Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Posts about Birds in the backyard

Birds and cold temperatures

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: January 6, 2014 - 11:22 PM

This cardinal was coming to one of the feeders on our deck yesterday (Monday). Cardinals often prefer picking fallen seeds from the snow to taking seeds while perched. Sprinkle some seed beneath the feeders when you fill them. As always, black oil sunflower is your best seed buy. The mixes often available for more money are not necessarily more attractive to the birds. Food will be more important than ever during this cold spell. Drinking water also will be helpful. This bird pulled one foot into its feathers for a moment of warmth

Landscaping for backyard birding

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: November 5, 2013 - 11:48 PM

“Bird Homes and Habitats,” a new book about making your backyard bird-friendly, features a Duluth resident who has done so. Dudley Edmondson, an active Minnesota birder, and his wife Nancy describe their improvement project along with 14 other homeowners in this book, “Bird Home and Habitats.”

It’s one of the books in the Backyard Bird Guide series from the magazine “BirdWatcher’s Digest” and its editor, Bill Thompson III. It carries the Peterson Field Guide imprimatur.

Photos and text guide you from project beginning to end. There are lessons to learn about food, water, cover, and nesting opportunities, the latter focusing on bird boxes. Yards large and small are included.

One of the smallest, half of a California lot 60 by 120 feet (the house sits on the other half), is described by owner Alvaro Jaramillo as a “pretty lame backyard” when he and his wife purchased the home new.

Jaramillo and his wife changed the lot from lame to birdy with native and drought-resistant plants and shrubs placed to form a thicket for winter cover.

The Edmondsons needed to replace people-friendly landscaping with bird-friendly. They began with the soil, followed with native and bird-friendly trees and shrubs. The latter focused on fruit-bearing varieties. They used highbush cranberry, juneberry, chokecherry, and elderberry. The mountain ash trees that came with the house provide another bird-favorite fruit.

They have feeding stations and nest boxes. Edmondson wants to create additional shrubby and brushy areas for nesters.

The success stories fill the back of the book. The first half offers instructions on all the things you might want to do to make your yard a welcome habitat for birds. 

Feeder research -- chickadees and seeds

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: October 19, 2013 - 2:39 PM

After nesting seasons and again in winters I've counted as many as seven Black-capped Chickadees in our yard, visiting one feeder or another. They're not easy to count, constantly coming and going from the feeders. In most cases the birds would take a seed to the cedar tree or the willow near four of the feeders, duck out of sight, eat, then flit back to the feeders. They're never identified as individuals in any way, so I assumed that the birds of the Year of Seven were the same birds I saw the day before or the day after.

That might not be the case. Doing some Internet research on chickadees I came across a study done in northern Maine in which chickadees somehow were counted individually. Banding was not mentioned (but some kind of ID coding must have been used). The man wrote that as many as 110 individual chickadees used his feeders during a two-day period, not all at the same time. The study was published in the ornithological journal The Wilson Bulletin. Our backyard isn't exactly northern Maine, however, and that many chickadees must be some kind of record. I thought seven was good.

Perhaps the chickadees we see here change from day to day, move around the neighborhood. I have read that non-migrants such as chickadees do make short-distance migrations, "ours" moving south for whatever length of time while chickadees from north of us come here. Again, no indication of how that information was acquired. 

The Wilson article also said that chickadees found feeders more readily in October than in January. And that use of the feeders varied "markedly" in both number of birds present and frequency of use among individuals. That makes sense. Numbers do change here, too, from zero to seven as far as I know. Another study done in Wisconsin in 1985 found that feeders were used more often prior to sunset than after sunrise, and that air temperatures made no difference. I agree.

I found studies that said juncos prefer thistle seed to canary seed, reportedly because the time required to open the shell and extract the kernel was shorter for thistle. Juncos preferred thinner to thicker seeds because, the author wrote, small items are easier for small bills to handle. 

Below, a Black-capped Chickadee with a black oil sunflower seed, probably a small, thin one.

Generally, larger birds coming to the research feeders ate seeds both large and small, but showed preference for smaller seeds. It was thought they did this because smaller seeds were easier to process, reducing foraging time and thus exposure to predation.

Cardinals observed in that study made little distinction between larger and smaller sunflower seeds. Larger sizes did not slow them up at all.

Birds in another study showed preference for feeding trays (near windows) that were positioned with the long dimension at right angles to the window. The birds using those trays chose seeds at the far end first if seeds were scattered throughout the tray surface. It was thought that this was because the far end of the tray was farthest from the window and any observer that might be there. That is research with a big R. Titmice in that study preferred raised trays to trays on the ground, not that we have many titmice here. No comments on the right-angledness of those trays.

And when seeds were taken to be cached by the birds, larger seeds were chosen first. Makes sense. This allowed the birds to store more seed energy with a smaller immediate investment in the energy required to move the seed. The report said that 10 trips with larger seeds equalled 17 trips with smaller seeds. Interesting, but how did the researchers know so precisely? Did they uncache the seeds? I believe it; it makes sense. And you have to hope that the grad students that did this work got their degrees.

Cooper's Hawk

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: September 30, 2013 - 11:06 AM

A pair of Cooper's Hawks nested in a yard adjoining ours this summer. They were quiet and secretive neighbors. We assume they raised chicks. We never saw one, though, a disappointment since they were so close at hand. We could watch the nest until the trees filled out with leaves. One of the adults, the female I believe, visited our yard late Tuesday afternoon. The bird took a shaded position in a tree while it unsuccessfully looked for prey. Four species of hawks nest nearby -- Cooper's, Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, and Broad-winged. For me, Cooper's is the most handsome.

Birds keeping cool

Posted by: Jim Williams Updated: August 28, 2013 - 2:07 PM

 If you haven't created a watering place for birds to drink and bathe, today is the day to do it. Birds have developed strategies for keeping cool. Water, though, will be much apprecioated. It can be as simple and temporary as a large sheet of plastic spread in the shade with your lawn sprinkler directed at it. Create some dips and valleys where the water can collect. 

The photos show birds in various heat-related reactions. The Red-tail Hawk at Westwood Nature Center in St. Louis Park is doing what many birds do on hot days: opening up and letting the air in. The bird is exposing as much body area as it can. The hawk, unable to care for itself in the wild, was photographed in a large shaded outdoor aviary at the center. It's a beautiful bird. The Lark Bunting was trying to keep cool the same way. This bird was photographed on a South Dakota grassland on a day when the temp was over 100 degrees. It was close to midday, shade at a minimum. Fence posts did offer about three inches of shade on the north side. Buntings and meadowlarks were using that shade, perching tight against posts.

The Wild Turkey, also found at Westwood, was panting through its open bill. Heat exchange via air is another way to cool.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird took a brief rest yesterday in the hand of Excelsior photographer Rebecca Hahn. The bird was feeding on hosta blooms, in the sun, when Rebecca extended her hand. She was surprised to see her offer accepted. Rebecca said the bird appeared exhausred. It rested for a few moments, then flew off to a nearby tree. Rebecca used one hand for the bird, the other for her camera.











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