Monday, June 29, 2020

Why do bird beaks have so many different shapes?

There are so many different types of beaks on birds. Why?

The different size and shapes of bird beaks, or bills, helps each bird species feed on different foods. Birds also use their bills as tools to hold and manipulate items as they don't have hands.

Below I have photos of birds and have designed a playful guessing game for you. I show you the bill of various birds and ask you to say what kind of household tools the bill reminds you of. Plus, at the end, I have a bonus photo that's really hard! Can you guess it?

Bird "hands" (their wing tips) are covered with feathers and lack fingers. Well, technically, birds have bones equivalent to a thumb and two fingers, but they are fused together into the wing bones. At your next barbeque with chicken wings, look at the outer pointed part covered in skin and no meat. That's the finger part. Be warned, though, that someone's going to tell you to "Stop playing with your food!" You could tell them that it is for science. But that reasoning might not always work.

Bill and beak are interchangeable terms. Beak is often used for shorter, curved, bills. Thus, bill is more all-encompassing. I will use the term "bill" for the most part. It is equivalent to our mouth, jaws, teeth (modern birds do not have teeth, though some prehistoric birds did have teeth). The nostrils of birds are set in the bill, too.

Bills are used for eating. Birds grasp food with the bill, whether animal or vegetable. Most birds swallow their food whole. Hawks will tear larger prey apart. Sparrows can move their bills (jaws) in a circular chewing motion that helps them remove the hulls from sunflower seeds to reach the meaty kernel inside.

Birds also use their bills for preening, like a comb to clean and straighten their feathers.

Birds also use their bills for singing, fighting, courtship, feeding young, building their nests. Let's see, what else? Delivering babies? Okay, fairy tale. Sorry to disillusion you. But they do carry out dirty diapers from the nest in the form of fecal sacs of the nestlings. Gulls carry clams up in the air and drop them on streets to break them open for food. I'm sure I'll think of more things as I continue with the photos below.

First, though, this image...

Image of tools and kitchen utensils

So, what do all these tools and kitchen utensils have to do with bird beaks? Everything!

Each kitchen utensil grabs and holds a different type of food. The spoon scoops up broth as a duck scoops up plants from the water. Lamellae act as a sieve on the bill of swans as a slotted spoon. I show a pliers because I didn't have a nutcracker to represent the seed eating bills of sparrows. I could have used a corkscrew, chisel, tweezers, and baster to represent other bill types. Perhaps you can think of others once you see the photos and examples below. All photos are by the author (that's me!), Greg Gillson.

This is going to be fun--let's play "name that bill" and similar kitchen utensil or tool! How many can you guess?

Photo of Northern Shoveler
Northern Shoveler
1) To get started we'll go with something easy. This duck is called a Northern Shoveler. It has a broad flat end to the bill. It swims forward through with its bill down in the water straining out tiny plants and water insects.

What kind of tool or utensil does this duck's bill remind you of? If you say a shovel, well you're wrong! Okay, no you're not. But a spoon is a good choice too! Did you think of spatula?

Photo of Long-billed Dowitcher
Long-billed Dowitcher
2) Long-billed Dowitchers grab worms and other invertebrates out of the mud with their very long and straight bills. What kitchen utensil does this remind you of? Yes, a straight tongs!

Many other shorebirds have straight bills like this, some long, some shorter. Examples include Wilson's Snipes and Willets.

Photo of a Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron
3) Great Blue Herons also have a long straight bill. Long means that the bill is longer than the head. Straight means the commissure is straight. Commissure, let's see, that's defined as the line along which the upper and lower bill halves (mandibles) close. Added bonus: I get to throw in some vocabulary words for you!

What tool or utensil does this bill remind you of? Well, herons stab their food, then toss the fish or mouse or frog or snake into the air and swallow it head first! So that bill is a dagger or spear tip!

You probably don't have many spear tips in your kitchen drawers, though. On second thought, we did when I was growing up. Well, in the garage. We lived in Minnesota and my father would do spear fishing on the ice in winter. Sometimes with a bow and arrow! Now I've really digressed, haven't I? But use your imagination for this game!

Other birds with dagger-like straight bills include egrets, loons, bitterns, kingfishers and terns.

Photo of Long-billed Curlew
Long-billed Curlew
4) All long bills are not straight, as this Long-billed Curlew shows. This is definitely a curved set of tongs! When the bill curves down like this it is called decurved. But no bills curve up, though, right? Well, just you wait and see!

This bird feeds for worms and crabs on sandy shores. Does it stick that whole bill in the sand? No. It can feed straight down in deeper water. But often the bird bends down and holds its head sideways into the sand or mud shallowly.

Other shorebirds like this curlew have long curved bills. The tree gleaning Brown Creeper has a fairly long decurved bill too, for getting insects out of deep bark crevices.

Photo of American Avocet
American Avocet
5) It turns out their are several birds whose long bill does curve up. This is called recurved. This American Avocet just plucked some creature out of the water and you can see it half way up the bill on the way to being swallowed. This is just the other side of the curved kitchen tongs.

Other birds with recurved bills include godwits and stilts. It is a pretty rare bill type, though.

Photo of Evening Grosbeak eating sunflower seeds
Evening Grosbeak
6) Seed-eating birds like the Evening Grosbeak above have heavy conical (shaped like a cone) bills. They crack open seeds, grains, and nuts to reach the edible kernel inside. Do you see that this is also a short bill, shorter than the head?

What household tools do you use that is similar to the bill of the grosbeak? Well, a nutcracker or pliers come to my mind!

Such birds may glean seeds on the ground or from trees. Bills can be huge, like the grosbeak, to crack open larger seeds. Conical bills can be more dainty for gathering weeds seeds or picking seeds from the ground, like goldfinches and juncos.

Other birds with seed-eating bills include finches, sparrows, towhees, buntings.

Photo of Gila Woodpecker
Gila Woodpecker
7) What kind of bill does this Gila Woodpecker have? This is easy! Woodpeckers have chisel-shaped bills to excavate their nest holes and find wood-boring insects to eat.

Nuthatches also have chisel-shaped bills. Yet not all woodpeckers bore into trees for insects. Flickers eat ants on the ground. Sapsuckers drill very shallow depressions in the bark and come back later. There they find sap and insects stuck in it to eat. Three-toed Woodpeckers flake bark off certain pines or scour recently burned trees to find bugs in softer wood.

Photo of Black Oystercatchers on the rocks
Black Oystercatcher
8) Well, the name Black Oystercatcher gives away the food these birds of rocky shores eat. Besides oysters they eat other mollusks, including snails, clams, mussels, and limpets. How do these birds get the clams open? They insert their very tall, but thin bills and snip away the muscle at the hinge of these bivalves.

What tool do these bills act like? Well, there is a knife designed after the the bill of the oystercatcher. It is called an oyster shucking knife! The two halves of the shells then fall open. But to get them off the rocks they use their bills as scissors to cut or as a pry bar to remove them.

Photo of Rufous Hummingbird at feeder
Rufous Hummingbird
9) The unique bill profile of this Rufous Hummingbird is long and round.

This may remind you of a straw or syringe. Really, though, these birds don't suck up liquids. Instead, they reach into long flowers and extract the nectar with the brushy tips of their tongues! It's more like one of those claw grabber tools that mechanics use to reach nuts and bolts they have dropped in the engine compartment.

In many ways, the long thin sticky tongue is shared by woodpeckers.

Photo of Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler
10) The Yellow Warbler uses its thin pointed bill to pick up little caterpillars and insects it gleans in from tree leaves.

What tool is this bill? It is a little tweezers!

Besides warblers, some of the small sandpipers have short thin bills used to pick food from the surface rather than probe deeply under the surface.

But wait! There's more!

Photo of a Black-capped Chickadee

Bonus: Finally, we have this Black-capped Chickadee.

This bill is kind of short and stout. It's not a tweezers or a pliers. It doesn't seem to be specialized at all. It is a very generic bill.

Do you know of a generic eating utensil? It's not a spoon. It's not a fork. What is it? It is a cross between the two. It is those plastic "sporks" you get at the drive-thru restaurants!

Actually, many birds have generic bills. Some longer, some shorter, some more like tongs, some more like pliers or tweezers. Jays, robins, doves, coot, vireos, blackbirds all have bills that are more generic.

This isn't all the possible shapes of bird bills. Here is a longer list of some more (but not all) bill characteristics:

Acute: Coming to a sharp point, like the Yellow Warbler above.

Bent: The bill of flamingos have a sharp bend in them.

Chisel: A bill with a beveled tip as woodpeckers.

Compressed: A bill higher than wide, like a puffin.

Conical: Shaped like a geometric cone, such as a sparrow.

Crossed: Easy! This is the crossed bill of the crossbills!

Decurved: That's curved down, like curlews.

Depressed: Not the sad depressed. But meaning wider than high; flattened, like a duck or goose.

Gibbous: Bills with big bump on them like a Mute Swan or Surf Scoter.

Hooked: Ooh, we didn't show any birds-of-prey, did we? Or parrots or shrikes, either.

Long: The bill is longer than the rest of the head.

Recurved: That's curved up like stilts and avocets.

Serrate: With saw-like bumps. A steak knife is a tool. A merganser is a duck with those features on the bill, used to hold slippery fish, not fillet them.

Short: The bill is much shorter than the rest of the head.

Spatulate: Spoon-shaped like the ducks.

Stout: High and wide like a chickadee, coot, or chicken.

Swollen: The sides of the bill of tanagers swell out.

Terete: Circular in cross section, like a hummingbird.

Toothed: Not real teeth, but the bill has a tooth-like bump (opposite from a notch), falcons have this.

This has to end, but I keep thinking of more. Have you seen photos of Shoe-billed Storks? Have you seen pelicans with pouches? Hornbills? The variety of bird life and bill shapes alone seems endless. Enjoy!

You may like these related bird anatomy articles:

Why do birds' legs look so funny? Do they bend backwards?

You want to know, but have been afraid to ask: Do birds pee? How do birds have sex?

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Feeding winter birds in Illinois

Many people find joy in feeding birds during the winter. This article is for those who may want to start feeding birds for the first time. But even if you've fed birds before, you may find some new tips here for feeding birds in Illinois in winter.

This article tells why and how to set up a winter bird feeding station in Illinois. I'll also include photos and brief identification of some of the common feeder birds you should expect, and how to best attract them.

Winters in Illinois are cold, often bitterly so. Illinois gets 14 to 38 inches of snow each winter, plus rain (source).

Surprisingly, many birds remain in Illinois in the winter. Many will appreciate any snacks that you can provide at your backyard bird feeder. At times, your feeding wild birds can mean the difference between life and death!

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

Image public domain from Pixabay

Why feed winter birds in Illinois?

Ice and snow storms can make it hard for birds to find food in winter. Birds have high metabolisms. They need to eat to keep up their body temperature and activity levels. Thus, your reliable winter bird feeder is just what they need!

Near the larger cities there is what is called a heat island. Temperatures are a few degrees higher than in surrounding areas, aiding birds. So there may be more birds in town than in the countryside in winter. But they may still need an added source of food.

Birds also need a source of drinking water every day--even in the winter. Can you provide open water for birds when all other sources are frozen? That will certainly help the birds.

Keep in mind all the young birds hatched the previous spring. They have never gone through an Illinois winter before! They are inexperienced at finding winter food. Your bird feeding station is a welcome treasure of winter food.

Watching birds on those dreary winter days brings many people hours of enjoyment. Nature is good for mental health. Even nature out the window in the form of birds at your feeder is beneficial.

Caring for a bird feeder may teach young people about responsibility. A bird feeder could help teach math and science and writing for home schoolers. Identification, behavior, migration, the inter-connectedness of life are things that all people can learn from a bird feeder, regardless of age.

Keeping up a bird feeder may also provide older individuals with a daily purpose. The routine of filling the feeder and having ones to care about are important. It really doesn't matter our age. This activity is good for us.

What birds come to feeders in Illinois in winter?

There are several species of birds that are regular at bird feeders in winter. Many of the most likely in Illinois are presented below.

There are also other birds that may be found in your backyard that don't come to your feeder. But they are easy for you to spot, nonetheless. You may learn about them in a related article I wrote: Common backyard birds in IllinoisI'll provide this link again at the end of this article.

The summaries here below present basic identification. They also tell you what food you can put in your bird feeder to attract them. If the birds have a preference, I also tell what kind of bird feeder they like to eat from.

Dark-eyed Junco

You may note small flocks of these tiny sparrows feeding on the ground under your feeders.

Photo of Dark-eyed Junco feeding on the ground
Dark-eyed Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson

They nest in the forests of Canada and Alaska and mountains in the West and East. They move south into most of the United States in winter. They are found throughout Illinois in winter.

Pudgy with a big head. The tail flashes white outer tail feathers. They are gray above, including a full hood, with a white belly. Legs and small conical bill are pink.

They give twittering calls and smacking notes. In spring they sing a long musical trill on one pitch.

Dark-eyed Juncos eat small seeds. These are one of the few birds for which the cheap mixed bird seed is the best. They want to eat from the ground, so a low platform feeder is best. They will also eat from a hopper feeder.

Northern Cardinal

Photo of Northern Cardinal in a snow storm
Northern Cardinal
Image by tlparadis from Pixabay

These colorful backyard birds are resident in woodlands in the eastern and central United States south into Mexico. They are found throughout Illinois year-round.

Both sexes are told by their conspicuous crest, large conical bill, and ample rounded tail. Males are bright red, females dull brown, both with black feathers on the face and throat.

Both sexes sing throughout the year. The song is a loud whistle "birdy birdy birdy" or "cheer cheer cheer." The call note is a sharp chip.

Northern Cardinals eat large seeds such as sunflower seeds and safflower seeds. They prefer a large platform feeder, but will eat at hopper feeders, too.

Downy Woodpecker

These are very small woodpeckers.

Photo of downy Woodpecker on a suet feeder
Downy Woodpecker
Photo by Greg Gillson

They are found year-round in deciduous woods, even willow wetlands. Their range extends from Alaska, across Canada and throughout most of the United States except for the deserts in the West and Southwest. They are found throughout Illinois.

They are stout, with a short, stiff tail. The bill is chisel-shaped but very small. Both sexes have white backs, black shoulders and wings with white spots on the wing. The under parts are white. There are white outer tail feathers on the black tail. The head is striped black-and-white. Males have a small red spot on the nape.

They give a sharp "pik" call and rattling whinny as a spring song.

Downy Woodpeckers may roam with chickadees and nuthatches in a mixed winter flock. They usually only come to your feeder, though, if you offer suet.

American Tree Sparrow

Photo of American Tree Sparrow in blackberry bramble
American Tree Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

These small sparrows breed in willows and spruce at edge of tundra across Alaska and northern Canada. They winter in the northern United States east of the Rockies. They winter throughout Illinois.

Their winter habitat is weedy fields where they are usually found in active moving flocks. They are common visitors to backyard feeders, too.

Petite and gray with brown back striped with darker brown lines. The head is gray with rufous crown and mark back from the eye. There is a dark spot in the middle of the pale gray breast.

Call notes include a musical "teedle."

American Tree Sparrows eat small seeds. They will like the mixed seed blends on a platform or hopper feeder.

Blue Jay

Photo of Blue Jay in bird bath
Blue Jay
Image by skeeze from Pixabay

These noisy and brash birds breed across southern Canada and most of the United States, west of the Rocky Mountains. They favor oak groves. Also found in deciduous woods and trees in towns. They withdraw from the northernmost parts of their range in winter. They are found throughout the year in Illinois, however.

Blue above with a crest. White below. They have a black necklace that wraps around the head, bordering a white face. Wings and tail are blue, barred with black and white. Large white wing patches and tail corners.

Voice is varied, but includes jay jay jay calls.

Blue Jays eat larger seeds and nuts, including peanuts. But they may carry off sunflower seeds in large gulps to cache--bury for eating later in the winter. They are also aggressive toward other birds, so they are not always welcome by those who feed birds. They will eat from hopper feeders and also platform feeders.

House Finch

These small birds are generally found in small flocks at the tips of trees or telephone wires in towns.

Photo of House Finch in tree top
House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Resident across most of the United States, Mexico, and extreme southern Canada. They are found throughout Illinois.

Birds are dusty brown above with darker streaks. Lower underparts have wide dark streaks on whitish background to belly and flanks. Males are orange-red on the forehead, throat and upper breast, and rump. The bill is conical, but slightly rounded on the culmen (upper ridge). The tail is square-ended or only slightly notched.

Calls are a chirping wheep. Loud wiry song is given throughout the year includes musical phrases usually ending in a nasal weeer.

House Finches love black oil sunflower seeds and feed best from tube feeders. Attracted to bird baths.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

A fairly good-sized woodpecker found in woodlands and towns. 

Photo of Red-bellied Woodpecker on tree trunk
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Image by skeeze from Pixabay

They are found in the eastern United States. They live year-round throughout Illinois.

Note the long chisel-shaped bill and short tail. Birds are pale below and on the head. The back and wings are barred with fine black and white lines. Birds have red hind crowns that extend to the bill on males. Often seen hitching up trees using their tails as a prop.

Calls are a loud rolling churr.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers come to backyard feeders for suet and peanuts.

American Goldfinch

You may be familiar with these tiny bright yellow birds in summer. They are still around in weedy fields and backyards in winter, too. They are just hiding in a dull winter plumage.

Photo of American Goldfinch on teasel
American Goldfinch
Photo by Greg Gillson

In summer these birds nest in southern Canada and across the northern and middle United States. In winter birds move out of Canada for the most part and can be found all through the U.S. They are found year-round in Illinois.

In winter these birds are rather dull brown with yellowish throats. The dark wings and tail have broad pale or white bars and edges. The bills are conical, but small. The tail is short and deeply forked.

In flight they call a lilting per-chick-o-ree.

American Goldfinches love black oil sunflower seeds from tube feeders. They also love Niger seed from special thistle socks or "finch feeders."

White-breasted Nuthatch

These active little birds, along with chickadees, often make up the core of roaming mixed flocks of several woodland species.

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

These birds live in deciduous woods in the East and oak and pine woods in the West. Their range is complicated. They are absent in deserts and the Great Plains where trees are scarce, but also are mostly absent from Texas to Florida. They are, however, found throughout Illinois year-round.

Small and pudgy, they have a big head with long thin chisel bill and very short stubby tail covered by the wing tips. These birds are blue above and white below. The face is white. The males have a black crown. Females are generally similar but duller.

Calls are varied by population. Nasal yank calls are common.

White-breasted Nuthatches come to tube or hopper feeders to grab a black oil sunflower seed. They fly away with it and pound it open on a branch. Then the return to the feeder for another seed--one at a time.

Mourning Dove

Photo of Mourning Dove on snag
Mourning Dove
Photo by Greg Gillson

These somewhat large backyard birds are widespread across southern Canada and across the United States in summer. They move out of Canada and the northernmost states in winter. However they are residents throughout the year in Illinois.

They are plump and brown, with a pink cast on the breast. There are large black spots on the wing coverts. The head is small and round on a longer neck. The tail is long and pointed, with white edges.

Their song is a sad cooing.

Mourning Doves feed corn, sunflower seeds, and grains. They like to feed on the ground and platform feeders.

Black-capped Chickadee

These tiny little birds are a winter-time joy.

Photo of Black-capped Chickadee on twig
Black-capped Chickadee
Photo by Greg Gillson

They are found in Alaska and across Canada and the northern United States. They are found year-round in northern Illinois.

Pudgy with hardly any neck, they show a large head with a short stout bill. They are gray on the back, wings, and tail. Under parts are pale, buff on the flanks. They have a white face with black cap above and big black throat patch.

Calls are a measured chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Spring songs are whistled fee bee bee bee, with regional variation.

Black-capped Chickadees love black oil sunflower seeds taken one at a time from a tube or hopper feeder.

Setting up a winter bird feeding station in Illinois

I recommend setting up a tube feeder and a hopper feeder in winter in Illinois.

Put black oil sunflower seeds into a tube feeder. This will attract House Finches and American Goldfinches. White-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees will also eat seeds from this feeder.

A hopper feeder with mixed seed containing more white proso millet and less milo will appeal to a wide variety of backyard birds. 

Milo is not liked by many birds and may be up to half the volume of cheap bird seed mixes. If milo is one of the first 3 ingredients listed, don't buy it! Milo also attracts House Sparrows, which many people don't want because of their messy and aggressive behavior. 

So, more millet and maybe some sunflower chips. This won't be the least expensive mixed seeds, but is well worth it. Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows, Northern Cardinals, and Mourning Doves will like this feeder better, but other birds will eat from it, too. Because of the snow, I suggest a feeder with a big overhanging roof.

If you add a suet feeder you will soon attract both Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers! Other birds such as wrens, nuthatches, chickadees, and others will also eat suet.

Many people don't consider a bird bath in winter. But birds need to drink water daily. A winter feeding station in Illinois really needs a bird bath or other source of liquid water. 

Please consider adding some kind of bird bath heater. During freezing spells, birds can have a hard time finding water. And birds that don't come to feeders may come to your bird bath for a drink.

There are so many backyard winter birds in Illinois that you should have several different feeders and offer a variety of foods.

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

The most common backyard birds in Illinois

Birds at your feeder in Illinois

Red, Orange & Yellow Birds at Your Feeder in Illinois

My recommended bird feeder setup

Bird seeds that attract the most birds

Different kinds of bird feeders for different birds

Bird baths that birds actually use

Binoculars for beginning bird watchers

Bird watching books for beginners

Monday, June 22, 2020

Where do you put a suet feeder to attract the most birds?

Feeding suet to birds can attract an amazing variety of birds to your backyard. Many of these birds will be birds that cannot be attracted with bird seed.

To attract the most birds, suet feeders should be placed carefully. To keep the suet fresh it should be shaded from the heat of the day. You should put a suet feeder on its own pole, up high, and perhaps with a squirrel baffle. Suet can be spread on a tree trunk, but is often better served in special suet cages. Suet feeders should be be placed where they can be seen by birds and by human observers. Finally, the placement of all feeders should be so that birds do not fly into windows.

Photo of a large flock of Bushtits on a suet feeder
At least 22 Bushtits on a suet feeder!
Photo by Greg Gillson

What is suet and why feed it to birds?

First, some definitions. True suet is the hard fat around the kidneys of cows and sheep. Rendered fat is any fat from an animal melted down and re-hardened. Lard is rendered fat from pigs, often from the abdomen.

Suet that is fed to birds is any of these, often with added oats, corn meal, wheat flour, or peanut butter to keep it from melting as easily. Other additives include bird seed, nuts or fruits.

Insect-eating and omnivorous birds are especially attracted to suet feeders. Wrens, nuthatches, chickadees, creepers, kinglets, starlings, and woodpeckers are especially attracted to suet feeders. 

Basically, think of suet as a big, fat, juicy, grub. Yum!

But other birds, including wintering warblers will also eat suet. If the suet contains seeds or nuts, then seed-eating birds will also eat it.

Photo of Downy Woodpecker on suet feeder
Downy Woodpecker on suet cage
Photo by Greg Gillson

Block suet, suet dough, or bark butter?

Suet can be fed to birds in a number of different ways. Some of these may be new to you as they were to me!

The most common way to feed suet to birds is in pre-packaged blocks with their own suet feeder cage. The metal cage keeps larger birds and animals from simply carrying off the suet. It is easy to clean and replace the suet blocks.

The most common way to place a cage-style suet feeder is to hang it from a shepherd's hook pole. But they can also be hung from hooks under the eaves. They may hang from a tree limb.

Some suet comes in dough-like balls. These can be placed in the open on platform feeders. They may be hung in a net onion bag. There are also many differently shaped metal cages for suet balls.

Some homemade suet is called suet dough. Basically, the recipe is 1 part lard and 1 part chunky peanut butter melted in the microwave. Then 3 parts corn meal, 1 part wheat flower, and 1 part oatmeal, is mixed with it. Nuts, fruit, or bird seed may be added.

This soft suet dough, homemade or commercially bought, may also be spread into crevices of pine cones, special log feeders with holes drilled in them, or spread on the bark of trees. One of the spreadable suet doughs is trademarked as "bark butter." 

There are also suet nuggets with special feeders.

Visit Amazon to look at suet and feeders:

Different kinds of suet on Amazon

Different kinds of suet feeders on Amazon

Place suet feeders in the shade to keep it fresher longer

Suet will melt if it becomes too warm. 

Generally, suet remains solid up to about 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 C). If the temperature is consistently above this, it is best not to feed suet. 

Melted suet is messy and can coat bird's feathers.

However, no-melt suet is rendered several times to raise its melting point. The addition of corn meal or other grains help keep it held together.

To help suet last longer, place the suet feeder where it is shaded from the heat of the day. Placing suet feeders in the shade of a tree or bush will keep it cooler and fresher.

Fat will go rancid after a while, with a disagreeable odor. Thus, suet should be replaced if it hasn't been eaten in a week (less time in warm weather). So, you shouldn't place too much out at once.

Store extra suet in your freezer until you are ready to put it out for the birds.

Photo of Ruby-crowned Kinglet in a tangle of branches
Ruby-crowned Kinglets love suet!
Photo by Greg Gillson

Place suet feeders up higher from the ground

Animals other than birds will be attracted to suet. So you will want to place suet above where racoons, coyotes, and other wild animals can reach. 

It may be that dogs will be the biggest problem. So place the suet out of the reach of dogs and it should be good for other animals, as well.

Squirrels can jump up about 4 feet to reach a bird feeder. But they can jump about 10 feet horizontally to reach a feeder. You may need squirrel baffles to keep squirrels from climbing up from below or invading from above. Consider this if you have tree squirrels, as they love suet, too.

Place suet feeders away from the seed feeders

It is probably best to place suet feeders by themselves on their own pole. Birds that eat suet are easily startled by the flocking birds that eat seeds. Seed bird feeders are a hub of activity. Birds that eat suet tend to be more timid and wary.

If you live in a location where winters are cold and summers are hot, I have this idea. Place a bird feeder pole away from the other birds feeders. On this pole hang a suet feeder in winter and a hummingbird feeder in summer. Switch off in March and October.

We talked about squirrels already. But another pest to the suet feeder is European Starlings. To keep starlings off suet feeders you may try a couple things.

An upside-down suet feeder allows smaller birds and woodpeckers to reach the suet. But starlings can't hang and feed like these other birds.  [Upside down suet feeders on Amazon]

A baffle immediately over the suet cage can accomplish the same thing--keeping the starling from standing on top of the suet feeder to eat.

A longer chain on the suet feeder starts spinning and swinging when the starling tries to reach the suet. That keeps the starlings from getting much.

Putting suet feeders on a tree

Many of the birds that are attracted to suet feeders naturally feed in trees. Thus putting a suet feeder near, under, or in a tree is a good idea. You are placing the feeder where the birds already are!

You can place a suet feeder on a pole near or under a tree to provide shade. This gives you the most options as to placement.

You can hang a suet feeder from a branch of a tree, whether the tree is large or small.

And you can attach a suet feeder to the trunk of a tree where creepers and nuthatches and woodpeckers feed.

The one disadvantage of hanging a suet feeder on a tree is that squirrels love suet and may eat the suet instead of the birds.

Why offer birds suet? This short video tells you!

Placing suet feeders so they can be seen

If birds can't find your feeder they won't use it. So the placement of your suet feeder is very important. 

If you have other feeders, then you can place a suet feeder near, but not too close, to them. Suet-eating birds may be attracted to the seed feeder activity and spot the suet feeder.

You may also place suet under a tree. Many of the birds that eat suet are likely to be birds found in trees or bushes, rather than on the ground. So they'll see the feeder when they are in the these, their favorite habitat.

You may even want to make the suet feeder very obvious at first. You may place the suet conspicuously on a feeder pole right out in the middle of your open lawn. Once birds find it, you can move it to a more secluded area.

For your enjoyment, you must be able to see the suet feeder from inside your home. What window will you look out of to watch birds? Is it the living room? Kitchen? Somewhere else? 

Most of the bird activity will be in the early morning. What room are you in then? Will the sunlight be at the right angles so you can clearly see the birds? Give this some serious consideration.

Avoiding bird window collisions

The rule of thumb is to locate feeders more than 30 feet away from picture windows or less than 3 feet. Wait! What? Less than 3 feet away? Is that right? Yes. Let me explain.

Birds fly into windows because they don't see them. They don't understand that windows are solid. They think if you can see through it, you can fly through it. They are unable to learn about windows. Window collisions kill many, many birds.

When birds try to fly through a window they strike it head first. This causes a concussion or death.
If the feeders are placed 30 feet away from picture windows, birds are unlikely to fly toward the house if they are startled. Less than that distance and window strikes go up. That makes sense.

However, if the feeder is placed within 3 feet of the window a couple of things happen to reduce window strikes and injury.

First, birds startled from the feeder toward the window are just getting started and flying slowly. If they hit the window they will not strike as hard.

Second, when close to start with, they are likely to see their reflection and have time to veer off as they are about to run into their own reflection. They are more likely to strike the window with their body or feet than their head, if they hit the window at all.

If you have trouble with birds hitting your windows, place decals or decorations on the glass.

You may enjoy these related articles:

Feeding birds suet

7 Kinds of bird feeders and the birds that like them

What type of bird seed attracts the most birds?

10 Fruits you should be feeding backyard birds

7 Secrets to feeding wild birds cheaply

What is a thistle feeder and what birds eat it?

Why birds throw seeds out of the feeder

End the mess of feeding wild birds!

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Feeding winter birds in Florida

Feeding birds in winter is enjoyed by many people. 

Perhaps you feel that feeding wild birds is only an activity for snow-covered northern areas. But this is not true. Even in sunny Florida feeding birds is a common activity. 

Would you like to set up a backyard bird feeder this winter in Florida? This article is for you!

This article tells all about why and how to set up a winter bird feeding station in Florida. I will discuss just a few of the very many birds you could attract to your feeders, and how to do it.

The weather in Florida in winter is quite mild. It is similar to coastal southern California. 

Depending on whether you live north or south, the average night time temperatures range from 41-65 degrees Fahrenheit. Daytime highs in winter average between 64-77 degrees F. 

A few flakes of snow may fall twice a decade in northern Florida. But snow sticking on the ground is a very newsworthy event, and doesn't last long.

Nevertheless, feeding birds in winter is still worth while. I'll tell you why.

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

Why feed winter birds in Florida?

Florida has many resident birds that spend the entire year in your backyard and neighborhood. Many can be enticed to come to your feeders. 

Florida also enjoys many winter bird visitors. These migrate south to Florida to escape the cold, snowy winters to the north. These all appreciate a steady source of winter food--even if they could probably survive just fine on their own without bird feeders.

But birds need more than just food. They need protective shelter. Many people who care about birds set up bird feeders. But they also landscape their yards to make them a safe haven for the birds that visit. Natural wildlife habitat is constantly being lost to urban sprawl, deforestation, and changes in the way people use land. So even if a few birds benefit from your backyard landscaping, it makes a difference.

Young birds in their first winter are less experienced than the adults. They may have trouble some times locating enough food. So your backyard feeder might help more of these birds survive the winter.

But you may benefit more than the birds you feed! Watching birds gives you peace of mind as they flit here and there. Observing nature, even in your backyard, is good for your mental health. 

It also makes you more aware of the natural world. This awareness will lead you to make decisions in life that take into account the consequences of your actions on other living things and systems. 

It might not seem like one person can change all the ills in the world. And that is true. But you are not one person. You are one more person that cares. And one less person that doesn't.

If you can share feeding birds in winter with children, you can have a positive impact on their lives. Children spend less time outside playing and viewing nature than ever in our history. Many people warn that this has a negative effect on children, and on society. 

Connect with nature. If that means feeding birds, please do so. It's fun!

What birds come to feeders in Florida in winter?

Lots of northern birds winter in Florida. The mild weather allows many insect-eating birds to spend the winter. But Florida has many birds that also eat seeds or fruit you can offer at your feeder.

Some backyard birds don't come to feeders. Some birds visit your backyard during different times of year. To learn about some of those, please read my article on common backyard birds of Florida. I'll link to it again at the end of this article.

Here, then, are some of the common and popular winter birds at feeders in Florida.

Northern Cardinal

These large colorful songbirds are found throughout woodlands in the eastern United States and adjacent extreme southern Canada.

Photo of Northern Cardinal at feeder
Northern Cardinal
Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay

They are found throughout Florida. These birds are residents, pairs staying year-round in the same location for the most part.

They sing nearly year-round with loud whistled phrases usually repeating 3 times, cheer cheer cheer or purty purty purty. They also have a loud chip note.

Males are bright red with large tail, sweeping crest, thick orange bill and black face. Females are shaped similarly, but buffier brown overall.

Northern Cardinals eat larger seeds, including sunflower seeds and safflower seeds from hopper and platform feeders.

Mourning Dove

Photo of Mourning Dove
Mourning Dove
Photo by Greg Gillson

These birds are widespread across North America, including all of Florida. They are found in rural areas, especially near agricultural areas, and in residential areas, too.

The call is a loud mournful cooing.

These bird are identified by the plump body, small round head, and long pointed tail. The coloration is tan-brown, a bit pinkish on the breast. There are several large black dots on the wing coverts.

Mourning Doves eat black oil sunflower seeds and cracked corn and other grains. They feed on the ground and prefer platform feeders.

Blue Jay

Photo of Blue Jay in bird bath
Blue Jay
Image bly skeeze from Pixabay

Found in deciduous woodlands across eastern and central North America they are found in all of Florida.

Gives a jay jay jay call.

Very colorful. Blue above, white or pale gray below. White face, blue crest, and black necklace wrapping around to the back of the head. White patches and black bars in the wing and tail.

Blue Jays are omnivorous. They like to eat sunflower seeds and peanuts from platform and hopper feeders. They eat suet from suet feeders, as well.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

This fairly large woodpecker is found in deciduous woods. 

Photo of Red-bellied Woodpecker on tree trunk
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Image by skeeze from Pixabay

It is found across the eastern United States. It is found throughout Florida.

The common call is a rolling churrr.

Pale gray below, the back is barred completely with black and white. Both sexes have a red nape, on the male it extends all the way over the crown to the bill.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers visit backyard feeders for sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet. They eat from platform or large hopper feeders and suet cages.

Northern Mockingbird

These birds are common in backyards and brushlands. 

Photo of Northern Mockingbird in tree top
Northern Mockingbird
Photo by Greg Gillson

They are found throughout the southern and eastern United States. They are residents in many areas, migrate in and out of the northern parts of their range. In Florida they are year-round residents.

They are slim and gray with a fairly long pointed bill. They have white wing patches, exposed in flight. They have white outer tail feathers. They sing nearly throughout the year, often at night.

Their song is three notes or phrases repeated, then move on to another set of three. They have a huge repertoire and include mimicking other bird's calls and mechanical noises.

Northern Mockingbirds may be attracted to your feeder if you offer slices of fruit, including oranges, apples, grapes. They may also eat suet.

Palm Warbler

Photo of Palm Warbler on a rock
Palm Warbler
Photo by Greg Gillson

These small birds nest in spruce bogs across Canada and extreme northern United States in the East and Midwest. They winter in the Southeast. In Florida they are found throughout in winter.

There they often are found in open brushy areas, lawns, fence lines, and woodland edges, frequently on the ground.

The call is a sharp tsik. The trilled song is only heard in summer.

These birds will visit your suet feeder and may also eat fruit or small seeds.

Gray Catbird

These larger songbirds are secretive inhabitants of thickets.

Photo of Gray Catbird in juniper
Gray Catbird
Photo by Greg Gillson

In summer they are found across southernmost Canada. In the United States they breed from the Rockies eastward. They are found year round in the southeast coastal states. In Florida they may be year-round residents in the north, but in most of the state they are only found in the winter.

They are dark gray with a black cap. Their under tail coverts are chestnut.

Their voice includes a catlike mewing, but they also mimic other birds.

Catbirds will eat fruit and jelly at your feeder. Try oranges, apples, raisins, and blueberries. They will also eat mealworms and suet.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Photo of Yellow-rumped Warbler on tree branch
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Photo by Greg Gillson

These abundant warblers nest in conifer and mixed forests across Alaska and Canada and in the mountains of the northeastern United States and the West. They winter along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the Unites States and across the southern states into Mexico. They winter throughout Florida.

In summer they are very bright. The upper parts are bluish and they have a black chest. They have a yellow crown patch. Western birds have a yellow throat and large white wing patch. Eastern birds have white throat and two white wing bars. 

In winter they are very dull. But, summer or winter, they flash white tail corners in flight and have a bright yellow rump.

They have a complicated slow warble ending in a trill. Their call note is a flat tchep.

While you may see Yellow-rumped Warblers crawling through leafy foliage gleaning insects, or flying out to snatch bugs out of the air, they will come to your feeder if you offer suet.

Setting up a winter bird feeding station in Florida

In Florida, your bird feeder should offer fruits to attract more birds. Birds will eat any kind of single berry, like a blueberry. They will eat apple and orange slices, especially any that may have gone soft on your kitchen counter. Grapes and raisins, too. Grape jelly is a favorite. Feed these in a bowl, perhaps set on a platform feeder or just set out by themselves on a deck railing.

Suet will also attract many birds, including many that don't eat seeds. Buy no-melt suet in Florida, or make your own following online recipes mixing lard and chunky peanut butter with oats and more. Suet should be fed in suet cages so that other animals don't take it away.

Mealworms may also be fed in a bowl.

Cardinals like larger seeds. Try safflower or a nut and sunflower seed mixture using a hopper feeder with wide shelf.

Also be sure to have a source of water. Moving water really attracts birds, so a solar fountain might be perfect to add to your feeding station. These need direct sunlight to work, so placement is important.

We didn't talk about it, but don't forget a hummingbird feeder. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are year-round residents in northern Florida, winter visitors in the south. Other rare hummingbirds may show up in winter, too.

Here is a list of related articles I've written to help you with some specific questions on feeding winter birds in Florida.

The most common backyard birds in Florida

Red, Orange & Yellow Birds in Florida

Birds at your feeder in Florida

My recommended bird feeder setup

Bird seeds that attract the most birds

Different kinds of bird feeders and the birds they attract

Bird baths that birds actually use

Binoculars for beginning bird watchers

Bird watching books for beginners

Monday, June 15, 2020

Is it ok to throw bird seed on the ground?

Perhaps you have decided to try feeding birds. 

You've bought a small bag of bird seed. 

Now you wonder. Which bird feeder should I buy. Many of them are very expensive. Do I even need a bird feeder? 

Can I just throw bird seed out on the ground in my yard?

Yes, you can throw bird seed out on the ground. Many birds will eat seed on the ground. But it could become messy, attract pests, and harm the birds if not done with some planning and forethought. This article tells you how to properly set up a ground feeder for birds.

Photo of White-crowned Sparrow feeding on ground
White-crowned Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

Why feed birds seeds on the ground?

Tossing bird seed on the ground to feed birds is both simple and inexpensive.

You don't have to buy a bird feeder to feed birds on the ground. You don't have to figure out how to hang a bird feeder or put it on a pole. It is so easy to get started!

Many birds prefer feeding on the ground. In nature, seeds frequently fall from the flower to the ground. Birds are used to looking on the ground for food. Thus several kinds of birds actually prefer feeding on the ground.

Widespread backyard birds in the United States that frequently feed on the ground include: Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, Mourning Doves, White-crowned Sparrows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Eastern Towhees, California Quail, Northern Cardinals, Bobwhite, Brown Thrashers, Song Sparrows, House Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, and many more.

There are also birds that don't like to feed on the ground, but prefer something higher. That usually includes finches, chickadees, and nuthatches. They will feed on the ground sometimes, but prefer higher feeders, if given the choice.

Photo of Mourning Dove on ground
Mourning Dove
Photo by Greg Gillson

Some potential problems with just throwing bird seed on the ground

There are some things to take into consideration when feeding birds on the ground.

Messy bird seed

Bird seed just tossed on the ground can be messy. Bird seed on the ground can get scattered around. Birds don't eat the outer shells of bird seed. They crack open the two halves of the hull and eat the kernel inside. The hulls drop out the side of their bill onto the ground (I want to say they "spit out" the shells, but bird's don't spit).

Many ground feeding seed eaters like sparrows and towhees "kick" the ground with both feet. This scratches up the soil and turns over leaves to reveal seeds. They even do this when on a feeder. Either way, seeds and shells sometimes get kicked quite a distance.

If the seeds are not found and the kernels inside eaten, they may sprout. Bird seeds deemed possible pests are killed so they don't sprout. But many bird seeds will.

Other seeds may mold if wet, especially on the ground.

Of course, this can happen with a bird feeder, too. But often, a bird feeder will control and confine the messy area.

Rats, cats, and other pests

Yes, rats may climb a pole to eat bird seed in a feeder. But it is so much easier for them to become a nuisance if the seed is in easy reach on the ground. The same can be said for mice, raccoons, opossums, and insect pests.

To reduce these pest problems, don't let seed sit on the ground over night. Feed only what birds will eat in a day. This can be hard when seeds are on the ground where they can hide from birds.

For this rat and pest reason, don't feed birds bread or meat scraps. Especially don't let these items remain overnight. Otherwise these pests are going to make their way into your home.

When birds feed on the ground they are easier prey for cats. Cats like to hide, crouch, and pounce. When feeding birds on the ground, keep seeds away from hiding places for cats. Any small bushes or other places where cats can hide should be at least 10 feet away from bird seed on the ground. Then they birds will see the cat before it pounces.

Photo of Dark-eyed Junco on ground
Dark-eyed Junco
Photo by Greg Gillson

Where to place bird seed on the ground

There are some good places to put seed on the ground. Bare soil is perhaps the most obvious. Especially if the ground is frozen, the seeds will be highly visible to the birds. When it thaws, the seeds will eventually mold if not eaten. But, on the other hand, it will stick to the mud and all be located in a smaller area. It should be easier to clean up.

Some people throw out a handful of seeds on top of a crust of snow. The seeds will be available for as long as the snow doesn't melt. If it melts and refreezes, then the birds may see it through a layer of ice, but not be able to get to it.

Cement sidewalks and patios make bird seed highly visible and accessible. Such locations make it very easy for the birds to eat the seed. One caution, though. The seeds may create a slip hazard. The hard round seeds can roll under foot. Or decomposing shells and bird droppings can make the walkway slippery.

If snow is regular in you yard, you might place seed on the ground under a patio table. The table can prevent a build up of snow over the seed.

It is probably not a good idea to throw bird seed into gravel or lawn areas. The seeds will become lost from the birds and will likely sprout up in the spring.

A major factor to consider when feeding birds, is seeing them from inside your home. This is true especially for feeding birds on the ground. They'll be harder to spot on the ground. So you'll want a clear and unobstructed view from a large window in your home. Then you can really enjoy them! Bird feeder placement, even if the feeder is on the ground, is very important.

Photo of Spotted Towhee on ground
Spotted Towhee
Photo by Greg Gillson

Low platform feeders

Until this point I have stayed away from bird feeders and seed containers. But, as we've discussed above, some of the mess and placement of bird seed is better with at least some kind of bird feeder. Bird feeders don't have to be complicated or expensive.

A simple saucer or bowl or pie tin can be used as a bird feeder on the ground. As long as the weather is dry (above or below freezing) the seed will remain edible. These are perfect for your deck or railing or fence post, too.

A simple ground level bird feeder you could buy is a screened floor in a frame on very short legs. The screened bottom allows air to circulate under the food and help dry it out so it doesn't go bad as fast.

From Amazon

Broad platform feeders like this provide plenty of room for ground feeding sparrows and other birds to find food. Platform feeders allow the most variety of birds to eat. 

But to keep the seed dry you might want one with a roof. Okay, now you're not just throwing birdseed on the ground anymore. Now it is not simple or inexpensive! 

But birds will love it and the seed will keep better. This would be perfect in the snow. Click this link to go to Amazon to look at other ground level platform bird feeders.

What type of seeds do you feed to birds on the ground?

Most of the other articles on this site steer you away from the cheap mixed bird seed and toward black oil sunflower seed, presented in a tube feeder for red finches, goldfinches, chickadees, and nuthatches.

The exception is the ground-feeding birds. Juncos and Quail and Mourning Doves and House Sparrows do like red milo and cracked corn. White proso millet and black oil sunflower seeds are liked by most birds. These items make up the bulk of the seeds in cheaper mixed seed. Milo is the cheap filler--perfect if you're just tossing it on the ground! (joking)

There is also seed made into large blocks, held together with molasses and gelatin often called quail blocks or smaller seed cakes. 

These can sit out in the open on the ground or on a stump, fence post, or platform. They may last weeks unless the racoons visit and drag it off. 

The blocks usually contain cracked corn, wheat, and milo or other seeds most songbirds don't like. So these are more appropriate for quail, doves, and blackbirds. See here on Amazon

The Mr. Bird Wild Bird Feast cylinder has no filler. Instead, pecans, black oil sunflower, sunflower chips, and white proso millet. All your backyard birds should love this! (Amazon affiliate link)

That's it then. If you don't mind the mess, then it's okay to throw bird seed on the ground to feed birds. But it you want to really attract ground feeding birds, you should consider a platform feeder, whether home made or commercial.

You may like some of my other articles:

Kinds of bird feeders (and the birds that like them best)

7 Secrets to feeding birds cheaply

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