Experts and bird watchers offer advice for attracting feathered friends to your back yard. See a video about bird feeders along with photos of birds in this story.
People are drawn to backyard bird watching because it’s entertaining and they like seeing their favorites, according to experts at stores that specialize in bird feeders and seeds.
“It’s nature’s TV,” said Connie Marshall, owner of Wild About Birds in Ocean View. “All the activity – it puts a smile on your face. It’s a colorful show.”
Like TV characters you’ve grown to love or hate, there are favorites and villains in the backyard show.
“Seeing cardinals outside your window on a dreary day is uplifting,” said Charles Shattuck, who co-owns Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin with his wife, Kathy. “What better way to acknowledge spring is around the corner than by listening to the tiny wren triumphantly sing on a bright morning.”
He said for some people, summer truly begins when “their” hummingbird appears.
“People make it very personal,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘My bluebirds came back yesterday’ or ‘My hummingbird visited last weekend.’ I know I have ‘my bluebirds’ here at the store.”
As for the villains, they’re usually the large, plain birds that eat lots of seeds and chase away the smaller, more colorful birds, but there’s one intruder feared above all the rest.
“The most common question I get is how to keep the squirrels away,” said Marshall. “They’re gluttons. They come in and take everything. They can even damage feeders. Their presence keeps birds away.”
Many methods can be tried to protect bird feeders, but Marshall said squirrels are amazingly inventive.
At Southern States in Clayton, salesman John Moor said customers have greased a plastic pipe to prevent squirrels from climbing to the feeder, and have hung a feeder in the middle of a thin cable stretched across the yard away from trees.
“Squirrels are pretty resourceful critters,” Moor said.
One solution is a feeder inside a cage with small openings, so small birds can get to the food but squirrels and larger birds can’t.
Bird watcher Kay Revels of Dover recommended a blast from the past – a Slinky, preferably the smaller size. She said she saw the idea on the internet and it really works if you attach it to the pole holding the feeder.
“Squirrels get on it and quickly jump off,” Revels said. “You do need to fasten it at the top so it doesn’t slide all the way down. The birds don’t mind it one bit.”
At his store in Hockessin, Shattuck said customers have reported success keeping squirrels away by using birdseed blended with hot pepper.
“Hot pepper doesn’t bother birds,” said Shattuck. “Squirrels won’t touch it. They’re mammals like us and it affects them like it affects us.”
While many bird watchers are frustrated by squirrels, others consider them an acrobatic addition to the show.
Moor suggested a way to keep everyone happy.
“Some people put out ears of dried corn for squirrels to keep them away from their bird feeders,” he said.
While cages around feeders can keep out undesirable larger birds, Shattuck recommended changing the times you put out food to avoid another pesky bird.
“This time of year, you may get blackbird invasions,” he said. “They come in such large quantities, hundreds of them.”
Since blackbirds tend to eat in the middle of the day, bring in feeders when you leave for work in the morning and put them back out when you get home in the evening.
Feeders and locations
The best type of feeder depends on the birds you’re trying to attract, but most customers favor the tube-shaped, vertical feeder, with perches and holes down the sides where birds get the food – preferably with a tray at the bottom.
“The standard tube feeder kind of revolutionized bird feeding in America, but if it doesn’t have a tray, cardinals tend not to use it,” said Marshall.
Another favorite is a box-shaped feeder, also called a hopper feeder, and there are feeders to attract a specific kind of bird, like finches or hummingbirds.
“The best feeders will be easy to fill, easy to clean and have adequate protection from the elements,” Shattuck said.
The experts recommend hanging a feeder in a place where you don’t mind seed shells, spilled seeds and bird droppings, like on a tree away from your house or deck, but many like having the feeders as close to a window as possible.
If you don’t have a tree, or don’t have one in a good spot for bird watching, many stores sell a metal pole, often called a “shepherd’s hook” to hang a feeder where you want.
An important tip about any feeder is to check it regularly and clean out old, mushy seeds.
Choosing the food
Shattuck said the food is more important than the feeder.
“Birds require protein and fat in their diet,” he said. “They can find it within the natural foods they eat and it should be in the birdseed.”
A particular kind of sunflower seed – black oil – was recommended by store representatives and hobbyists.
“I have two feeders that I fill with black oil sunflower seed and this attracts a large variety of birds,” said Jerry Hull of Clayton.
Bird watching complements Hull’s hobby of photography. Some of the species he’s photographed include red-bellied woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, white-throated sparrows, red-breasted nuthatches, white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina chickadees, slate-colored dark eyed juncos, cardinals, blue jays, the tufted titmouse and a variety of finches.
Shattuck said black oil sunflower seeds are his top pick, along with sunflower chips, safflower seeds and peanuts.
“These should also be the first ingredients listed on any bag of bird seed,” Shattuck said.
Some seed mixes are filled with lower quality seeds like milo, millet, corn and grain products which are low in fat and protein and won’t attract colorful birds.
“My number one seller is called a ‘no mess blend’ because it’s seeds with no shells,” said Shattuck. “That’s cleaner around the feeder. Seeds in shells mean 30 to 35 percent of the bag is shell weight.”
He said some birds, like bluebirds, have difficulty cracking open shells.
“Customers have told me they have bluebirds showing up for the first time in 15 or 20 years and they’re eating sunflower seeds without shells,” he said.
Moor said many bird watchers use multiple feeders with different seeds, for example black oil sunflower seeds in one feeder and then another with special seeds for goldfinches.
Another way to attract birds is with a suet cake, a mix of fats, sometimes with peanut butter, often mixed with seeds and even fruit. The fat in the suet helps keep birds warm in the winter. Moor said a popular seller is a suet mix designed to attract woodpeckers.
Hummingbird feeders use “nectar” – sugar water that can be bought or made at home after boiling the water to remove impurities.
While winter is usually when most people think about feeding birds, the experts said feathered friends still come to feeders during warmer weather. Some, like hummingbirds, are only seen in this area in the spring and summer.
“In the winter, there’s not as much food available naturally, so birds visit feeders more,” Shattuck said. “But in the summer months, the actual number of birds is higher because of all the baby birds.”
With an abundance of natural food in the summer and early fall, backyard bird watchers may only want to put out a small amount of food. That way, the seeds will be eaten before they go bad. Rain, heat and humidity mean you may have to clean out the feeders more often because the seeds go bad faster.
Shattuck said putting some seed in feeders during warmer months helps birds with the education process. Adult birds show their young how to find food in nature, but they also show them how to eat at feeders to help them survive the winter, he said.
Feathered friends on Facebook
Bird watchers share their photos from throughout the state on the “Delaware Birding” Facebook page, recommended by Shattuck.
High-tech bird identification
The Merlin bird ID app from the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology features a photo ID system. Users enter a photo of a bird, and Merlin helps identify it. The free app is available for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices in the Apple App Store and on Google Play.
The Audubon Bird Guide app features 821 North American species of birds with sounds, images and range maps. The app is free and available for smartphones and tablets through the Apple App Store, Google Play and Amazon App Store.