Monday, March 30, 2020

Where do House Finches live?

House Finches live year round in most areas where they occur. Their range today includes most of the United States and Mexico, barely reaching the southern border of Canada. This was not always the case. 80 years ago they didn't used to occur in the Eastern United States. How they got there is pretty interesting, as we'll talk about below.

Are there House Finches where you live? If you live in a town in the United States, then you probably have House Finches at your feeder. If you live in the rural areas of the West, then you, too, likely have House Finches visiting. In rural areas of the East, though, House Finches may be less common. Read on to see why this is so.

This page is a supplement to my overview page on attracting House Finches. The overview page leads to other in-depth pages on House Finches, including their identification, courtship and nesting, and diet and foods you can offer to attract them. I'll link back to that page again at the end of this article.

Photo of male and female House Finches on shepherd's hook
Male and female House Finches
Photo by Greg Gillson

Range and seasonal movements


As mentioned, House Finches are found across the United States. They are widespread in the West, in towns and country. In the East they are more confined to towns. They are absent from northernmost parts of the Northeast, much of central and southern Florida, and southern Louisiana. They are sparse in the Great Plains. More exact locations are listed below.

House Finches are resident for the most part, staying year round in the same areas. However, some of the birds in the northern part of their range in the Eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada partially migrate. This is interesting as these birds descended from non-migratory House Finches brought from southern California only 80 years ago! More on that below, too.

Where do House Finches live in summer?


I will now use eBird data to specifically look at where House Finches are found in June and July in the past 5 years (2015-2019). Then, farther down below I'll look at any differences in range for winter.

House Finches in the Northeast United States


House Finches are scarce in summer in northern parts of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, except in larger towns. They are regular in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

House Finches in the Southeast United States


House Finches are regular in the Southeast, except they are scarce in summer along the border of West Virginia and Kentucky. There are also few reported from the North Carolina border with South Carolina. House Finches are scarce in inland southern Georgia. In southern Florida House Finches are found primarily only along the beach towns south to Miami and Fort Myers.

House Finches are fairly common in summer in Tennessee, but restricted to larger towns in southwest Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

House Finches in the Midwest United States


Summer House Finches are common in the eastern half of the Midwest, but nearly absent in northern Michigan and Minnesota. They are regular in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.

House Finches are more scattered in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, where they are restricted to larger towns.

House Finches of the Rocky Mountains of the United States


House Finches are regular in summer in the Rocky Mountain states. They are common in Idaho, and Utah. They are more scattered and uncommon in the eastern portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. House Finches are quite scattered in Nevada, but occur in most towns.

House Finches of the Southwest United States


House Finches are common in Arizona, northern New Mexico, and the larger cities in central Texas. They are rather uncommon elsewhere in the region. They are quite sparse in Oklahoma.

House Finches of the Pacific region of the United States


House Finches are common summer birds in towns and countryside in Washington, Oregon, and California.

Alaska


There have been a couple of summer reports of House Finches in Anchorage the past 5 years, but nothing elsewhere. It should be considered a very rare visitor.

Canada


In summer, a few House Finches live in scattered towns in the southern parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Many live along the St. Lawrence River dividing Canada and the United States, including birds in Montreal and Quebec City in Quebec and then Toronto and Ottawa in Ontario. House Finches are found in the towns of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Saskatoon in Saskatchewan, and Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta. House Finches live across southern British Columbia north to Prince George.

Mexico

Frankly, there are fewer bird watchers in Mexico. So House Finches are unreported form many small towns in the interior and northern parts of Mexico. It appears from eBird data that House Finches are regular south to Oaxaca. There is also an isolated population in Chiapas in southern Mexico. They do not appear on the Yucatan and seem sparse or absent on the southwest coastal areas of Mexico.

Here's a very short video of a male House Finch in a tree, showing typical movements.


Where do House Finches live in winter?


I've looked for evidence of a southward movement of House Finches in winter in the eastern United States. I really don't see strong evidence of it in the eBird data. I don't see birds moving away from the northern edge of their range in winter. There does seem to be slightly more bird frequency density in the central parts of the Southeast (Tennessee and the Carolinas) in winter. But this could simply be more people feeding birds and recording them in winter than summer.

In the Rocky Mountain region birds in winter seem to be concentrated in towns and not so widespread. But that could be where people are concentrated in winter there, too.

Migration timing


I don't see evidence of migration in eBird data. But Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion (2006) says there is a movement of "somewhat migratory" birds in the East. Spring migration between February and April. Fall migration from October to early December.

The introduction of "Hollywood Finches" into the Eastern United States


This almost seems like an urban legend...

In 1940 an enterprising pet store began importing House Finches from California and selling them in New York as "Hollywood Finches." Of course, this was, as now, quite illegal.

Eventually, the illegal importation was discovered and brought to notice of the authorities. In order to avoid being "caught with the goods" the birds were released out the back door. There were evidently many 10's of thousands of birds imported, perhaps 100,000. Many of these were probably released into the wild.

Most imported birds were males, but a few females began breeding locally on Long Island, then Boston and other nearby areas. Eventually, they filled the entire country from southern Canada to the Mexican border, and from the Atlantic to the western lands where they ran into birds in their original range.

I have so many questions! Why did California finches released in New York spread across the country? The California birds seem content not to migrate or wander much. Or maybe they did as towns spread across the landscape during the century, following the roads. I don't know!

The Audubon Society has an entertaining account of this here.

Subspecies


There is (or was) a rare Mexican subspecies called McGregor's House Finch. It lived on Cedros Island and San Benito off Baja California. A painting of this form from 1930 by Rex Brasher is here. It was never common (up to 25 pairs). It evidently disappeared sometime between 1938 and 1960.

There are a couple other subspecies named from Mexico. They are probably not recognizable as different in the field from the widespread form in the United States.

A subspecies on Santa Barbara Island, California, has a bill that averages slightly larger than mainland forms. But a paper by Unitt in 2012 (source) seems to show this may not be a valid subspecies. Bill size seems to overlap with the mainland form.

The ecology of House Finches


House Finches are now strongly associated with human habitation, whether farms and ranches, towns and residential areas, and even strongly urban habitats. This has not always been the case.

House Finches, away from people and formerly historically, occur in dry habitats of the western United States, especially near water. They occur in low elevation forest edges and fields and in river bottoms.

House Finches in the desert biome


House Finches occur in a variety of dry habitats.

In the high desert of the Great Basin the plants include sagebrush and similar plants and juniper trees. They occur in canyonlands near streams. In 1940 the bird was found in the broad cattle ranches east of the Cascades in the Great Basin of Washington and Oregon. Nowadays, it is common in these areas and all the towns and residential areas on both sides of the Cascades below the mountain forests all the way to the ocean.

In drier southwest deserts House Finches are regular, especially around water. House Finches are a typical species of the Sonoran Desert. It is found in washes with paloverde and mesquite trees and cacti. In the Chihuahuan Desert the House Finches occur in mesquite and washes as well.

House Finches in the California chaparral (woodland/shrubland biome)


House Finches are common in the lower elevation chaparral hillsides of California. They also occur commonly in the oak-savannah grasslands. House Finches were perhaps most abundant historically in this native habitat.

House Finches in the urban biome


Today, House Finches are abundant residents in urban and suburban habitats--anywhere people live. They nest about homes and ranches everywhere, using artificial nest sites. This is true in the East and in the West.

Rather than any particular habitat, House Finches are most associated with human towns and residences, though less so at higher elevations.

Backyard trees and plants to attract House Finches?


It seems that the only thing needed to attract House Finches are buildings, bird feeders, and some open fields.

Some small fruit trees may provide a place of safety and something to eat. Other small trees in the yard can provide staging perches for birds to land in to approach feeders. Males like to sing from such trees. They can be deciduous or conifer.

What niche does the House Finch fill?


House Finches fill a similar niche as House Sparrows. They live near human residences and nest on ledges on buildings.

They feed quite a bit on the ground. They eat weed and other seeds, vegetable matter, and some human foods they find spilled.

They often alight in trees and are in flocks throughout the year.

The entire United States now have beautiful and happily singing "Hollywood Finches" right outside our doors. In fact, I can hear one singing right now....

Return to the Overview page on attracting House Finches.

Friday, March 27, 2020

What do House Finches like to eat?

House Finches are small songbirds found across the United States, extreme southern Canada, and into Mexico. They are grayish-brown and heavily streaked. The males have red foreheads, breast, and rump which the females lack.

These common birds are found in residential and urban backyards, as well as near water in arid regions of the West and Mexico.

House Finches are highly attracted to bird feeders where they eat a variety of seeds. Their favorite, though, is black oil sunflower seeds. Keep reading to see what else they like to eat and what kind of bird feeders they like. There is something else you can add to your yard to make the House Finches happy!

This page is a supplement to my overview page on Attracting House Finches to your backyard. When finished here, please go back to that overview page to find more information and links to other in-depth articles on the range and habitat of House Finches, identification and similar species, and courtship and nesting.

Photo of male House Finch eating sunflowers at a feeder
House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Diet and natural food


Throughout the year, about 86% of what House Finches eat is weed seeds, according to The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Thistles and dandelions seeds from fields and vacant lots are mentioned by most authors. Other seeds mentioned include wild mustard, knotweed, mulberry and poison oak.

In fall, House Finches like to eat fruit, too. It seems that they sometimes do damage to orchards. There they may eat peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries. Mulberries are a wild fruit they eat.

House Finches eat a very few insects. In fact, their vegetarian diet is so strong that they even feed seeds to their nestlings.

In spring, House Finches eat blossoms and buds from many varieties of plants.



House Finches at the backyard feeder


Foods to attract House Finches


House Finches will eat many varieties of bird seed. By far, though, House Finches love black oil sunflower seeds! They prefer it twice as much as striped sunflowers and hulled sunflower seeds. [See my article on what birdseed birds like best.]

Another seed House Finches really like is Niger seed. They will also eat safflower and white proso millet. You can buy a good quality mixed birdseed (lots of black oil sunflowers, little or no milo). You may try a "finch" blend that will contain sunflower seeds and Niger seed.

House Finches may eat corn, peanuts, and milo, but they don't like these nearly as well as the seeds above.

At your feeder you may try cut up fruits. Cherries are a favorite. You might try cutting up apples, peaches and nectarines, too.

House Finches eat suet occasionally and even bread crumbs.

Black oil sunflower seed is generally about $1 per pound in quantity. Here is a variety from Amazon that is of good quality and usually priced competitively.




What is the best bird feeder for House Finches?


House Finches aren't too picky about the kind of bird feeder that you use. They come equally well to platform, hopper, and tube feeders.

They may get less competition from other birds at the tube feeders, though. Here's a 16 inch tall tube feeder from Amazon that will hold up to 1 pound of sunflower seeds.





House Finches will readily come to window feeders. They are not as wary and skittish as some other feeder birds. If they get startled away, they will quickly return. Click here for a whole selection of window feeders from Amazon for you to choose from.

Feeding and foraging behavior


House Finches tend to travel around in small, loose flocks. Flocks in size of 5 to a dozen birds seem to be the most common. So when they come to the feeder it is usually as a group, not single birds.

They tend to be noisy and active at the feeder, calling and chirping and jumping around. They are a little bit flighty--but if chased from the feeder by another, they usually fly to another spot on the feeder or a nearby perch. Then they return immediately.

When eating, House Finches chew to open the seed husks. Then they use their tongues to remove the seed kernel and swallow it. They allow the seed husks just to fall out the sides of their mouths. This results in empty seed shells in the feeder tray or on the ground under the feeder. These should be cleaned away regularly.

House Finches regularly feed on the ground. They may clean up some of the spilled seed under the feeder. Usually, though, they feed from the feeder.

Photo of a male House Finch bathing in a bird bath
House Finch bathing
Photo by Greg Gillson

Water


House Finches really love to drink water. 

A 1956 paper (source) describes several experiments on House Finches in California and water consumption. At 39 degrees Celsius (102 degrees Fahrenheit) the birds drank and average of 40% of their body weight in a day. Amazingly, some birds drank 100% of their weight in water in a 24 hour period. The average water consumption at 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) was 20% of body weight. during this time they were feed only dry mixed bird seed.

Then those experimenters took away the water and birds survived for a week with no weight loss on dry seeds and succulent vegetables (celery tops, apples, and lettuce).

House Finches love to bathe, too. So you should provide shallow water for them to bathe in. They don't mind bathing in taller bird baths, or on the ground.

Here is a link to birdbaths on Amazon. Check out all the varieties here.


Back to the overview page on attracting House Finches to your backyard.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Attracting House Finches to your backyard

House Finches are widespread across the United States and Mexico. They are resident in many residential and urban areas. Thus they are likely to be a common visitor to your feeder if you live in the U.S.

House Finches woke me up this morning as they do many mornings. Just after dawn a small group of House Finches comes to our bird feeder. The bird feeder is hanging from the awning over our bedroom window. Yes, about 3 feet from my head! The little wiry chueep calls and fluttering of their wings as they tussle about the feeder wake me instantly.

Though they are rather streaky gray-brown and non-descript, the red head and breast of the males grab attention. Thus, this is one of the first birds that people learn to identify at their backyard feeders.

This page is an overview of House Finches. It will lead to more in-depth pages covering specific topics like identification, courtship and nesting, range and habitat, and diet and foods you can feed them.

Photo of Male House Finch on marble headstone
Male House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

House Finch overview


House Finches are small songbirds. As their name implies they are found commonly in residential areas across the United States. They build little stick nests in nooks and crannies of porches and out-buildings.

They readily come to bird feeders where they eat a variety of seeds. They like black oil sunflower seeds best of all.

House Finches are very attracted to water features. They will come to drink and bathe at your bird bath.

Identification


House Finches measure about 7-3/4 inches long from bill tip to tail tip. Their wingspan is about 10 inches.

These birds are fairly slim with a small round head and long tail that is square-ended or slightly notched. The bill is short and conical. The upper ridge of the bill is curved, rather than straight. The wings are short. That means that the tips do not project far beyond the rest of the wing when folded. The wing tips also do not extend very far down the tail when the bird is perched. In flight the birds appear to have short round wings and a long tail.

Females are rather gray-brown throughout. The head is rather overall dark and plain. The back is gray-brown with darker brown lines. The breast is dusky whitish with blurry gray-brown streaks extending in long lines to the flanks. The wing and tail are dark brown. But each wing secondary feather is individually edged narrowly with white. Two thin wing bars are likewise formed by the narrow white edges on the wing coverts.

Males are actually fairly similar to females. However the males show red forehead and eyebrow, throat and upper breast, and rump to varying degrees. Some males are bright, some quite muted. The red coloration varies from bright red or red-orange toward yellow-orange or rarely quite yellow.

The red forehead contrasting with the brown top of crown is a good first mark for separating male House Finches from similar Purple and Cassin's Finches. The striped white and brown flanks of the males are also distinct from the other red finches that have unstreaked flanks.

House Finches are often seen in small flocks of 5 to 15 birds. They frequently feed on the ground like sparrows. But unlike sparrows that dive into low cover, House Finches when disturbed fly up into the highest tips of trees or tall shrubs.

Both sexes call almost constantly as the flock stays in communication. The calls are thin chirps that rise slightly, sounding like queet or chueep or wheep.

Males sing a cheerful wiry warble without any strong pattern, but often end on a harsh note, a burry weeer. Pairs form in the spring as the flocks break up.

House Finches fly with a flap-bound style. They flap rapidly but inefficiently many times causing them to rise slightly, then they briefly pause by folding the wings against the body, causing their flight path to fall suddenly. This up-and-down flight path is not as strongly undulating as goldfinches. It's just a bit bouncy.

For more in-depth material on the identification of House Finches and telling them apart from similar species, please visit What do House Finches look like?

Range and habitat


House Finches occur from extreme southern Canada, across the entire United States, south through Mexico. They are absent from southern Florida, southern Louisiana, northern Maine, and high mountains of the West.

They are a resident species throughout most of their range. However the northernmost birds in the eastern United States and Canada are somewhat migratory.

The historical habitat of House Finches was dry open country, canyonlands, and even deserts in the western United States and Mexico, especially near water. However they are now additionally associated strongly with residential and urban yards. They are generally absent from higher dense conifer forests, unless there is a town.

If you live in a house in a town in the 48 contiguous states of the United States, you most likely have House Finches in your yard! They'll perch on scraggly trees, a fence, on your gutters, or on the ground or sidewalk. You don't have to plant anything special to draw them to your home.

For a more in-depth look at the range and habitat of House Finches, please read Where do House Finches live?

Diet


House Finches eat predominantly weed seeds such as thistles and dandelions. They eat fruit and buds. They eat very few insects.

Most seed eating birds feed their young insects. Not so House Finches. They feed their nestlings seeds such as dandelions.

Even though they feed primarily on the ground, they like the tube style feeders. To attract them to your yard feed them black oil sunflower seeds in a tube or hopper feeder. They will also eat Niger seed from thistle feeders, though not as readily as goldfinches. These are often marketed as "finch feeders."

House Finches are very attracted to water, too. So be sure to provide them with a bird bath.

For more information on the diet of House Finches see my more in-depth page. It discusses both natural foods and what you can feed them in your backyard. It also discusses the advantage of using different kinds of bird feeders to attract them. Please read my article What do House Finches like to eat?

Nesting and reproduction


House Finches are monogamous. They form new pairs every spring after the winter flocks break up. Both males and females sing, the male more forceful and frequent.

The female build the nest of grass, leaves, hair, and twigs. The nest is often in a cranny or on a ledge, rarely in a bird box. Some birds build nests in hanging potted plants, on top of a porch light, or similar situation. Most nests are built 5-7 feet off the ground, but with many exceptions from ground level to quite high.

House Finches usually lay 4-5 eggs per clutch. Eggs are pale blue and speckled. The mother incubates the eggs for 12-16 days. After the nestlings hatch the father House Finch joins the mother in feeding the young. The birds leave the nest, fledging after 11-19 days.

Once out of the nest the father continues to feed them for a week or so. In the mean time, the mother goes on to start another nest. The pair of House Finches will raise 3 batches of young birds. They will attempt new batches up to 6 times if the eggs or nestlings are destroyed or eaten by a predator.

For more in-depth information on courtship and nesting, please see my article Where do House Finches like to nest?



Fun facts about House Finches


The new scientific name of the House Finch is Haemorhous mexicana. Formerly it was known as Carpodacus mexicana. Carpodacus is the genus name of the Rosefinches. Rosefinches are an Old World genus composed of about 27 species. DNA analysis published in 2012 revealed the 3 red finches in the New World (House, Purple, and Cassin's finches) are not closely related to the others. Thus, these 3 received a new genus name, Haemorhous.

The old genus of House Finches, Carpodacus, translates to "fruit biter." The diet of House Finches is nearly entirely vegetarian. In some areas House Finches do damage to peaches, apricots, plums, cherries by eating them, living up to their "fruit biter" name.

The House Finch's new genus Haemorhous seems to mean "blood sumac," perhaps referring to the red color of the autumn leaves of the sumac tree.

The species name, mexicana, of course, refers to Mexico, where the first scientific specimen was obtained.

House Finches in the East are found nearly exclusively near human habitation. In the original range in the West and Mexico they are also widespread in desert, ranchlands and other areas.

House Finches in the original range in the West are mostly non-migratory. Many of the California birds released in Long Island, New York, in 1940 have since become migratory as they have expanded their range in the East!

An old vernacular name was Linnet, as House Finches reminded some people of the Old World finch the Linnet (linaria cannabina). Linnets are fond of flax seeds. Linen is made from flax. Linen. Linnet. Interesting!

In the 1940's large numbers of House Finches from California were captured and advertised for sale in New York as "Hollywood Finches." Of course, this was illegal. The birds were released into the wild where they have now spread throughout most of the eastern United States. This is exactly why capturing and transporting wild birds is illegal--to keep them from spreading to areas where they aren't native and harming local bird populations.

House Finches have been recorded to live over 10 years.

House Finches may successfully raise 3 broods in a single nesting season. If their nest fails, they may attempt to breed up to 6 times!

A group of House Finches has been called a "development" by some clever people. The collective noun for finches in general can be "a charm," "trembling," or "company" of finches.

The red color of House Finches is enhanced by carotenoids in their diet during the feather formation period of molt. House Finches introduced to Hawaii love the papaya plantations. Papaya, though, lacks carotenoids. So male House Finches in Hawaii are bright yellow, rather than red. I've seen yellow House Finches occasionally in Oregon and California (more often yellow-orange).

One House Finch was once found ensnared in a spider web!

House Finches roost together in a group at night to keep warm.

House Finches get an ugly disease called avian conjunctivitis. The tissue surrounding the eye swells and becomes runny or crusty. Yuck! About 50% of Eastern birds die from this when the infection works its way through the population on a regular basis. It also affects Western birds, but perhaps not as much.

References


Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Terres, John K. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Why won't hummingbirds come to my feeder?

Preview: Hosting hummingbirds in your yard is a joy. But sometimes they don't come. 

Here are 5 common reasons why hummingbirds don't come to your feeder:

  1. It is the wrong time of year
  2. You are using the wrong nectar recipe
  3. The feeders are in the wrong location
  4. The feeders are dirty or the nectar has spoiled
  5. Bees and ants have taken over the feeder



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

For years I have lived in areas where Anna's Hummingbirds are year-round residents. Despite this familiarity, I really enjoy seeing them at my feeders. I love to see hummingbirds zipping by! And not just Anna's.

Here at my feeder in San Diego County I regularly see Allen's too. Fall visitors at my feeder have included Costa's, Black-chinned, and Rufous.

But it hasn't always been so easy. At some places where I have lived, I had to work hard to attract hummingbirds. Any hummingbirds. So I know that feeling of wondering if I'm doing something wrong. Wondering...


Why won't hummingbirds come to my feeder?


Is there something wrong with your hummingbird feeder? We need to make sure we're not doing something that might drive hummingbirds away from our feeders. Our first topic, though, is about timing.


1. It is the wrong time of year


"Hummingbirds are here in the summer. How could this be the wrong time of year?"

Each hummingbird species is slightly different. But most of the long-distance migrants (Ruby-throated, Rufous, Black-chinned, etc.) follow the same basic pattern.

Male hummingbirds migrate out of Mexico and arrive on territory in the spring, 1-2 weeks before the females. It is still early spring, if not on the calendar, as far as the weather goes. There are only a few early blooming flowers and tree buds to provide nectar and insect food. Snow is still possible, or freezing temperatures at night.

These early males grab the best territories--a feeding territory. Feeding territories have flowers and bushes that will soon bloom. They have a tall perch or two to use as a sentinel post to drive out all other male hummingbirds from their domain. These territories are small. A territory may include a hummingbird feeder.

You might think that it would make more sense for the male hummingbirds to arrive later when the weather is better and more flowers are blooming. But by then the older experienced males have claimed the prime territories. If you want the best spot, you have to arrive early! Earlier than your rivals, but not so early you freeze or starve to death!

Once these territories are established the males stay in them until the flowers dry up.

If you don't make your yard enticing to the adult male hummingbirds when they first arrive in spring, that's it. They won't establish a feeding territory that includes your home. They won't visit your hummingbird feeders. By July, the males--who take no part in nesting duties or raising the young, return to Mexico.

Female hummingbirds arrive a couple of weeks after the males in spring. They find the areas with the most flowers. These prime areas will be ruled over by the dominant male. Breeding takes place.

The females then leave the male's territory to find a wooded area to build the nest, lay and incubate the eggs, and raise the young. All by herself. Away from the fighting males.

Females may build a nest in your wooded backyard or one with mature landscaping that provides bushes and shelter. That would be wonderful! If not, once the young hatch they will explore the neighborhood and perhaps find your feeder.

The young will then find hummingbird feeders that are reliably filled and stay there until late fall before heading back to Mexico for the winter.

The point is this: If you don't put out your hummingbird feeders before the first males arrive in spring, it is possible you won't get hummingbirds until the fall migration begins in July or August. And these won't be the bright males you were hoping for. By then you'll likely have given up.

Please see my article When to put out and take down your hummingbird feeders. This article lists the exact migration dates for each species in each state in the U.S. It tells you when to put out your feeders in the spring. It tells you when (or if) to take down your hummingbird feeders in the fall.


2. You are using the wrong nectar recipe


This is pretty simple. But some people want to make it complicated. Dissolve 1 scoop of white refined table sugar into 4 scoops of tap water. Fill your feeder.

Make no substitutions! All alterations of this formula are potentially harmful to hummingbirds. Anything you think is "healthier" or more "natural" is not for hummingbirds! Never feed honey to hummingbirds!

I usually use 1 cup sized scoops. This makes just less than 40 ounces of nectar. 

I fill my smaller 12 ounce hummingbird feeder. 

Then I place the extra nectar into two cleaned 16 ounce plastic water bottles with caps. I store them in my refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, refilling (and thoroughly cleaning) the feeder every 2-3 days when empty. Never "top off" your hummingbird feeders without washing them.

If you wish, you may buy expensive hummingbird food from the store. It will be this same recipe. The ingredients will say sucrose, 20%. That's table sugar. Avoid food coloring. Look for the clear nectar.

For more details on this subject, please see my in-depth article on making hummingbird nectar, entitled: Steal your neighbor's hummingbirds!



This video by Perky Pets has some suggestions for placing your feeder...



3. The feeders are in the wrong location


Usually it doesn't matter too much where you hang hummingbird feeders. Hummingbirds are very good at finding food sources. They are used to flowers blooming in one location for only a few days at a time. Then they search for a new location. Even on one plant they'll sample all the flowers until they find the one with the sugar content they want.

Likewise, once they find your feeder they'll keep coming back. In fact, if you move the feeders they may return repeatedly to where the feeder was!

But it is the matter of finding your feeders for the very first time.

In the spring you may want to place your feeder more in the open. You want hummingbirds migrating by to see them from far away. 

Hummingbird eyes are sensitive to red, pink, orange colors. Thus, in addition to the red on the hummingbird feeder, you may add other bright colored decorations or flowers to your yard.

Once hummingbirds find your feeders, you can then move them to a better location. Feeders ideally will receive early morning sun. Feeders should receive shade during the heat of the day and afternoon. This will make the nectar last longer without spoiling.

There are window mount feeders that hummingbirds will readily use. I've had those in the past. 

Right now mine is hanging out on the corner of the porch where the overhanging roof gives shade at noon and after. 

You can also hang them from shepherd hooks out in the middle of the yard, perhaps under a shade tree.

Hummingbirds like taller vegetation somewhat near the feeder for perching. 

Usually one dominant male bird will sit on an exposed perch and guard his hummingbird feeder from all interlopers. For this reason it can be good to have another feeder around the corner where the dominant male can't see both feeders at the same time. This will allow other hummingbirds to get a drink unmolested. [See my article: Get more hummingbirds with 2 or more feeders!]


4. The feeders are dirty or the nectar has spoiled


The sugar in the hummingbird food can easily spoil if left out in the sun too long.

Some people buy one large feeder so that they don't have to refill it as often. But I prefer several smaller feeders over one large one. The reason is that the nectar in the sun goes bad in about 3 days if uneaten. 

I want clean, healthy, hummingbird feeders. I want the hummingbirds to empty the feeder within 3 days. Then I clean them and refill. If necessary to accomplish this, I may not fill my feeder all the way--only what the birds eat in 3 days.

Cloudy hummingbird nectar is a sign of bacteria. Take down immediately! Dispose of the bad hummingbird food. 

Clean the feeders with detergent and water, bleach, or vinegar. As long as the feeders are rinsed thoroughly, any of these methods will work. If it is clean enough for you to drink out of, the hummingbirds should be fine. Some people claim that hummingbirds taste dish soap and won't feed. I've never noticed this to be the case. Use "dish detergent" and not actual "soap" as there is a difference. The detergent rinses completely away with water.

Warning! Most hummingbird feeders are NOT dishwasher safe!

You may notice black spots of mold inside your hummingbird feeder. This is hard to remove and grows back quickly. You will need to scrub your feeders with a bottle brush. 

I recommend feeders that have a large mouth and come apart completely, so are easier to clean. Check out the More Birds brand on Amazon following this link (Ruby, Garnet, and Diamond models).

It is easier to see if the nectar has gone bad if you do not use food coloring. Food coloring is at best unnecessary, and at worst perhaps unhealthy, for hummingbirds.


5. Bees and ants have taken over your feeders


Bees and ants also seek out the sugary sweetness of your hummingbird food. They can quickly foul the nectar when they crawl into it.

Bees are kept out of feeders by the feeder design. Those More Birds brands above keep the nectar away from the opening of the feeder port. Only the long tongues of the hummingbirds can reach down to the liquid. There are "bee guards" available for other feeder types.

Ant moats are fairly successful at keeping ants out of the feeder. The More Birds feeders linked above have built in ant moats, though they are quite small on the 10 ounce feeder. Amazon has many different kinds of ant moats.

Of course, if vegetation touches your feeder the ants will climb up that. So trim leaves away from your feeder if set up near such vegetation.


Gravity-feed style hummingbird feeders
drip and leak

The gravity-feed type feeders are notorious for dripping and leaking. Thus, sugar water collects on the ground under the feeder. Ants immediately follow. [By the way, I highly recommend the Terro Liquid Ant Bait (link to Amazon here) for eliminating ants indoors or under a covered patio. They gather a nightmarish amount of ants for 24-36 hours, take the poison back to feed the colony, then they're all dead.]




This article discusses some of the problems and things that might be wrong with your hummingbird feeder that keeps them from attracting hummingbirds.

In a future article I will discuss some more positive things you can do to get hummingbirds to come to your feeder. Here it is: Top 5 ways to get hummingbirds to come to your feeder!



Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Why won't birds use my bird bath?

You set up a beautiful new birdbath in your yard. But it's been a week and no birds have come. Why? Why won't birds come to your bird bath?

There are several reasons that birds won't come to a birdbath:

  1. The water in the bird bath is too deep
  2. The bird bath is too slippery
  3. The bird bath is too far from cover
  4. The water in the bird bath is too dirty
  5. The bird bath is too high
  6. The water in the bird bath is too warm
  7. The bird bath has no preening perches
  8. The bird bath has no staging perches
  9. The water in the bird bath is not moving or dripping

We'll take a look at the reasons birds aren't using your bird bath now. Then we'll discuss how you can get birds to use your bird bath.

[First, please forgive my apparently random use of the word "bird bath" and "birdbath" to describe the place where birds drink and wash. People spell it both ways about evenly. Thus, I have chosen to use both spellings in order for you to be better able to find this page no matter which word you typed into the search engine.]


Photo of a beautiful shiny black bird bath in a flower garden with purple flowers and moss-covered rocks
This is what most people have in mind when planning a birdbath
Image by Stephanie McLean from Pixabay

Look at the shiny new birdbath above, set in a picturesque flower garden. Beautiful. That's what most people imagine when they think about setting up a bird bath in their yard.

Unfortunately, though there is one bird using the birdbath in this photo, it will not attract a steady stream of birds all day.

Here's what the birds like:


This is what the birds like.
Image by LAWJR from Pixabay

Why would birds prefer the rusty old pan sitting on top of a rusty pail with a bunch of sticks leaning against it? Then it's even hanging on an old rusty water spigot. How tacky! But how perfect!

Let's examine why the first bird bath may impress the neighbors, but the second bird bath will be the one used by the birds.

What are the differences between the two bird baths above? Why don't birds like the pretty one as much?


Why don't birds like your birdbath?


1. The water in the birdbath is too deep


Birds naturally like to approach water and wade in. Thus, the ideal bird bath should start out very shallow. The small backyard birds we desire in our bird baths have rather short legs. The edge of the birdbath should be no more than 1/2 inch deep and get deeper gradually.

At most, bird baths for small birds should not be deeper than 2 inches. Most birds will not wade out that deep.

This does mean, though, that you will need to refill the bath regularly. But that's a good thing, as we'll see later down this list in item 4.


2. The bird bath is too slippery


No one likes to slip and fall. Not even birds. Birds like to have a rougher surface to stand on that they can grip well. In fact, many smaller birds have feet made to grip cylindrical branches rather than to hop on a flat surface.

Glazed birdbaths hold water, don't break if they freeze in the winter, and are easier to clean. But they are slippery when wet!

Deep and slippery is a bad combination! No wonder birds avoid those larger, deeper bird baths.


3. The bird bath is too far from cover


Would you like to take a bath out in the middle of the yard? Wait--don't answer that! Let me start again. Birds don't like to take baths out in the middle of the yard because it is too exposed. All the neighbors will see. In this case those neighbors include cats and bird-eating hawks!

While birds are bathing and splashing their inner eyelids automatically close to protect their eyes. During this time they are vulnerable to attack by predators because they aren't paying as much attention and can't see as well.

Additionally, with their feather plumage wet they can't fly as well, either. This adds to the danger of a bird bath.

Thus, birds may hesitate to use bird baths unless they are positioned just right.

Birds need a nearby safe place to flee for protection.

Cats and hawks present two different problems as far as where cover is located and how exposed the bird bath is.

Hawks swoop in quickly and are very maneuverable. They can easily pick off a small bird taking a bath out in the middle of the yard, far from cover. So birds need some bushes or shrubs nearby to flee into.

Cats present a different problem. They like to hide behind low dense cover, sneak up on their prey slowly, then pounce! Bathing birds need some nearby bushes or small trees into which to flee. But there can't be any low dense plants too near where the cats can hide and spring out to surprise the birds.


4. The water in the bird bath is too dirty


Dirty water is unhealthy for birds. Yes, birds drink from recent rain puddles that we may view as filthy. But it is the stagnant water that is the problem. Temporary rain puddles or refilling stream puddles are not stagnant.

Bird baths may gather leaves, bird droppings, algae, or harmful bacteria. If you simply add water when it gets low, you don't remove contaminates.

Thus, empty, clean, and refill your bird bath every 3 or 4 days. Scrub out the algae.

Emptying and refilling your bird bath twice a week will remove any mosquito larvae or other insects before they grow into flying adults.

Cement bird baths aren't slippery, but are a bit harder to clean compared to the glazed ones. Copper bird baths help slow algae growth.


5. The bird bath is too high


Think about it. Birds naturally seek out water to drink from the ground. Most birds seem to prefer bird baths at or near ground level. Lower is better.

Raised bird baths may have one advantage, though. They make it harder for cats to successfully launch an attack against a bathing bird. (But, they may make it easier for hawks to attack.)

You may like to read my article How high should a birdbath be?


6. The water in the bird bath is too warm


Keep bird baths in the shade if possible. This keeps the water cooler and may slow the growth of algae. Partial shade is okay. Perhaps situate the bird bath to get shade in the afternoon.

When seeking placement of the bird bath for shade, avoid placing the bath under a tree that sheds a lot of leaves. Leaves provide food for algae and other living organisms and can quickly foul the water.


7. The bird bath has no preening perches


When a bird is done with its bath it seeks out a nearby perch. Why? To shake out its feathers and preen. Birds preen by rearranging each feather, straightening it with its bill and tongue, removing dirt.

The preening perch may be down low to hide while performing this task. Alternatively, the bird may seek out a more exposed perch to fluff up and dry out with the sun's warming rays.


8. The bird bath has no staging perches


Birds will usually approach the bird bath cautiously. This is especially true when the bath is newly set up. A series of perches--branches or artificial--aids the bird on its approach.

Birds first fly to a perch near the bird bath. This may be up high where the bird can survey the area. The bird looks for any dangers. Then, cautiously, the bird flies to another perch slightly closer. Eventually the bird reaches the edge of the water.

Some people place these staging perches above the water. Better still, have a branch placed to lead right down into the water! Then the bird will have secure footing, as we discussed in item 2.

For an example of a low birdbath with a rock as staging perch, please see my article Why you should put stones in your bird bath.


9. The water in the bird bath is not moving or dripping


Nothing attracts birds to a bird bath like gurgling or dripping water! That is the main reason why the rusty bucket in the photo above is so desirable--a slow drip of water from the spigot. One drip every 5-10 seconds is enough. Kerplunk. Drip. Drip.

To conserve water, you might fill a one-gallon plastic jug with water. Poke a hole in the bottom to let water drip out very slowly into a shallow tray. This may last 2 hours, dripping very slowly.

What kind of creative, do-it-yourself dripper can you devise that hides the jug from view and looks attractive? Perhaps a clay saucer on the ground. A jug with small clear hose reaching above the water. The jug hidden behind some decorative bricks and flowers?

Of course, you can purchase a fountain that recycles the water. Most birds would like something that barely trickles, not gushes. But there are misters and drippers, too. They need to be cleaned and kept full, too. So they are even more work. But they are worth it if they attract far more birds!

You might even create a decorative pond with recycling stream or small waterfall. A bird bath can be as simple or complicated as you want!

Just remember that these recycling fountains require electricity from your home. Use a GFI plug for safety. You may try a solar powered fountain, but these only start working after a half hour of full sun. They likely won't work until a couple of hours after sunrise.




How do you get birds to use a bird bath?


As you have read, birds love water. They need it to drink every day. They need water to bathe regularly in order to keep their feathers in top shape for warmth and flight ability.

Birds will use a bird bath if you design it for them. But there is no reason for it not to be stylish and pretty, if you also add these necessary things:

Birds like plain and simple bird baths where they feel safe.

Bird baths shouldn't be too deep or slippery. Clay and cement are good, but can crack in freezing weather. Plastic bird baths are easier for birds to stand in than glazed.

You should keep bird baths clean. Drain, clean, refill every 3-4 days.

Provide staging perches leading to the bird bath. Try a rock or branch leading right into the water.
Birds like bird baths near the ground.

Position bird baths near cover for the birds to flee into and have a place to preen after their bath. But don't place a bird bath within 10 feet of a low dense bush where cats could hide and pounce.

Finally, think about adding a fountain or mister or dripper. The birds will really like this if it is not too strong of flow.

Perhaps you are thinking that you can't get style and beauty along with the requirements of the birds. That's okay. No one says you can only have one bird bath, right? Have one decorative bird bath out in the middle of your lawn or garden to impress the neighbors. Have a functional bird bath hidden off to the side to attract the birds! Create a bird bath that birds will actually use!

Monday, March 16, 2020

What do Northern Cardinals look like?

Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are medium-sized songbirds. The are common in woodlands and towns throughout the entire eastern United States. They are found west to South Dakota and Texas. They also live in the desert of Arizona and south through Mexico. They are common feeder birds where they occur.

This page is a supplement to the main page on attracting Northern Cardinals. That page leads to other in-depth pages on topics including where cardinals can be found and their habitat, their courtship and nesting, and what they eat in the wild and in backyard feeders.

This page discusses the identification of Northern Cardinals. We will look at the size and shape, plumage, songs and calls, and flight style of this bird.

Some people call any red bird a cardinal. So, we'll look at other similar species and how to tell them apart.

Photo of Male Northern Cardinal on metal bird feeder
Male Northern Cardinal
Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay

Cardinal identification, in general


Cardinals are medium-sized songbirds. They have full ample tails. Wings are short. The head is fairly large. The bill is very large and conical. The signature mark of both males and females is a large pointed crest of feathers on the hind crown.

Cardinals were recently removed from the family of finches and sparrows and put into their own family, the Cardinalidae.

Confusingly, some (but not all) birds with grosbeak, bunting, and tanager in their names are included in the cardinal family. The backyard birds in the United States that are in the cardinal family include Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, as well as Western, Summer, and Scarlet Tanagers. There are a few others too.

In many ways cardinals behave as sparrows. In fact, without it's crest, cardinals have the general shape of towhees.

There are 3 species of cardinals. The Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) we discuss here. In Columbia and Venezuela is a very similar all-red crested bird, the Vermilion Cardinal (Cardinalis phoeniceus). Finally, in the desert Southwest lives the Pyrrhuloxia (Cardinalis sinuatus).

Want some more confusion? There is a bird called the Red-crested Cardinal (Paroaria coronata) in South America. It is white and gray with a red crest and thick bill. This bird has been introduced into Hawaii and is very common there. It is in the true Tanager family, Thraupidae. According to scientists it is not closely related to the true cardinals.

Photo of female Northern Cardinal on branch
Female Northern Cardinal
Image by JackBulmer from Pixabay

Northern Cardinal identification


Northern Cardinals are about 8-3/4 inches long, bill tip to tail tip. The wing span is about 12 inches. They average about 45 grams in weight.

Plumage


Eastern males are deep red throughout with black feathers around the reddish bill. Some males are a bit duller colored. The crest can be raised and lowered at will. The photo of the male cardinal at the top of the page is typical of the adult.

Male Northern Cardinals in the Arizona desert are brighter red, perhaps a bit more orange-red than maroon-red. The crest is longer and thinner than eastern birds. The bill is more curved on the upper ridge (the culmen). Finally, there is less black above the bill and on the throat.

Females (see photo above) have the same crested cardinal shape. Their body feathers are grayish-olive, browner above. The wings and tail and crest are often edged in red. The bill is red. They show a hint of the male's black feather patch around the bill.

Adults keep their same color plumage year round. They don't have a different breeding and non-breeding plumage as some birds do.

Once young birds are fledged from the nest they have feathers similar in coloration to the female. Young birds, however, have a gray bill and less-developed crest to tell them apart.

Flight style


Cardinals have broad rounded wings and a long broad tail in flight. Flight is rather slow and direct. The flight path undulates up-and-down as the bird repeats several quick wing flaps with a brief close-winged pause.

Cardinals generally don't fly far at a time. When they fly they often stay low to the ground.

The red in the wing and tail of the female cardinal really shows up in flight. The male, of course, is shockingly red, flying or not.


Several song variations of male Northern Cardinals are on this short video.

Voice


You may wonder: "What do Northern Cardinals sound like?" Well, they give fairly loud repeated whistled phrases. The song isn't very complex. They repeat whistled whoit-whoit-whoit... or cheer-cheer-cheer... or birdy-birdy-birdy... calls strung together into songs. (Play the video above)

Both sexes sing, sometimes dueting.

They also give a high-pitched chip call, also interpreted as "teet" or "tik."

Similar species


Some people call any bright red bird a cardinal. Here are some other birds that might cause confusion.

Pyrrhuloxia

Photo of Pyrrhuloxia on rock wall
Pyrrhuloxia
CC by 2.0 uploaded by berichard
In the desert Southwest lives the "desert cardinal," the Pyrrhuloxia. It is a pale gray bird with red patches on crest, throat, chest, wings, and tail. The thick yellow bill is strongly curved on its upper ridge.

With a poor view, one may mistake a female Cardinal for a Pyrrhuloxia, or vice-versa.

Pyrrhuloxias and Northern Cardinals may be found together in Arizona, southern New Mexico, and southeastern Texas. The Pyrrhuloxia usually likes drier desert scrub; the Northern Cardinal riparian corridors and residential backyards.

Summer Tanager

Photo of male Summer Tanager in cottonwood tree
Summer Tanager
Photo by Greg Gillson
The male Summer Tanager is about the same size and color as a male cardinal. Tanagers have a slightly longer bill that isn't nearly as thick at the base. The Summer Tanager has a yellow or pale bill. Summer Tanagers have longer wings and shorter tail, giving them a different shape. They do not have crests.

Females are greenish yellow. First year male Summer Tanagers are similar to females but with large blotches or red on the body. They don't become all-red until they are 2 years old.

Summer Tanagers breed in the Southeast and Southwest United States. They migrate south in winter; a few may be found in southernmost Florida and Texas then.

Scarlet Tanager

Photo of male Scarlet Tanager in tree with yellow blooms
Scarlet Tanager
Public domain. USF&WS
Male Scarlet Tanagers are bright red with black wings and tail. Females and males in winter are greenish above, yellowish below, with dark wings and tail. They do not have crests.

Scarlet Tanagers breed in the Midwest, Northeast, and northern parts of the Southeast. They migrate south in winter completely out of the United States.

House Finch

Photo of male House Finch on twig
Male House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson
The House Finch is the common red-headed backyard feeder bird throughout the United States. They are much smaller than cardinals. Females are brownish striped. They spend more time in the trees than on the ground. They do not have crests.

Purple Finch is similar to House Finch and more confined to the northern conifer forests and towns in that habitat.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Photo of male Vermilion Flycatcher
Vermilion Flycatcher
Photo by Greg Gillson
This small but brilliantly red male flycatcher with black back, wings and tail does not feed on the ground. It sits in low tree branches or fence lines near water in the desert lands bordering Mexico. In winter it wanders a bit, but not too far north, California to Alabama. During this time it frequents baseball fields and golf courses.

It doesn't really have a crest, but it does have raised crown feathers above a thin black mask. The bill is short, flat, black. It sits with upright posture and flies out to grab flying insects, then returns to its perch. It does not hop on the ground. It does not eat seeds. It does not visit bird feeders.


Return to the Overview page on Northern Cardinals

Saturday, March 14, 2020

What do Northern Cardinals like to eat?

Northern Cardinals are medium-sized songbirds found in the eastern and southwestern United States. They are found in deciduous woodlands, riparian corridors, and deserts. In all regions they seek dense tangles and vines.

Cardinals are especially fond of suburban yards. Both the bright red males and olive brown females have a crest and large conical red bills. These bills are perfect for eating larger seeds at backyard feeders such as sunflower and safflower seeds that cardinals really like. Keep reading to learn what else that Northern Cardinals like to eat and how to attract them.

This page is a supplement to my overview page on attracting Northern Cardinals. That page leads to other more in-depth pages answering questions like Where do cardinals live? Where do they nest? How do you identify them?

Male Northern Cardinal at metal hummingbird feeder
Northern Cardinal
Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay

Diet and natural foods


Northern Cardinals eat insects in spring and summer. They eat a wide variety of insects. Beetles, spiders, termites, grasshoppers, caterpillars, cutworms, are just some of the arthropods that cardinals eat.

Northern Cardinals will eat many kinds of wild fruits and berries when they are ripe, summer through winter.

In winter, cardinals eat primarily seeds, including grass and weed seeds. They will eat tree nuts. They also eat waste grains such as rice, corn, and oats.

 In spring, cardinals also eat flower blossoms and buds of elm trees and other plants.


Wayne Peterson of the Massachusetts Audubon Society discusses what cardinals eat in this short video.



Northern Cardinals at the backyard feeder


Foods to attract Northern Cardinals


The colorful Northern Cardinals are easy to attract to your bird feeders. They really like suburban backyards that contain broadleaf trees, scattered conifers, and denser bushes and vines.

Cardinals like sunflowers. Since they have a larger stronger bill, they aren't as picky as some smaller sparrows and finches. They love black oil sunflower seeds, but also the larger eat striped sunflowers with their heavier shells.

Another seed that Northern Cardinals like are safflower seeds. Many birds that eat sunflower seeds will also eat safflower seeds. Given the choice, though, studies show that black oil sunflower seeds are preferred by all birds over safflower seeds. Nevertheless, cardinals find safflower seeds a close second. Thus, you can find "Cardinal Mix" bird seed that is a combination of sunflower and safflower seeds. Here's one:



The cardinal mix above contains black oil sunflower and safflower seeds. It also contains white proso millet--a favorite of most backyard seed eating birds--and cracked corn. Cardinals like cracked corn, more so than many other backyard birds.

Some backyard bird feeding enthusiasts put out safflower seeds only in a separate feeder for cardinals. This is because squirrels generally don't like safflower!

Of course, you can put out fruits and berries for cardinals, too. Apples slices are one fruit mentioned specifically that cardinals will eat.

Crushed peanuts are also mentioned by some as eaten by cardinals. Also suet, but small shreds rather than blocks. I'm not sure why this is so. Perhaps because many suet feeders are hard for cardinals to perch on? They do need a solid shelf on which to stand and feed.

What is the best bird feeder for Northern Cardinals?


Northern Cardinals naturally like to feed on the ground. Thus they like platform feeders and hopper feeders with ample ledges or trays to stand on. [See my article on different types of bird feeders.]

A platform feeder with safflower seeds spread out will allow cardinals to feed and will not attract squirrels! These can be placed quite low to the ground. In fact, you may scatter some safflower on the ground if you know you will be having cardinals visit.

If you feed a seed mix, or primarily sunflowers, you'll want to add squirrel baffles to your bird feeder pole or use a "squirrel-proof" feeder. That is, if you have squirrels in your yard.

The window bird feeder from Amazon below has excellent reviews. It allows for close-up views of cardinals and other birds. Once you have birds feeding regularly in your yard they will more quickly find and approach a window feeder. Once they are accustomed to seeing you through the window, they will gradually become less wary and flighty.

The squirrel resistant bird feeder from Amazon in the middle below has an adjustable trigger that closes the feeding ports when heavy squirrels (or Starlings) land on the perch. The feeder is rather large, so doesn't have to be refilled as frequently. It will need a sturdy mounting pole, though.

The fly-thru platform feeder from Amazon below has a screen bottom to help keep bird seed dry and rain will drain through. Cardinals will really like this feeder. so will sparrows, towhees, and other ground-feeding birds. Unfortunately, starlings, blackbirds, and jays may find this too easy to steal food from. So this might be a good feeder to stay with simply safflower, which other birds might not eat as readily.




Feeding and foraging behavior


Northern Cardinals normally feed on the ground. They hop along, searching for food. Sometimes they scratch at the ground or kick over leaves. They usually don't venture far from cover.

They will feed on the ground as described above, under your feeder, looking for any spilled seeds. But they will also fly up to your feeder if it is a platform or has a wide enough tray on it to feed comfortably.

In the feeder they usually sit still and "chew" their food. They manipulate the seed in their bill and crack it open. Then they use their tongue to remove the seed. They swallow the seed kernel and let the inedible shells fall out of their mouths. Other smaller nuthatches and chickadees will grab a single seed and fly off to pound it open on a convenient tree branch. Not so the cardinal. The cardinal will just sit there in the feeder and eat one seed after another, as will sparrows and finches.

In the spring and summer you may only have singleton cardinals and pairs coming to your feeder. During this time the pair can be highly territorial and drive off other cardinals. After the breeding season the young-of-the-year may hang around the feeders for a while. But the parents may drive them off as they raise another brood immediately after.

In winter, though, Northern Cardinals can form large friendly flocks of up to 50 birds! Do you have enough seed for that?!!! Perhaps you won't have that many birds at once, unless you live in the center of their range in the southern Midwest or northern Southeast.

Are you thinking that there are cardinals around but they just aren't coming to your feeder? Try looking again at dawn and dusk. Northern Cardinals will often be the first birds at your feeder in the morning. They may be the last birds to feed at night. This may be happening before sunrise and after sunset, but not in full darkness. They may be coming to your feeder when you're not expecting and not looking!

Water


Northern Cardinals love water! They both bathe and drink from bird baths. Dripping water, misters, or fountains really add to the appeal of bird baths for all birds, including cardinals.

Cardinals are larger than some other backyard feeder birds. So they will be at home in a larger and deeper bird bath. They may use the larger decorative baths that some of the smaller birds avoid.

Here is a larger clay one offered by Amazon. Best of all, it has a cardinal decoration on it!




Of course, being a ground feeder, cardinals would just as readily use a clay saucer on the ground.


Return to the overview page on attracting Northern Cardinals.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Where do Northern Cardinals live?

The bright red Northern Cardinals live year-round in woods and backyards. They do not migrate. They are found in the Eastern United States and the Southern and parts of the Southwestern United States. They barely reach the southeastern parts of Canada. They are found throughout much of Mexico and Central America.

Are there any cardinals where you live? If you are unsure, keep reading, because I list the locations in detail below. Then I tell about the particular habitats they like. If they live in your area, but don't visit your backyard, I tell you what plants you can add to your landscaping to attract them.

This page is a supplement to my Overview of Northern Cardinal. The overview page leads to more in-depth pages about cardinals: what they look like, what they eat, where they nest. I'll link back to that overview page again at the end of this article.

Photo of a Northern Cardinal on a branch in a snow storm
Northern Cardinal in the Northeastern U.S.
Image by tlparadis from Pixabay

Range and seasonal movements


Northern Cardinals are resident where they occur. They do not migrate, but stay in the same area all year long.

There is some dispersal by the young-of-the-year into nearby areas. The range is slowly expanding northward into southernmost Canada.

In general, Northern Cardinals are resident from Guatemala and Belize north throughout nearly all of Mexico. Then they live from Arizona eastward in eastern half of North America to southern Canada. They live in the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, and parts of the Southwest regions of the United States. More exact locations are listed below.

Where do Northern Cardinals live in summer and winter?


As mentioned, cardinals do not migrate. So they are found year-round wherever they occur. At the edge of their range single birds may show up every once in a while, perhaps almost every year, and stay around for a few months.

For the next lists of cardinals in different regions of the United States and Canada I have used data for the past 10 years from the website eBird.org.

Northern Cardinals in the Northeast United States


Northern Cardinals are very common in the Northeast. The only area where they are rare is in northern Maine. Otherwise they are found throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Northern Cardinals in the Southeast United States


Northern Cardinals are common throughout the Southeast. They occur widely in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida south to the Florida Keys.

Northern Cardinals in the Midwest United States


Northern Cardinals are found in Michigan and Wisconsin, increasing in abundance to the south.

In Minnesota the Northern Cardinal is pretty much absent in the boreal forest of the Northwoods, but increases until it is common in the southeast in the Twin Cities. Northern Cardinals are rather rare anywhere in North Dakota. Cardinals are found primarily in eastern South Dakota.

Cardinals are common and abundant in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

Most cardinals in Nebraska are found in the eastern half of the state. Northern Cardinals are common in Kansas, more so in the eastern half.

Northern Cardinals in the Rocky Mountains of the United States


Cardinals are very rare anywhere in this region, but may be found along the extreme eastern border of Colorado.

Northern Cardinals in the Southwest United States

Photo of a Northern Cardinal with Saguaro cactus and brush
Northern Cardinal in Arizona desert
Image by AZArtist from Pixabay
Northern Cardinals are found widely in the central (Prescott), southern (Phoenix), and southeastern (Tucson) parts of Arizona. They are much less common in New Mexico, being found along the Gila River in the southwestern part of the state near Arizona and in the southeastern parts (Carlsbad) near Texas.

Northern Cardinals are common and widespread throughout Texas. In Oklahoma, cardinals are fairly common, but less common in the northwestern panhandle.

Canada


Northern Cardinals are found in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick. They are found near Montreal in southern Quebec, and Toronto in southern Ontario. They are also found near Winnipeg in southern Manitoba. There are other scattered sightings in other areas of southern and southeastern Canada. However, most of the cardinals in Canada are in the large cities near the Great Lakes.

Subspecies


Currently there are 19 recognized subspecies of Northern Cardinals. They vary only very slightly in measurements and intensity of coloration. The differences are not of importance to most bird watchers.

Throughout most of the eastern United States is the nominate form, familiar to most people. There are two other forms in Texas. Another form is found in most of Florida. Several more forms, (also call subspecies) are found southward through Mexico to Belize and Guatemala.

The form found in Arizona has a taller crest, even larger bill, is brighter red, and has less black on the face. It is shown in the standard field guides for North America. [You can view the field guides on my Recommended Products page.]

This little video lasts 1-1/4 minutes and gives a quick description of where cardinals are found.


The ecology of Northern Cardinals



Northern Cardinal habitats in the eastern hardwood forests


Cardinals in the eastern United States live in the temperate deciduous biome (source). There are many divisions, as this is a large geographical area.

The dominant tree species are broad-leaved deciduous trees of about 30 different species. Two common trees in this biome include yellow buckeye, white basswood. They are found nearly throughout. Other common trees in this biome include American beech, sugar maple, and white oak. Dominant trees differ in the various divisions of the biome.

As for Northern Cardinals, they like all the forest types in the East. They are most common in habitats between woodland edges and grasslands. They need shrubs and thickets for nesting. They also like wooded streamside edges.

Pete Dunne, in his book Essential Field Guide Companion, emphasizes that the cardinal "thrives in suburbia" (emphasis his). Thus, you may look for cardinals in backyards and city parks.

Northern Cardinal habitats in the southwestern deserts


Surprisingly, Northern Cardinals are also found in the Arizona deserts. These are a different subspecies. They are brighter red and have a taller crest. For other differences see above under "subspecies."

But even though Phoenix, Arizona is so different from Columbus, Ohio, you may still find cardinals in backyards, gardens, and city parks in both states.

But then you may find Northern Cardinals in mesquite washes and desert river bottoms in Arizona. That's quite a difference from the snowy winter woods of upstate New York, or the swamplands of the Florida Keys.

Backyard trees and plants to attract Northern Cardinals


To make your yard more attractive to cardinals, plant trees and shrubs with thick foliage. Some evergreens will provide shelter in winter when deciduous trees lose their leaves.

Grape, clematis, dogwood, sumac, mulberry, hawthorn, rose, and blueberries are all mentioned as attracting cardinals.

The good thing about planting trees and shrubs to attract Northern Cardinals is that cardinals often stay low to the ground. Thus, trees don't have to be very tall before they are attractive to cardinals. The just need to provide thick shelter for the birds.

What niche does the Northern Cardinal fill?


Northern Cardinals feed on seeds, often on the ground under trees or bushes. So they may compete for seeds with sparrows. Their heavy bill will allow them to eat larger seeds with thicker shells than many sparrows. Their preference for woodlands, though, is different from many sparrows that like more open areas. Cardinals also eat fruit, grain, and weed seeds. They feed insects to their nestlings.

Cardinals may help distribute the seeds of trees in their forest, thus helping the forest to survive and expand.

Because they may spend much time on or near the ground, cardinals may fall prey to housecats.

Return to the Overview page on Northern Cardinals

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