthatches are small and rather stocky, or pudgy. They have a large head stuck on the round body with barely any neck. The tail is short, stubby. Legs are fairly long for such a small bird. Their feet are large and strong with long claws. The bill is fairly long, chisel-shaped with sharp pointed tip.

The behavior of nuthatches is unique and also helps to identify them. Nuthatches jerkily hop along branches and the tree trunk. They crawl over (and under) branches in all directions. They frequently crawl head-first down the tree trunks!

There are about 29 species of nuthatches in the world. There are 4 nuthatch species in North America.

Photo of male Red-breasted Nuthatch on branch
Male Red-breasted Nuthatch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Red-breasted Nuthatch Identification


Red-breasted Nuthatches are about 4-1/2 inches long from bill tip to tail tip, as birds are measured. They have a wingspan of about 8 inches. They average about 9.9 grams in weight.

Plumage 


The color pattern of Red-breasted Nuthatches is as follows. Adults are blue-gray on their upper parts. The breast and belly is a rusty-pink. The face and throat is white. The crown is black. There is a broad white eyebrow stripe. There is a broad black stripe from the bill through the eye and back to the shoulder. The wings are plain dark gray. Wings are short and rather broad. The tail is dark gray with white patches on the outer feathers.

Looking at the photo of the male above, you can see the extensive rich cinnamon on the underparts. The black crown and line through the eye are dark glossy black. Not all birds are as bright and colorful as this bird in morning sun.

The female and young birds, below, are a bit paler overall. The crown and line through the eye are grayer, not so jet-black as the adult male. Notice also, that the underparts are soft pinkish-orange. The throat is more extensively white compared to the male.

Photo of female Red-breasted Nuthatch on fir bough
Female Red-breasted Nuthatch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Flight style


Flight is rather weak with a flap-bound flight style. The nuthatch flaps in a burst, then folds its wings next to the body for a brief pause. This is repeated and leads to an undulating or bounding flight.

Flight is slow, jerky, and does not usually travel very far. Birds may fly low, mid-level through the canopy, or at tree-top height.


Voice


What do Red-breasted Nuthatches sound like? When they are feeding and going about normal activities they are fairly quiet. Birds give soft chittering contact notes.

Calls are weak and nasal. The calls sound like yank, yank or enk, enk.

The song is similar to the calls, but louder, more oft repeated. It can be strong slower yank, yank, yank,... or more rapid enk-enk-enk-enk-enk….

Bird watchers may make pishing noises (soft shushing, squeaking, kissing, smacking noises) and whistles imitating small owl tooting. These often attract small songbirds. In the conifer woods perhaps no other bird responds so quickly and strongly to pishing as Red-breasted Nuthatches. They often respond with their yank calls immediately and fly in from some distance. They may be in the tree tops but come down to the ground level to examine and chatter at the intruder.

Similar species


Other nuthatches


Once you have identified a bird as a nuthatch by its shape and trunk clinging behavior, it is fairly easy to determine the exact species by what they look like and where they live.

White-breasted Nuthatch


Photo of White-breasted Nuthatch crawling on the underside of a branch
White-breasted Nuthatch, typical view
Photo by Greg Gillson
The White-breasted Nuthatch is an inch-and-a-quarter longer than Red-breasted Nuthatch. The face and entire underparts are bright gleaming white, except for some chestnut barring on the under tail coverts. The upper parts are a pale blue-gray. They have a black crown that extends to the back. The bill is fairly long.

White-breasted Nuthatches are more widely distributed across southern Canada and most of the United States and mountains of Mexico. Prefer mature deciduous trees, pine-oak woodlands.

Pygmy Nuthatch


Pygmy Nuthatches are a bit smaller than Red-breasted Nuthatches. Pygmies have a gray crown, white face and throat and are yellow-buff below. There is no black and white head pattern as with Red-breasted.

Pygmy Nuthatches forage in small or large flocks and are resident among the giant ponderosa pines of the West.

Brown-headed Nuthatch


Brown-headed Nuthatches are a bit smaller than Red-breasted Nuthatches. They are gray on the back, have a brown crown, and white face and throat, and are dull buff below. They lack the strong face pattern of the Red-breasted.

Brown-headed Nuthatches are resident in the Southeastern lowland pine forests, from Virginia to Texas. Red-breasted Nuthatches only occur in these areas during irregular winter invasions ("irruptions").

Other species


Use the tailless and neckless appearance of nuthatches along with their trunk and branch crawling behaviors to separate them from other types of birds. Frankly, they just don't look like anything else--their shape and behavior is unique.

Woodpeckers


Woodpeckers have rather long bodies that rest against the tree trunk as they climb up. They use their short, but stiff pointed, or wedge-shaped, tail as a prop against the tree trunk, unlike nuthatches. They tend to hitch their way up, never head first down the tree as nuthatches.

The most likely woodpecker to mistake for a nuthatch is the tiny black and white Downy Woodpecker. It is still bigger than a nuthatch though, at 6-3/4 inches long from bill tip to tail tip. They visit feeders across almost all of Canada and the United States.

Brown Creeper


Here is another small bird rarely found off the tree trunk. The Brown Creeper is brown streaked throughout, camouflaged. The only marks that make it stand out is the long curved bill. The tail is stiff and pointed and propped against the tree. These birds hop up the tree trunk from the ground to high up, spiraling around. Red-breasted Nuthatches and Brown Creepers may be found together in conifer woodlands, though creepers visit deciduous woods, too. Creepers do not visit feeders.

Chickadees


Chickadees are round balls of acrobatic fluff with big round heads and long tails. They have black crowns and a black bib on the chest. Their bills are short and stout. They spend most of their time in the outer tips of leaves, not on the trunk or heavy branches. They are very frequent feeder visitors.

Mountain Chickadees live in Western mountains and have a very thin white eyebrow stripe. These have rusty sides and might look similar to Red-breasted Nuthatch in a field book, but not in the field in real life--they act quite different.

Chestnut-backed Chickadees have rusty backs and sides. They live in the West.

Boreal Chickadees in Canada may be found in the same boreal forests as Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches are often found together. They have a similar range, though Black-capped Chickadees are more likely on the edge of conifers in more deciduous woods and open trees and lower elevations. Black-capped Chickadees are common feeder birds.

Wrens


Wrens are brush-dwellers and not seen on the trunks of trees. Wrens have longer thin bills slightly down curved. Most Wrens have long tails held up high over their back at a sharp angle. They often give themselves away by singing long musical trills and notes quite unlike nasal single calls of nuthatches.

Carolina Wrens in the East are brown above and orangish below with a white eyebrow. They could perhaps look alike in pictures. In real like, however, they do not live and feed in the same niches.

In the thickets and brush in the West lives the Bewick's Wren. It also has a white eyebrow stripe. It is dark brown above and white below with a long active tail.

Belted Kingfisher


Surprisingly, some people look through their field guide and think that a Belted Kingfisher may look like a nuthatch. The kingfisher is a large bird that flies up and down water courses and plunges head first into the water to feed on fish. Again, in real life a person would not make this identification error.

Black-and-white Warbler


Here's a surprise. This little black-and-white striped warbler crawls all over the branches and trunks of trees just like a nuthatch! How can you identify a Black-and-white Warbler? Well, it is warbler-shaped. What does that mean?

Warblers are small and rather round bodied with a medium-long tail. They have a medium-sized round head and long thin pointed bill. Their legs are thin and feet small. They don't look neckless and tailless as do nuthatches.

Juncos


Beginning feeder watchers may just get mixed up identifying their first birds. Dark-eyed Juncos are small fat sparrows with big round solid black or gray heads and short pointed pink bills. Their upper parts can be slate gray or brown, depending upon local variety. They flash white outer tail feathers as they fly low. As sparrows they spend most of their time on the ground feeding on small seeds, not on tree trunks looking for beetles in the bark.

Back to the Overview page for Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

What do Red-breasted Nuthatches like to eat?

Red-breasted Nuthatches are small birds that live in conifer forests of the north woods and West. In winter some of the northernmost birds migrate south, irregularly in large numbers. They visit backyard pine and spruce trees and frequent bird feeders where they eat black oil sunflower seeds, suet, and other bird foods. You may first note them as a tiny blue-gray bird with pale rusty breast crawling head-first down a tree trunk!

This page is a supplement to my overview of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. The overview page leads to other more in-depth pages on identification, range and habitat, nesting and reproduction, and back to this page on foods and diet.

Photo of a Red-breasted Nuthatch on a pine tree
Red-breasted Nuthatch head-first down the tree!
Photo by Greg Gillson

Diet and natural foods


Red-breasted Nuthatches primarily eat insects in summer. Beetles, wasps, crane flies, moths, caterpillars, and insect eggs are included in their diet. They also eat spiders, ants, weevils, and earwigs.

The young are fed mostly on insects and spiders.

The larvae of the spruce budworm eat the needles and buds of conifers. This has caused much damage to northern and western forests during outbreaks. Red-breasted Nuthatches are one of several birds that eat these larvae and probably the little brown adult moths, too. Several references note that birds and insect predators act as natural controls of the spruce budworm, but don't have much effect during massive outbreaks.

In winter, Red-breasted Nuthatches like to eat the seeds found in the cones of pine, spruce, fir and other conifers. But they can still find some arthropods such as bark beetles in the bark of trees. Other native nuts that they eat include acorns and beechnuts.

Conifer trees sometimes fail to produce a good cone crop. When there is a cone crop failure birds that feed on them move southward in large numbers. This is called an irruption (not to be confused with an eruption!). Frequently, several species of winter cone seed eaters irrupt together. Such birds can include Pine Siskins, Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatches and others. In normal years these birds winter in the same region where they breed. But in irruption years, they may be found hundreds of miles south of their normal summer range.

Red-breasted Nuthatches at the backyard feeder


Foods to attract Red-breasted Nuthatches


If there are conifers in your neighborhood, especially in your own backyard, you may have Red-breasted Nuthatches visit your feeder, especially in winter.

The favorite seed at your feeder to attract nuthatches is going to be black oil sunflower seeds. These nuthatches are going to fly up and take them away, one at a time, to open and eat, or to cache away for later. I'll tell you more about this when we discuss feeding behavior below.

In winter, Red-breasted Nuthatches are especially attracted to suet. This can be plain or with peanuts included within. With their strong feet and long toes they can hang on well to suet cages.

Speaking of peanuts, these little birds love peanuts! Offer them shelled, either whole or broken smaller. There are some bird foods that include tree nuts and peanuts that they'll love.

Nuthatches will also enjoy mealworms, especially in a mix with nuts and sunflower chips. (Amazon link to seed bell)

Red-breasted Nuthatches will love peanut butter, too. You can spread it on the bark of a tree or mix it with seed or corn meal and put it in pre-drilled holes in special feeders (Amazon link to peanut butter feeder) or DIY pine cone feeder.

What is the best feeder for Red-breasted Nuthatches?


Except for suet feeders, Red-breasted Nuthatches do not spend long on the feeder. They grab food and fly off. So there is no special "nuthatch feeder." Rather, nuthatches will visit any feeder offering black oil sunflower seeds and peanuts.

A metal mesh finch feeder offering black oil sunflower seeds will be easier for them to hang onto than one of the plastic-walled tube feeders. Tube feeders with trays on the bottom will be fine for them.

Red-breasted Nuthatches will visit a small hopper style bird feeder. These have trays to sit in.

Of course, these nuthatches will grab sunflower seeds from a larger platform feeder, too. It's just that the larger feeder is likely to have larger (and more) birds. Nuthatches are quite small and may be kept away by too many larger and perhaps more aggressive birds. However, Red-breasted Nuthatches have been known to hold their own against other small birds.

There are some peanut feeders that nuthatches would use. But these seem like they'd attract more squirrels and jays than smaller birds.

Feeding and foraging behavior


Red-breasted Nuthatches are active and jerky as they crawl up and down a tree. They aren't restricted to the trunk, however. They spend equally as much time investigating the bark on the branches for beetles. In fact, they may be seen acrobatically climbing on the outer needle clusters, as well. Occasionally, these birds may fly out to catch flying insects, too.

They forage singly or in pairs, unless you come across a family group with recent fledglings in summer.

In winter they join in a flock with other birds as they move through the forest, from tree-to-tree. It is rare, however, to see more than a couple of nuthatches in these foraging mixed flocks that have a core group of chickadees, and lesser numbers of kinglets, wrens, nuthatches, warblers, vireos, creepers, and downy woodpeckers.

These birds pry open the pine (or spruce or fir) cones with their bill in order to reach the seeds within.

When eating sunflower seeds at your feeder Red-breasted Nuthatches are very quick. They alight briefly, grab a sunflower seed, and immediately fly off to a tree branch to eat it.

Nuthatches cannot chew to open seeds as do sparrows, so the nuthatches take a seed and wedges it in a crevice in the bark. Then they use their bill to pound the seed or nut open to get the kernel inside. In fact, you might follow tapping in the woods thinking you will find a woodpecker, and have it turn out to be a nuthatch, instead.

Red-breasted Nuthatches sometimes cache food for winter. They store food to eat later. Rather than storing many seeds in one cache, these birds store individual seeds or nuts lodged into the bark of trees. They even cache away beetles! Usually, though, they cache pine seeds. There are reports of these nuthatches caching food on the ground and covering it.

Water


Red-breasted Nuthatches come to water to drink. As with most birds they are attracted to the sound of dripping water. They may be attracted to fountains and drippers and other artificial water sources, more so than a non-circulating bird bath.

Back to the Overview page for Red-breasted Nuthatch.

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