Friday, July 31, 2020

7 Steps to accurately identify birds

Have you marveled at the skill of an experienced birder who can instantly identify a bird glimpsed only briefly? You can gain that skill. But it takes repetition.

The brain makes new pathways to make itself faster and better at performing tasks that you repeat. At a certain point you no longer have to think about the steps involved, you do it automatically.

In fact, the automatic processes of the brain take over so that you may be unaware, and unable to explain, just how you even perform a task. Identifying birds is the same. At first you struggle. Then one day, you just know.

Until you reach that automatic ease, though, exactly how can you identify a bird?

You can identify wild birds by following this step-by-step method:

  • Step 1. Size & Shape
  • Step 2. Field Marks
  • Step 3. Bill & Face
  • Step 4. Color
  • Step 5. Voice
  • Step 6. Behavior & Habitat
  • Step 7. Range & Seasonality

Following these steps in order will lead to the correct identification, more quickly and often.


Photo of White-crowned Sparrow in fir tree
White-crowned Sparrow. Greg Gillson.

The good news is that all these items are listed in a field guide to the birds. So study the field guides and get out and look at lots of birds. That's how you'll learn.

A bright red bird with a crest is almost certainly a cardinal (steps1, 4). But most birds aren't so obvious and unique.

The more of these steps match your bird, the more certain your identification. If any of the items don't match, then you better take a closer look. It may be something else!



Need help identifying a bird?

If you can't figure it out yourself, you can have someone else try to identify a bird for you. If you have a detailed written description or a photo that you want someone else to identify for you, scroll to the bottom of this article and I'll give you some places you can go for help.



Step 1. Identify a bird by Size & Shape


You already know many birds by their shape. Thus you already have the main foundation for identifying birds.

Crow. Pigeon. Duck. Chicken. Hummingbird. Gull. Robin. Cardinal. Jay. Chickadee. Pelican. Parrot. Hawk. Heron. Woodpecker. Do you know these major groups?

That's about a third or a quarter of the groups you need to learn so that you can quickly place a bird into the correct group. That way you're not searching through dozens of brown sparrow illustrations in your field guide when the bird is actually a wren.

Think silhouette. In fact, older field guides by one author had silhouette endplates. Very helpful.

In your local area there will be several common birds that can be a yardstick or benchmark for size comparisons with an unknown bird you see. These common birds will be different, depending upon where you live.

Size comparison is especially helpful if the bird you are comparing is actually present. Otherwise you have to guess. People are notoriously bad at judging size and distance. So it is best to compare size with something present.


Photo of American Robin on the ground
American Robin. Greg Gillson.

Common birds across the United States that may be used for size comparisons include American Goldfinches, House Finches, European Starlings, American Robins, Mourning Doves, American Crows, Red-tailed Hawks.

One thing to be aware of is the size measurement in the field guide. It is museum length. The length of a bird is measured from bill tip to tail tip of a dead bird laid on its back and stretched out straight. Birds are not measured like people. There is no "tall" measurement of a standing bird, feet to crown.

The length of a Black-bellied Plover and a Long-billed Dowitcher are both about 12 inches. The plover has a short bill. The bill of the dowitcher is about 4 inches long. Thus, though they are the same length, the plover is a much larger bodied bird.

Some field guides measure a bird's weight. But many birds eat 1/4 or more of their weight each day. So this is only a very approximate average.

Sometimes tip-to-tip wing span is listed in the field guides. This can help you compare the size of larger flying birds.

Rely more on the shape of a bird than its color. Noting size and shape keeps me from being misled by abnormal colors. See section on colors, below.


Step 2. Identify a bird by Field Marks


In 1934 Roger Tory Peterson authored and illustrated a popular bird book known as a field guide.

A field guide to birds is a book used to help people identify living birds in the wild.

Birds illustrated in field guides are frequently stylized. They show larger plumage patterns that an observer may see from a distance. Fine details are left out of the illustration. Only the marks that are easily seen in the field are included, thus "field marks."


Photo of Lazuli Bunting at feeder
Lazuli Bunting. Greg Gillson.

Common field marks include contrastingly colored feathers such as eye rings, wing bars, and tail spots. But field marks can also include contrasting head, throat, breast, back, wings, belly, and tail patterns.

If a certain shape helps separate two similar birds then they may be a field mark, too.

These would include things like the crest on the head of a red Northern Cardinal as opposed to the round head on the similar red Summer Tanager.

Another field mark is the pointed tail of the Mourning Dove compared to the square tail of many other doves.


Step 3. Identify a bird by Bill & Face


Today's optics, including cameras, spotting scopes and binoculars are much better than in the 1930s. Thus we can often view birds with a very magnified image and maybe take a sharply focused picture with a telephoto lens.

Fortunately, at close range, most birds can be identified by the head and bill only!

The feathers on the head form about 15 named groups. There are several different crown stripes, several throat stripes. There are also standard patterns on the ear coverts and lower face. Learn these and you can identify those complex and uniquely patterned sparrow heads!


Photo portrait of Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow. Greg Gillson.

The parts of a bird and the major feather patterns are in the introduction of the field guides. This may be the most important part of a bird book. Don't skip it!

Birds have many differently shaped bills or beaks. You may be aware of how the bill of a duck is different from the bill of a hawk, or woodpecker, or pelican.

But even among songbirds at your feeder there are many different types of bills. The bill of chickadees, wrens, warblers, sparrows, jays, and others all differ from each other.

The bill shape gets you to the main group of birds you are looking at. Then the exact pattern of feather coloration on the face will usually be enough to identify the exact species.

[See my article on bill shapes.]


Step 4. Identify a bird by Color


Of the 1000 species birds found in North America, north of the Mexican border, you would be hard-pressed to find many that couldn't be identified with a black-and-white photo.

Yet the first thing most people note is the color.

A thousand species. Half with the females colored differently than the males. A third where the summer and winter plumages are colored differently. That's maybe 2200 differently colored plumages. Color alone is not enough to identify any bird!

That's not to say that color isn't important. Because it is. However, color helps identification most after you have used shape to get to the main group, such as thrush or finch or warbler.


Photo of American Goldfinch on branch
American Goldfinch. Greg Gillson.

And the placement of the color is important. So knowing generally the difference between the crown, nape, throat, breast, belly, sides, vent, back, wing coverts, and rump is very helpful.

I have never found a bird book based on color to be very useful.

Also, beware of abnormally-colored birds. I've seen birds discolored by genetics, paint, and pollen.
I've seen juncos with white heads. I've seen a gull spray painted bright orange. I've seen crows with white wings. I've seen a Bushtit on the coast with a yellow head from catkin pollen that might be mistaken for the desert Verdin.


Step 5. Identify a bird by Voice


Many people really struggle to identify birds they only hear. Most birds have a simple main call. Some have distinctive notes only given in flight. And, of course, the songbirds have complex songs!

Each species of bird has a unique call and song that is possible for you to learn.

It is hard to describe bird songs and calls. Some people use English phrases to capture the cadence and general rising and falling notes of the song. The Killdeer and Pewee are named for their calls.

Some people hear and remember the song of White-throated Sparrow as a whistled Ole Sam Peabody. Others render it as Oh Sweet Canada. But this mnemonic doesn't work for everyone. And it is easier to use this method after hearing it several times.

I think I had an advantage learning bird calls. I started watching birds in the forests of Oregon. My first encounter with a bird was often a song of an unseen bird I had to chase down through the woods.

Even today, more than 45 years later, when I hear a Black-headed Grosbeak sing, I envision that first singing bird I chased down. The brilliant orange and yellow and black and white bird was lit by the sun high in the maple tree. He threw his head back and issued that beautiful quick robin-like warble to the heavens. His bill opened and closed as he sang.

Bird voice recordings are available freely online now. When I was starting out I had to go to the library to listen to a vinyl record of bird songs!


Step 6. Identify a bird by Behavior & Habitat


Birds are very active creatures. So you will notice some behaviors that may help you identify a bird you see.

If a bird is swimming in the water, that can help you narrow down the possibilities. Loons, grebes, coots, ducks, geese, swans, gulls, petrels, albatrosses, cormorants, pelicans, auks, terns, and phalaropes swim regularly.

That's still a lot. But you wouldn't expect hummingbirds, woodpeckers, doves or many other groups of birds to be swimming.

If you see a bird walking down the trunk of a tree head-first, then it is one of the nuthatches or possibly a Black-and-white Warbler.


Photo of White-breasted Nuthatch walking head first down tree
White-breasted Nuthatch. Greg Gillson.

Woodpeckers drum on hollow branches to create a territorial "song." They hitch their way up a tree trunk using their tail as a brace.

Many groups of birds can be identified by the way they fly.

Some birds hover in place before diving for food. Some birds soar a long time without flapping. Some birds fly in zigzags. Some birds have deep wing strokes; some have very shallow wing strokes.

Some birds bob their heads as they walk. Others bob their tails.

The type of habitat where a bird lives can give a major clue about its identification. A good bird watcher learns the different local trees and major plant communities. Even a backyard feeder is a type of habitat with its own identifiable set of birds!

Some birds live only on the sea and adjacent shores; some birds are only found in fresh water. Some birds prefer conifer trees; others prefer deciduous trees. Some birds live in deserts. Some birds are found only in grasslands.

You look for Mountain Chickadees in high elevation conifer forests. You expect Black-capped Chickadees down lower in deciduous woods and backyards.

You expect Scrub Jays in oak trees. You expect Canada Jays in conifer forests. You expect Pinyon Jays in pine and juniper woodlands.

Pay attention to the field guide's listing of habitats and any unique behaviors.


Step 7. Identify a bird by Range & Seasonality


My first attempt at identifying birds was using a field guide to Eastern North America. I lived in the West!

The birds are different from place to place. Sure, Mourning Dove, Red-winged Blackbird, and American Robin are the same across the United States. But most birds in the West are not the same as birds in the East. Even if they are the same species, they may look slightly different.

The variety of birds is one thing that makes watching birds so enjoyable. But also challenging.
You must have a field guide that covers the birds in your local area. A continent-wide field guide is good if you want to be able to identify every bird you see.

Many bird books just for states cover only the most-likely 100 or 150 species. This is good for casual bird watchers. But soon you will be seeing less common birds not in these beginner guide books.

Pay attention to seasonality. Some birds spend the entire year in your area. Others are found only in summer or winter. Some birds pass through in spring and fall only.

"Spring" migration can occur February through June, depending upon species. "Fall" migration can occur June through November. This also varies depending upon whether you live father north or south.

Pay close attention to the range and time of year that the field guide tells you. 


Help to identify a bird


If you can't figure out what bird you saw, you can get help. If you have a picture of a bird you can identify it a couple of ways. Even if you only have a description, you may be able to learn the common birds that it is likely to be.

The first place I have for you is the Facebook Bird Identification Group. I'm not a Facebook user, but it seems to have an active community. Post your photo to the group with your location. From what I see, most people responding aren't true experts. So you may get several wrong opinions before the correct identification is offered.

The best app for identifying birds is the Merlin App. It is a FREE app from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I tried it out a couple of years ago when it first came out and it was pretty good. It sometimes gave wrong answers. But it has improved much since then.

Answer some basic questions as to size, color, behavior (hmm... where have I heard that before?) and you will be given some possibilities. Or, submit your photo and the app will try to identify the bird for you. How long before the app is incorporated into the first pair of "smart" binoculars?

Learn about the Merlin app on its web page.

There are many local email bird lists you may join. Some are general birding related groups where you may ask about bird ID and discuss anything related to local birds and bird watching and bird walks. Others are restricted to only sharing rare bird sightings. Each group is different.

The American Birding Association maintains a list of bird watching mailing lists.




Bird Watching Basics Series


Common identification challenges for beginners




Sunday, July 26, 2020

Feeding winter birds in Georgia

You might not expect it, but winter bird feeding in Georgia is fantastic! If you've never set up a bird feeder before, or are just looking for new ideas, then this article is for you!

This article discusses why and how to feed winter birds in the state of Georgia. It discusses setting up a bird feeding station. It also shows you photos and gives identification tips for the common birds you can attract to your feeder in winter.

Winters in Georgia can be cool in the south and cold in the northern mountains. Some freezing weather in winter is typical inland in winter. The 10-year average temperature for 2010-2019 in Atlanta in January was a high of 53° F and a low of 35° F. This means that you will have some hungry birds visiting your feeders!



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



Why feed winter birds in Georgia?


Georgia has many birds that spend the entire year and love to eat at bird feeders. Georgia is also visited in winter by birds from the north, escaping the harsh weather. Many of these, too, will also visit your feeders. The result is that you will have many different types of birds at your feeder.

No, these birds probably don't need your winter bird feeders to survive the winter. The weather isn't that harsh, and natural foods are abundant. Still, setting up a bird feeder and making your yard attractive to birds can benefit birds.

You can make your backyard a safe haven for the local birds. Food, water, and some thoughtful landscaping can make your yard attractive to birds. You can mitigate some of the effects of continuous urban sprawl.

Often it is young birds, experiencing their first winter, that benefit the most from backyard feeders. These birds are not yet experienced in finding food in winter. Your bird feeders are a welcome bonus to them.

Of course, you may benefit more than the birds. Watching birds at the feeder relieves stress and gives many hours of enjoyment. They brighten up a dreary winter day. Feeding and watching birds gives us a connection to the natural world that many people are missing in their daily lives.

You may also find that feeding birds gives you a connection with other people who feed birds. Your feeders are obvious. Neighbors will notice. You may find you share the joy of feeding birds in common. You'll meet others with the same interest at the bird feeding department or nature store.


What birds come to feeders in Georgia in winter?


Georgia has a long list of common winter feeder birds! I'll show you the most expected below.

But Georgia also has many backyard birds that don't necessarily come to feeders. They visit your backyard for the protection of trees or bushes you may have. They may be more interested in insects or invertebrates in your yard or shrubs. Or they may come only for the water in your bird baths. 

These common backyard birds are in my related article: common backyard birds of Georgia. I'll link to this again at the end of this article.

Here, then are some of the birds you can attract to your feeder in Georgia. How many visit your feeders?


Photo of Northern Cardinal in the snow
Northern Cardinal
Image by tlparadis from Pixabay

Northern Cardinal: 

These birds that are a favorite in the East may be the most common bird at your feeder in Georgia!

They are found in deciduous woods in the eastern, central, and southern United States and eastern Mexico. In Georgia they are year-round residents.

They are medium birds with full long tail. The big head has a thick bill and a fancy crest. Males are bright red, females tan, with a black face.

They sing throughout the year, a loud liquid whistle such as birdy birdy birdy.

Northern Cardinals eat larger seeds include sunflower and safflower seeds. They prefer a platform feeder.


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

Red-bellied Woodpecker: 

These medium-sized woodpeckers are fairly easy to attract to your backyard feeders.

These birds are found in woodlands in the eastern, central, and southeastern  parts of the United States. They are year-round residents in Georgia.

The bodies are stocky. The head is large with a big chisel-shaped bill. The tail is short, stiff, and pointed. The body is pale gray. The back and wings are striped with fine black-and-white lines. The back of the head is red, covering the crown on males.

Their common call is a rolling churr.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers eat peanuts and tree nuts from platform feeders. They love suet offered in suet feeders.


Photo of Carolina Chickadee at bird feeder
Carolina Chickadee
Image by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay

Carolina Chickadee: 

These friendly birds will enliven your backyard feeders.

They are common in deciduous woodlands and backyards in the southeastern United States. They are residents throughout the year in Georgia.

Chickadees have plump little bodies and a large head. The bill is small and stout. The tail is fairly long and round-ended. They are gray above and paler below. They have a black cap and bib contrasting with a white face.

Their calls include a husky chick-a-dee-dee-dee. They have a whistled fee-bee fee-bay song.

Carolina Chickadees like black oil sunflower seeds and eat from tube or hopper feeders.


Photo of Chipping Sparrow on tangled branches
Chipping Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

Chipping Sparrow: 

Look closely at your winter sparrows and you may spot these.

These birds breed in orchards or scattered patches of fields and woodlands throughout Canada and most of the United States and highlands of Mexico. They winter widely across the southern United States and Mexico. Georgia is right on the edge of the breeding and wintering area. They are resident throughout most of Georgia, but only breed in summer in the far north and are found only in winter in the far south parts of the state. 

These sparrows are small and slim with a longer thin forked tail. They are gray underneath, the back and wings are brown with darker streaks. The face is rather plain with a thin black line behind the eye. The chestnut crown in summer is paler and streaked with fine brown lines in winter.

In winter they give a high-pitched and rather hard seeep call.

Chipping Sparrows eat small seeds such as those found in the mixed seed blends. They eat best from the ground or on a low platform feeder, but will use a hopper feeder, too.


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

Blue Jay: 

These are well-known backyard birds in the East.

They are found in woodlands east of the Rocky Mountains from Canada south to Florida and Texas. Birds in much of Canada move south in winter. They are found year-round in Georgia.

These birds are stock with a large rounded tail. The crest is fairly obvious on the large had with strong bill. They are blue above and white or gray below. The wings and tail have black and white bars on blue. A black necklaces wraps up behind the head.

Common calls include a raspy jay jay jay.

Blue Jays love peanuts but also may grab up mouthfuls of sunflower seeds and go off and bury them to eat later in winter (food caching). To keep them from running away with all the sunflower seeds feed sunflower seeds from tube feeders where they can only get one at a time.


Photo of White-breasted Nuthatch on branch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Photo by Greg Gillson

White-breasted Nuthatch: 

These birds will be regular visitors at your feeder.

In he East they are mostly found in deciduous trees. In the West they are found primarily in oaks and pines. They are resident across most of Canada and the United States and the mountains of Mexico. They are resident throughout most of Georgia, but absent in the south or southeastern part of the state.

They are small and stock with a big head on a short neck. The tail is stubby. The bill is long and sharply pointed. Above they are blue-gray. Below they are white including most of the head and face, except for a thin strip of black over the crown.

Calls vary regionally, but include yank yank calls in Georgia.

White-breasted Nuthatches eat black oil sunflower seeds that they take from tube or hopper feeders one at a time. They fly away to a tree to pound the seeds open. After eating one seed, they fly back to the feeder for another.


Photo of House Finch on bird feeder
House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

House Finch: 

These birds are especially common at feeders in residential areas.

They are residents cross most of the United States and extreme southern Canada, as well as into Mexico. They are year-round residents in Georgia.

They are small and rather slim birds with longer tail and big head. The thick seed eating bill is obvious. Birds of both genders are dusty gray and darker brown, with heavy streaked lines on the sides and flanks. Males have reddish-orange forehead, upper breast and throat, and rump.

The common calls include rising chirping calls and a lively warbled song.

House Finches love black oil sunflower seeds from tube or hopper feeders. They also eat Niger seed from thistle feeders.


Photo of Carolina Wren on stump
Carolina Wren
Image by the SOARnet from Pixabay

Carolina Wren: 

By offering a variety of foods you can attract birds that don't eat seeds, like this wren!

These small birds of brushy tangles are found in the eastern and southeastern United States. They are year-round residents in Georgia.

They are plump birds with big heads and a long floppy tail. The bill is long, sharp pointed, and curves down slightly. They are rich brown above and softly buff below. They have a long white eyebrow stripe.

They are year-round songsters that whistle lively cheery cheery cheery songs or tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle.

Carolina Wrens eat grubs and insects. But they will come to feeders to eat mealworms and suet.


Photo of Eastern Towhee in tree branches
Eastern Towhee
Image by skeeze from Piabay

Eastern Towhee: 

These birds are shy. Look for them under bushes at the edge of your yard.

They live in brushy tangles and understory plants in the eastern United States. Northern birds migrate south in winter. In Georgia these birds are year-round residents.

These are large sparrows with large full rounded tail and big head with thick seed-eating bill. Males are blackish above, including a hood over the head. The wings and tail have large white spots. the sides are bright rusty and the lower belly is white. The iris is red in most areas, white in Florida. Eye color is variable in southern Georgia.

They call a rising chweee. The song has one or two metallic opening notes and a long sweet trill: drink teeeeea or drink your teeeeea.

Eastern Towhees feed on the ground and will eat mixed seeds and sunflower seeds from a platform feeder or hopper feeder.


Photo of Tufted Titmouse in bird feeder
Tufted Titmouse
Image by Anne773 from Pixabay

Tufted Titmouse: 

These small birds are common at feeders in the East.

These birds are found in deciduous woods and residential areas in the eastern United States. They are year-round residents in Georgia.

They are small and stocky or plump with a large head with wispy crest. The small bill is rather stout. The tail is fairly long. They are blue-gray above and paler below. The black eye stands out on the pale face because there are additional black feathers around the eye. They also have a black forehead which causes the bill to look larger than it really is.

They sing throughout the year a whistled Peter Peter Peter.

Tufted Titmouses eat black oil sunflower seeds at tube and hopper feeders.


Photo of White-throated Sparrow at bird bath
White-throated Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

White-throated Sparrow: 

These birds are common at feeders in winter east of the Rocky Mountains.

They breed in woodlands and brush across Canada and into the northeastern United States. In the winter they are primarily found in the eastern and southeastern United States. They winter throughout Georgia.

These are fairly large sparrows with long tails. In general they appear as rather long throughout, and not as plump as some sparrows appear. They have dark brown stripes on the creamy brown back. The wings are dark brown, as is the tail. The underparts are gray, contrasting sharply with a white throat. The head is striped with black and white or black and tan lines. The feathers above the eye line, between the eye and bill, are yellow.

They give a loud metallic pink call. In spring they sing Oh sweet Canada Canada Canada.

White-throated Sparrows like mixed seeds on platform feeders or on the ground.


Photo of Mourning Dove on tree stump
Mourning Dove
Photo by Greg Gillson

Mourning Dove: 

These birds are common at feeders across the United States.

They are resident in most regions in both open country and residential habitats. Summer birds in Canada and the north Plains states migrate southward in winter. These doves are resident throughout Georgia.

They are plump with a small round head and long pointed tail. The back and wings are brownish and the underparts are paler pink. They show black spots on the wings and a dark mark on the side of the neck.

Their call is a mournful boo-hoo hoo hoo hoo.

Mourning Doves like all kinds of seeds, grains and corn, and nuts. They eat from the ground and on platform feeders, but even squeeze onto small hopper feeders.


Photo of Brown-headed Nuthatch at bird feeder
Brown-headed Nuthatch
Image by mlmclaren from Pixabay

Brown-headed Nuthatch: 

These are very local and generally rare in the Southeast U.S.

Flocks of these birds live in pine forests. They are found throughout most of Georgia except for the far northeastern corner.

These are tiny stocky birds with a big head and stubby tail. The bill is rather short and pointed. They have short legs with larger strong feet. The flight feathers are dark, the back blue-gray. The crown and hind neck is brown. The lower face is white. The under parts are buff.

Calls include squeaky double notes and twittering.

Brown-headed Nuthatches love black oil sunflower seeds and nuts from tube and hopper feeders. They also eat suet.


Photo of Song Sparrow on log
Song Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

Song Sparrow: 

These are common birds in most of North America.

These birds are found in brushy open areas and wetlands, but also in residential areas. 

They breed from coastal Alaska across Canada, in the West and Northeast across the mid-latitudes of the United States. In winter they migrate southward out of interior Canada, the northern Great Plains and much of the Midwest--all areas where water is frozen most of the winter. These birds are found year-round only in northern Georgia, but in winter throughout the state.

They are plump birds with a rounded tail and a good-sized head with thick bill for eating seeds. They are bray and brown with darker brown stripes on the back. The white under parts have lots of brown streaks on the sides and especially in the center of the upper breast where a spot of these streaks converge. The face is striped with dark streaks on the lateral crown, behind the eye, on the lower edge of the ear covert, and on the side of the throat.

They give a chimp call and sing most of the year, 3 husky notes, then a loose trill or tumble of notes: Madge Madge MADGE! Put on your tea-kettle, please.

Song Sparrows like smaller seeds on the ground, platform, or hopper feeder.


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

Downy Woodpecker: 

These small woodpeckers are common at feeders.

They are found in deciduous woods and wooded stream sides from Alaska and across Canada southward across the entire United States except for the western and southwestern deserts. In Georgia these birds are resident all year long.

Their bodies are rather heavy and stocky. The have a short tail with pointed feathers they use to prop themselves against a tree trunk. The head is fairly large, but the bill is small for a woodpecker, though it still shows the straight chisel-shape of the clan.

Their call is a sharp pik!

Downy Woodpeckers love suet at your feeder.


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

American Goldfinch: 

These are fairly common birds at feeders in winter.

They are grassland and open country birds that require some scattered trees. 

In summer they breed across southern Canada and the northern 2/3rds of the United States. In winter they pretty much leave Canada and are found throughout the US. They are year-round residents in northern Georgia, only winter visitors in the southern part of the state.

They are small and slim with a short forked tail and long wings. They have a small conical bill suitable for eating small seeds. The bright yellow summer males with the black crowns are much more subdues in winter, appearing much as the same as the pale brown females. Both share the black wings and tail with large white bars and patches.

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

American Goldfinches eat sunflower seed hearts from hopper feeders, small black oil sunflower seeds from tube feeders, and Niger seeds from thistle socks and feeders.


Setting up a winter bird feeding station in Georgia


Wow, there are so many common winter feeder birds in Georgia that it is hard to narrow down a simple feeding station. I want to recommend everything!

A tube feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds will attract the Carolina Chickadee, Brown-headed Nuthatch, House Finch, White-breasted Nuthatch, American Goldfinch, and Tufted Titmouse. These birds will also eat the sunflower seeds from other types of feeders. But the tube feeder is more about keeping out the larger bully birds and allowing these smaller birds to eat in peace. Tube feeders for sunflower seeds at Amazon (affiliate link)

Put out a hopper feeder with a good mixed bird seed blend that includes a good amount of sunflower seeds and white proso millet (and very little other filler seed such as milo, wheat, or cracked corn). This will attract most of the ground feeding sparrows and other birds: Northern Cardinal, Eastern Towhee, Song Sparrow, Mourning Dove, White-throated Sparrow, and Chipping Sparrow. Hopper bird feeders at Amazon.

Then, I'd be sure to put out suet in a suet cage or upside-down feeder. Birds attracted to this will include the Downy Woodpecker and Red-bellied Woodpecker. But also, the Carolina Wren, and Tufted Titmouse, and White-breasted Nuthatch, and many other birds not listed above may be attracted to the suet. Upside down suet feeders at Amazon.

And don't forget to add water to your bird feeding station. A bird bath is always welcome by birds--even birds that don't normally eat at a bird feeder. Outdoor bird baths at Amazon affiliate.




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 Georgia

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




Tuesday, July 21, 2020

When to stop feeding birds in summer

Do you love to feed birds in winter? It can be a source of joy on those dreary winter days.

However, there is much confusion about when to stop feeding birds when winter is over. When should you stop feeding birds in summer? Here is the good news!

You don't have to stop feeding birds in summer. You can feed birds all year round. 

The one exception is if you live in bear country. If you have bears, stop feeding birds when bears come out of hibernation. 

But, of course, you may stop feeding birds whenever you get tired of it! You may stop feeding birds when spring migration is over. You may stop feeding birds when all you have left at your feeders are the summer House Finches and House Sparrows. 


Photo of Black-headed Grosbeak at a platform feeder
Black-headed Grosbeak at a summer feeder
Photo by Greg Gillson

You don't have to stop feeding birds in summer!

For most people who feed birds there is no reason to stop feeding birds at the end of winter. The spring migration and summer nesting season brings new seed-eating birds to your backyard feeder. And if you vary the type of food you offer birds, the variety of birds you may attract increases dramatically.

Across the United States in summer there are the bright red House Finches with their lively songs. American Goldfinches come to your feeders in their brightest yellow and black summer plumage. Colorful Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in the East and Black-headed Grosbeaks in the West are common backyard birds that will visit your feeders. Northern Cardinals visit feeders all year-round in the East.

And don't forget that across the U.S. there are Downy Woodpeckers that visit feeders year-round. So do Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches in the northern states, Carolina Chickadees and Red-bellied Woodpeckers in the East. And Mourning Doves visit feeders throughout the year in all parts of the Nation. Oh, and I nearly forgot about the Eastern Towhees and the Spotted Towhees.

There are jays and House Sparrows, too. Though most people don't really care to feed these latter birds.
Don't worry that your feeders will keep the wintering birds from migrating back north in the spring. It just doesn't happen. The migratory urges are stronger than even food.

And don't worry that if you stop feeding birds they'll starve. Summer or winter, bird feeders only provide supplemental food. They can survive without our feeding them except, perhaps, during extended snow or ice storms.


A good reason to stop feeding birds in summer!
Image by Marie Gayas from Pixabay

Stop feeding birds in summer if you live in bear country!

There is one good reason to stop feeding birds as soon as early spring, though--bears!

When I think of bear country, places like Maine and Minnesota and Yellowstone come to mind.
But there are bears in Upstate New York. There are bears in Florida. There are bears throughout California--even within 100 miles of Los Angeles!

Even if you live in these areas, chances are you may never have seen a bear outside a zoo. But those people who live on the edge of the wilderness, or in mountain communities, have to be aware of bears. Basically, if you live in bear country, you cannot leave out any trash or food--including bird seed. Otherwise they'll keep coming back and becoming a nuisance.

In some places, because of bears, it is only safe to feed birds from mid-December to mid-March ("Christmas to St. Patrick's Day"). Check your local ordinances. Many communities in bear country have regulations concerning when bird feeding is allowed.

But for most of us, the thought of bears at the feeder doesn't even come to mind.


Other times to stop feeding birds in summer

Depending upon where you live, you may wish to stop feeding birds in the summer, even if you don't have to. Here are some reasons that come to mind. Perhaps you can think of more.


Stop feeding birds when spring migration is over

You can stop feeding birds as soon as the cold and snowy winter weather is over. Many people stop at this time.

But I suggest waiting until May or even June to take down your feeders. Your winter birds may wait until late April to leave. And there is another reason to keep your feeders up until summer.

The reason to wait is that many seed eating birds will be passing through your yard during migration. And they'll be hungry!

Much of the sparrow migration happens in March and April. Widespread White-crowned Sparrows migrate north across the country, White-throated Sparrows in the East, Golden-crowned Sparrows in the West. Other sparrows, too. Savannah Sparrows. Chipping Sparrows. Lark Sparrows. These all visit feeders in spring.

The buntings and grosbeaks migrate through in April and May. These are beautiful birds. Indigo Buntings in the East. Lazuli Buntings in the West. And we've already talked about the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in the East and Black-headed Grosbeaks in the West.

These birds may pass through your backyard on the way north. Or you may live where these birds breed. Thus, they'll be around all spring, and bring their young birds to your feeder in later summer.


House Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

Stop feeding birds when all you have left are House Finches and House Sparrows

In southern areas, or perhaps more urban settings, there may not be many birds at your feeders in summer.

In more northern areas, though, there are many seed eating birds that visit feeders all year.

The resident House Finches and House Sparrows may be all you have in summer. If so, I don't blame you for stopping feeding the birds. These flocking birds can be kind of noisy and messy, and eat a lot.
Even the local Mourning Doves may stop visiting the feeder during the nesting season.

By September or October you may see additional birds migrating back south.

Don't wait too long to set up your winter bird feeders, though! These fall birds move around looking for the best place to spend the winter. By mid-December they are in place. If you wait until then to set up your feeder you won't attract as many birds. Set up your feeders in November to attract more winter birds.


Stop feeding birds when you get tired of it

Yes, you may just get tired of feeding the birds in summer. It's oaky; you can stop. You're not obligated. It doesn't make you a bad person!

But rather than just stop, try this. Use this break to clean the feeders. Wash them with soap and water or a bleach solution. Take them down and put them away. Clean up the ground under the feeders.

You may find that your feeders need to be replaced. Take note of what feeders you liked, what ones had problems. Then you can purchase feeders that attracted the most birds and worked for you.

You may also use this break to think about planting and landscaping your yard with bird-friendly plants and flowers.

You may stop feeding the birds in summer. But that doesn't mean you have to take down the bird bath. Water can still attract birds to your yard all summer!


Photo of Hooded Oriole on tree branch
Hooded Oriole
Photo by Greg Gillson

Don't stop feeding birds, but try different foods for summer

Perhaps you'll want to stop or reduce the amount of seeds you feed in summer. Experiment with other foods, such as fruit or mealworms.

In the heat you may want to move your summer feeders into the shade. It may keep the foods (especially fruits and nectar) from spoiling as quickly.

And you will want to stop offering suet in summer, when the temperature is consistently over 80° F. It will melt and go rancid quickly.

You may wish to switch to only a thistle sock or feeder in summer with Niger seed. The goldfinches are late summer breeders, even feeding small seeds to their nestlings. So they may appreciate having a reliable source of small seed nearby.

Also, summer is when you should be feeding hummingbirds (really, your feeders should be out in early March to attract the first migrants). Four parts water and one part sugar is the ideal 20% sucrose level that is found in the flowers hummingbirds like.

No matter where you live in the United States there should be at least one species of hummingbird you can attract to your feeders--and more if you live in the West or Southwest.

The nectar solution for hummingbirds is exactly the same recipe as for orioles. You can put up special oriole nectar feeders in summer. Sometimes woodpeckers feed from these! Orioles also eat orange slices and grape jelly. Have you tried it?

When and whether you stop feeding birds in summer is up to you!



Related:

5 Simple ways to attract more birds to your feeder

When to put up and take down your hummingbird feeders

10 fruits you should be feeding backyard birds

Birds that come to feeders in summer

Birds that come to feeders in winter

Secrets to feeding birds in winter

Why fall is the best time to start feeding birds




Thursday, July 16, 2020

Feeding winter birds in Michigan

Would you like to set up a bird feeding station in Michigan this winter? Many find great joy from feeding birds. Perhaps you have some questions about what foods to offer and what birds to expect. This article is for you!

This article tells why and how to feed winter birds in Michigan. It includes photos and descriptions of some of the most-likely feeder birds in Michigan. It tells what kinds of foods each species likes and what kind of feeder each bird prefers.

Winters in Michigan are very cold. There are many consecutive days in winter where the temperature does not reach above freezing. Snow averages 40-120 inches per year, depending upon what part of the state you live in.

That means that winter bird feeding must take into account that natural foods may be buried in snow for much of the winter. The birds really will appreciate the food you offer! The good news is that you should easily be able to attract lots of birds!



In this article
Why feed birds in Michigan?
What birds come to feeders in Michigan in winter?
Setting up a winter bird feeder in Michigan
Related articles



Photo of snow-covered bird feeders


Why feed winter birds in Michigan?


As you'll see below, there are many birds in Michigan that come to feeders. It is so much fun to have feeders overflowing with so many different types of birds!

Feeding winter birds in Michigan can actually make a life-and-death difference during those especially long cold spells and periods of deep snow. At such times backyard bird feeders do more than just provide an added supplement to natural foods. Some birds would probably not survive winter without some help.

It may be that first-year birds benefit the most from bird feeders. These birds are barely 6 months old and have not yet experienced their first winter. Thus, they may not be as experienced at finding food in the winter. Your bird feeder can really help keep them fed and healthy.

Of course, the real reason that we feed birds is for the joy that it gives us. People need the connection with nature that inviting birds to the backyard brings. The same individual birds spend the winter in our backyards, waiting for spring. We become attached to "our" birds. And we feed and take care of them. 

This gives us a feeling of being needed. Feeding birds can help us survive the long cold dreary winters!


What birds come to feeders in Michigan in winter?


Michigan is blessed with many birds that visit backyard feeders in winter. 

We'll look at a few of the expected species below. For additional lists and identification of backyard birds throughout the year, see my article The most common backyard birds in Michigan. I'll link to it again at the end of this article.

Following are photos and descriptions of common birds that will visit your feeders in winter in Michigan. I also tell what kind of food each bird loves and what feeders they prefer to eat from.


Photo of White-breasted Nuthatch on a branch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Photo by Greg Gillson

White-breasted Nuthatch: 

These are a favorite of backyard bird watchers.

They are common across the United States and southern Canada in deciduous woods and pines. White-breasted Nuthatches are common throughout the year in Michigan.

They are shaped plump with short neck and large head. The bill is long and thin. The tail is so short so as to appear almost absent. The back and wings are blue. The crown is black. The face and underparts are white.

Birds give a nasal yank, yank call.

White-breasted Nuthatches love black oil sunflower seeds that they take from tube feeders.


Photo of Downy Woodpecker on a post
Downy Woodpecker
Photo by Greg Gillson

Downy Woodpecker: 

Everyone loves woodpeckers!

These small birds are common across most of Alaska, Canada, and the United States, except for treeless grasslands and deserts. Downy Woodpeckers are common throughout the year in Michigan.

They are stocky with a large head. The tail is stiff, short, and pointed. The bill is wedge-shaped, but very dainty in this species. The coloration is black and white striped above with white under parts. Males have a small red spot of feathers at the back of the head.

These birds give a sharp pik call.

Downy Woodpeckers love to eat suet at your feeders. They also eat black oil sunflower seeds and small nuts.


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

Northern Cardinal: 

These popular birds are quite common in deciduous forests in the eastern half of the United States. Northern Cardinals reach their northernmost extent in Michigan where they are resident all year long.

They are fairly large with a long wide tail. The bill is very heavy and conical. The crest is very obvious.

 Males are scarlet red throughout with a black face. Females are similar but tan-brown.

These birds sing throughout the year, a whistled birdy-birdy-birdy is a common song.

Northern Cardinals like larger seeds, such as sunflower and safflower seeds. They feed from platform feeders and hopper feeders with wide trays.


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

House Finch: 

These finches are common in backyards and feeders. They occur throughout the United States, southernmost Canada, and well into Mexico. In Michigan House Finches are year-round residents in the Lower Peninsula, rare or absent in the Upper Peninsula.

They are small and fairly long and slim, but with a short neck. They have a conical beak for eating seeds. Birds are pale gray with dusty brown streaks. Males have red on the forehead, upper breast, and rump.

Songs are cheerful and lively. Chirping calls, including a wheet note.

House Finches love black oil sunflowers and eat from tube or hopper feeders.


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

Dark-eyed Junco: 

This tiny little sparrow visiting your feeder indicates that winter has arrived.

They breed in conifer forests across Alaska and Canada, as well as mountains in the eastern and western United States. Their range in Michigan is complicated. They are summer residents in the Upper Peninsula and northern parts of the Lower Peninsula. and winter visitors in the southern part of the state.

They are plump birds with large heads. They have small conical pink bills. Eastern birds are gray overall with a white belly. They flash white outer tail feathers. Females have some brown on the back and wings.

Common sounds include smacks and twitters. In spring they sing a long musical trill on one pitch.

Dark-eyed Juncos prefer small seeds, such as those found in mixed bird seed. They feed on the ground and on platform feeders.


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

Blue Jay: 

These well-known birds are found in deciduous woods east of the Rocky Mountains from southern Canada through the United States. They are year-round residents throughout Michigan.

They are fairly large with a big crested head and round full tail. They are blue above and white or pale gray below. They have black bars and white patches on the wings and tail. A black necklace crosses the upper breast and wraps behind the head.

They give a variety of calls, including a harsh jay jay jay.

Blue Jays are omnivores, eating everything. They may "steal" large quantities of sunflower seeds and fly off and bury them in a food cache for winter. They also like peanuts and tree nuts. 

They are large, so like platform feeders and hopper feeders with large trays.


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

American Tree Sparrow: 

These sparrows of weedy fields often come to bird feeders.

These birds nest at the edge of the Arctic tundra in Alaska and across Canada. In winter they can be found in weedy fields across the northern United States, more commonly east of the Rocky Mountains. In Michigan they migrate through the Upper Peninsula to winter on the Lower Peninsula.

These are small sparrows. They have a small but conical bill, dark on top, pale underneath. They are gray with rusty lateral crown stripe and thin dark line back from the eye. There are two white wing bars on the rusty and black wing. They have a dark spot of feathers in the middle of the breast.

One common call is a musical teedle-eet.

American Tree Sparrows love white proso millet at your feeders. Many mixed bird seed blends contain this seed. They prefer to feed on the ground or on platform feeders.


Photo of Tufted Titmouse on bird feeder
Tufted Titmouse
Image by anne773 from Pixabay

Tufted Titmouse: 

These are common feeder birds in the East.

They are found in deciduous woods throughout the eastern United States. In Michigan they are resident in most of the Lower Peninsula, absent from the Upper Peninsula and northern parts of the Lower Peninsula.

They are stocky with a large head and rather wide tail. The bill is short but stout. These birds are darker blue gray above and creamy gray below. The have a black ring of feathers around the eyes and on the forehead.

Song is a loud whistled Peter Peter Peter.

Tufted Titmouses love black oil sunflower seeds from tube feeders and hopper feeders.


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

Red-bellied Woodpecker: 

These rather large woodpeckers are frequent feeder visitors.

They live in deciduous woods throughout the eastern United States. Here is another example of a species in Michigan that is common year-round on most of the Lower Peninsula, absent from the Upper Peninsula and northern parts of the Lower Peninsula.

Fairly large and stock with a large head and long chisel-shaped bill. They have stiff, short, pointed tail feathers that they use to prop themselves up as they climb the tree trunk.

They give a churrr call.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers visit feeders for nuts, sunflower seeds, and suet.


Photo of Black-capped Chickadee in cedar tree
Black-capped Chickadee
Photo by Greg Gillson

Black-capped Chickadee: 

These cute little birds are a favorite at northern bird feeders.

They are resident in deciduous and mixed woodlands from Alaska, across Canada, and the northern United States. These birds are resident throughout Michigan.

They are pudgy with a big round head on a short neck. The bill is small but stout. The tail is fairly long and rounded. They are generally gray above and pale buff below. The white side of the face splits the extensive black cap from the large black bib on the throat.

The song is a whistled fee-bee-bee-bee. The call is a harsh chick-a-dee-dee-dee.

Black-capped Chickadees love black oil sunflower seeds that they take from tube and hopper feeders.


Photo of House Sparrow at feeder
House Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

House Sparrow: 

These city birds can be messy and aggressive when they form large flocks. A couple at a time at the feeder seems just fine to me.

They are resident wherever humans have homes and farms and towns across Canada and the United States below the high mountains. They are resident throughout Michigan.

Rather compact with large head and cone-shaped bill. Females and younger birds are colored a dusty brown above and gray below with a pale eyebrow and dark stripes on the back. In breeding plumage the male has a gray crown and black mask and bib, with chestnut back from the eye and on the wing, which has 2 white wing bars.

Calls are chirping chirrup and cheep.

House Sparrows love smaller mixed seeds such as milo, found in cheap bird seed, which few other backyard birds eat. They eat from platform feeders and hopper feeders with wide trays.


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

American Goldfinch: 

These small flocking birds visit bird feeders in small active flocks or family groups.

They breed in summer in weedy fields across southern Canada and the northern United States. In winter they move southward out of Canada and across all of the U.S. They can be found year-round in Wisconsin.

They are small and slim with a short forked tail. They have a round head and a small conical bill. 

Males in summer breeding plumage are strikingly bright yellow and black. 

In winter they are more dull tan with a hint of yellow on the throat. The black wings have wide white wing bars on edges of coverts and tertials. They also have white edges on the black tail feathers.

They are constantly twittering and calling to each other in the flock. One call is a whiny sweee. Flying away they sound a distinctive loud per-chick-o-ree.

American Goldfinches eat black oil sunflower seeds from tube feeders, but really like Niger seed in special "thistle sock" feeders.


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

Mourning Dove: 

These birds are one of the most widespread and common in the United States.

In summer they are found across southern Canada and the U.S. and through Mexico. In winter, birds retreat from Canada and the northern Great Plains. In Michigan they summer and breed throughout, but are found only in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula in winter.

These are plump birds with small round heads and a long pointed tail. They have a medium-long thin bill, slightly hooked. They are fawn brown above and paler pinkish below. They have black spots on the wing coverts and a small dark mark on the cheek.

Their familiar call is a mournful cooing: boo-hoo-hoo.

Mourning Doves eat all kinds of seeds including sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn. They prefer to feed on the ground or large platform feeders.


Setting up a winter bird feeder in Michigan


So, what bird feeder do you set up to feed birds in Michigan?

I suggest starting with a hopper feeder. All the birds listed should come to that kind of feeder. And most of the birds that use feeders in Michigan actually prefer a hopper feeder. 

I suggest a larger feeder because such may have a large roof to keep off the snow in winter. Here are a listing of such feeders at Amazon (affiliate link).

As for bird seed, I would start with a premium blend that has about half black oil sunflower seed and then a good amount of white proso millet. Please skip the inexpensive bird seed that is mostly milo filler than most birds do not like. 

I recently bought Wagner's Songbird Supreme (Amazon affiliate link). It has a great combination of seeds. See if you can find it or something like it as to ingredients listed and ratio.

A suet feeder will attract woodpeckers and nuthatches, chickadees, and titmouses, among others. I don't have any specific recommendations, but here are two pages on the Amazon site to get you started (affiliate link): suet and then suet feeders.

Finally, you may consider setting up a bird bath. Birds need fresh water in winter when natural sources are frozen. Thus, you may want a bird bath with a heater. 

I must admit I'm not too familiar with any good ones, living as I do in San Diego! But here are some heated bird bath ideas from  Amazon (affiliate links).




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 Michigan

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




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