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Backyard Birding

Watch Birds from the Comfort of Your Home

An American Goldfinch perches on a branch.

Post & Photos by Karlee Holmes

Winter months can seem to be gloomy but adding some birds to your backyard can brighten your day. The best part of it all is you can do it without having to face the elements! A good backyard habitat requires three things: food, water, and shelter.


Food

Standing in the store looking at all the food and feeder options can be overwhelming. Some food and feeders are an all-in-one and some are for a specific species of bird.


Feeders

  • Tray/Platform - This open-space feeder does not have a cover overtop of it. It can be hung or placed on a post or railing. It is very easy to fill up without having to take a lid off but it also allows for an abundance of moisture to cause the seed to get moldy quickly if the birds take their time eating it.

  • Hopper - This is the typical feeder that all stores carry because nearly all birds will use this and all bird seed will go in it except Nyjer, whole peanuts, and suet. There are special hopper feeders that have suet feeders attached to the sides which tends to be the best of both worlds to attract a variety of birds to your backyard. Hopper bird feeders can hang or be mounted and they have a little spot for the birds to stand on, along with a covered roof to help prevent moldy food.

  • Window - Although the idea of getting a “birds-eye” view of your new feathered friends sounds nice, it can be a danger to them. If the bird gets confident enough to approach the window feeder, there is a high chance that it will get injured by flying into the window due to the reflection.

Smaller birds are often attracted to tube feeders.

  • Nyjer - The tiny holes in the hanging feeder allow for the tiny Nyjer seeds to come through while birds that hang like the American Goldfinch can hang and pull them out. This is an example of a species-specific feeder since the Goldfinch is one of the only ones that use it.

  • Tube - These feeders are almost always hung from a hook and they come in various sizes. Smaller birds enjoy the little pegs from the holes in the tube so that they can get their beaks inside.


Nyjer seeds are a favorite of the American Goldfinch.

Food

  • Nyjer - Another name for thistle. The number one bird that adores nyjer seed is the American Goldfinch. The tiny little yellow birds can really put it away!

  • Suet - This yummy mixture of seed, nuts, and sometimes fruit provides the most amount of energy for birds during winter months. Due to the solid texture and type of suet feeders, birds must possess long beaks and the ability to hang to eat. Common birds that are interested in suet are woodpeckers, nuthatches and the invasive European Starlings.

  • Sunflower seeds - The most common of the bird food, nearly all birds will eat sunflower seeds. Birds that will share the feeder for shelled or unshelled sunflower seeds are Northern Cardinals, Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Bluejays. Doves also enjoy sunflower seeds but usually stay on the ground due to them being scared easily.

  • Peanuts - Some birds like peanuts more than others, especially during the winter months because they are full of protein. Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers will be extra thankful for the peanuts. Nuthatches and Bluejays also will gravitate to the tasty treats!

In winter, suet can provide a welcome source of energy for birds.

Water


In the winter, water is hard to find for birds so they will appreciate any water that you can provide. Unlike feeders and feed, bird baths are used by all types of birds. There are a few bird baths that are low maintenance and good for that unpredictable winter weather.


Pedestal

This is the most common bird bath that stores carry and will work fine for winter months if they are monitored. Obviously with the temperature fluctuating so frequently, this type of bath has the tendency to freeze. This bird bath is a basin on a pedestal, they come in different weights because some yards might be in windy areas.


Heated

Perfect for the winter months, heated bird baths allow for hassle-less enjoyment of thawed water for the feathered friends. Heated bird baths do require electricity so it is helpful to purchase an extension cord for this type of bath.


Solar

Although any type of water is great to have, solar powered bird baths use the sun’s energy to keep the water from sitting stagnant.


Shelter


The size of a yard doesn’t have to make it tough to provide shelter for birds. No matter if the backyard is in an urban or rural setting, providing shrubs or birdhouses will be sure to draw birds in long term.


Birdhouse

The winter is a time for the backyard birds to store up enough energy for breeding season in the spring. It is not necessary to have a birdhouse up during winter for offspring purposes but it is beneficial for birds to use during harsh snow and wind conditions. Birdhouses can be hung or mounted and they should be placed somewhere in the backyard where they can get to the food and water easily.


Shrubs

It’s always nice to provide a place for new birds to be reared in the backyard but if nothing else, it is good to have native shrubs near the food and water to provide protection from the elements and predators. Placing the feeder and water close to shrubs allows for a quick retreat when in danger. It also is a place where certain birds can build their nests each year.

A White-breasted Nuthatch finds dry footing on a snowy day.

Some things to keep in mind when starting to dream up the perfect bird utopia are:

  • Placement - It is important to create the bird habitat in a place where birds can feel safe. Consider a quiet area that has natural cover like trees and bushes. Birds tend to be skittish at first so having an area where they can retreat to until they get comfortable is beneficial.

  • Cleaning - Birdbaths and feeders can get moldy from the moisture of being outside. Birdbaths and feeders can be washed every so often with hot water and soap to keep the birds happy and healthy.

  • Danger - Keep in mind that other animals like hawks and cats might notice your new backyard friends. If you do notice unwanted predators stalking the birds, take the feeders down for a week or so and they will be likely to move on to another area.


Once you have provided food, water, and shelter in your backyard, sit back, grab a cup of tea and wait to see what will pay you a visit! Lastly, if you have a few minutes and $20 to spare, take the simple steps to get it certified through the National Wildlife Federation.


To learn more about native species and bird watching, check out Beginner Birding courses at Butler County Community College. Enrollment is underway for the May term. Click HERE for details. 

Karlee Holmes holds a Master's in Environmental Science and Management from Duquesne University and is a biology instructor at Butler County Community College. She is a wife to Joshua and mother to Jasper. In her spare time, Karlee likes to take photos of animals; check "lifers" off of her bird list; catch bass; and teach continuing education classes.

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