Spring and Summer Bird feeding Challenges

It’s most definitely upon us. The time of year when many of you are faced with challenges certain backyard visitors present. They can really test ones patience. I’m talking about Grackles and Starlings, Raccoons, Chipmunks, and Ring-tailed Lemurs. Well, maybe not Ring-tailed Lemurs.

Your bird feeders are of great interest to all these birds and animals largely due to the breeding season. I did not mention squirrels because we deal with them every day. The others are more of a seasonal issue. One thing worth mentioning about squirrels is they are more likely to eat safflower during this time. We’ve already heard from a few of you that squirrels have decided to start eating safflower when previously they did not. Usually it’s the young squirrels that eat safflower. This too shall pass.

When Grackles and Starlings are on the nest they seek quick, easy food sources and will visit in droves, eventually bringing their babies, too. We recommend a variety of strategies to lessen their impact:

· Offer nothing but Safflower seed rather than sunflower or blends with shelled seeds, shelled peanuts, and fruit. Safflower is smaller than sunflower and has a different shape, and a hard shell that Grackles and Starlings cannot crack open.

· Limit opportunities, and opportunities available should be difficult for a large bird like a grackle to use. For instance, small bird only or caged type feeders. Yes, this will also limit Cardinals but they would be happy to feed on whatever falls to the ground. If you have a tube type feeder with straight perches consider cutting them in half. They are usually made of aluminum and easy to cut. Half a perch will present great difficulties for a Grackle and Starling but small birds will use them easily.

· We also suggest shutting down feeders for a while, perhaps a week or two. This can cause these sudden intruders to move along to find a reliable food source. Usually the Grackle/Starling pressure recedes by mid to late June when breeding is concluding. Birds you like to see will typically return to feeders in little time.

· Suet is a favorite food source during this time because it’s soft and easy to take large chunks. Again, removing the food source for a week may cause the problems to move along. Another thing to try is take note of the timing of their visits. You can offer smaller amounts of food, like a third of a suet cake at a time, so your desired visitors have a consistent food source for part of the day. When the problem visitors show up there is little food remaining.

· Squirrel proof suet feeders are very effective at keeping squirrels out but not always the Grackles. Only the largest Squirrel proof suet feeders provide enough distance between the food source and the outer cage to stop Grackles and Starlings.

Next to Grackles and Starlings there’s a tie for most complaints between Raccoons and Chipmunks. Raccoons are expert climbers, they have great dexterity in their paws, which are really like hands, they can grow to be quite large, and their strength and brain power far exceeds that of a squirrel. Many of you find your feeders on the ground in the mornings damaged with squirrels gathered round feasting on the exposed seed. This is a sure sign that a raccoon has been “working the night shift” as they are mostly nocturnal. They will take feeders off hooks and hangers with ease, take the lids off and eat until they are satisfied, and leave the scraps for the squirrels. Here are some suggestions for reducing raccoon problems:

· Bring feeders in at night that are accessible to raccoons. It may take a few weeks to condition the raccoon to not to show up. After a few weeks try leaving a feeder out one night to see if they have gotten the idea that no food would be available. Continue taking the feeder in if you see evidence they’ve been there.

· The “limited amount” strategy works well here, too. If it’s suet they are getting put only a third or half a cake in the feeder. By nightfall when the raccoon shows up there would be little if anything left.

· Raccoon baffles for pole systems, which are much larger than squirrel baffles, are very effective. Follow directions and you will have success. A squirrel baffle will not likely stop a motivated raccoon.

· This is not my favorite strategy but some people will make food available in places away from feeders. They might offer table scraps, corn, or cat food to satisfy the raccoons. I see evidence of raccoons getting in my compost pile where I put everything from coffee grounds to old fruit and vegetable scraps. In my opinion this strategy just encourages their desire to visit.

Chipmunks are challenging in that they can squeeze through caged squirrel proof feeders and they are not heavy enough to activate most weight activated feeders. And they like safflower. However, any squirrel baffle used properly will stop them cold.

Be patient. We need to try and be tolerant of all wildlife even when they are pesky.

Spring Feeder Birds

Rose-breasted Gosbeaks

Every spring we are fortunate to see Rose-breasted grosbeaks visit our feeders for an all too brief time as they make their way north to breeding areas. The male is very handsome, sporting black and white plumage, with a v-shaped splash of vibrant red on the chest. The female’s plumage is primarily brown and white, with its underparts heavily streaked. On females you may also see the yellow wing linings. Both males and females have a large, triangular shaped bill. Some years they are scarce at the feeders but others we see small flocks of these birds settle in to feeding areas and seemingly remain for as much as three or four weeks. It’s very likely that you are seeing a daily exchange of at least some of those grosbeaks, though. Birds you saw yesterday may already have moved on to be replaced by new arrivals. They readily accept a variety of seeds, mostly sunflower and safflower, and most tube, hopper, and platform feeders accommodate them nicely. Let us know when and how many you see.

Indigo Bunting

Another very nice bird, although not as common in numbers at feeders as the RB Grosbeak, is the Indigo Bunting. A breeding male Indigo Bunting is blue all over, with slightly richer blue on his head and a shiny, silver-gray bill. Females are basically brown, with faint streaking on the breast, a whitish throat, and sometimes a touch of blue on the wings, tail, or rump. Immature males are patchy blue and brown. One may see them feeding on sunflower, safflower, millet, and finch feed. They are apt to visit hanging feeders as well as forage on the ground.

This small bright blue bird spends its winters in central and southern parts of South America, and can been seen across eastern North America in the spring and summer months. Indigo Buntings eat small seeds, berries, buds, and insects. They are common on the edges of woods and fields; along roads, streams, rivers, and power line cuts; in logged forest plots, brushy, and abandoned fields where shrubby growth is returning. A great local spot to see Indigo Buntings is along the Harpeth greenway that runs behind Ensworth high school and Warner parks where the field hits the tree line along the Harpeth River. They can be seen darting in and out of the tree line foraging for insects and small seeds in the fields and trees.

Like all other blue birds, Indigo Buntings lack blue pigment. Their jewel-like color comes instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light, much like the airborne particles that cause the sky to look blue.

Baltimore and Orchard Oriole

The Baltimore and Orchard Oriole are not really common spring feeder birds but worth mentioning. They migrate through TN on the way to their breeding destinations, which tend to be north of TN. Some of my bird store associates in Iowa and Ohio do a very strong “Oriole” business because they are in the heart of Oriole breeding territory. Both species of Oriole are insect, fruit and nectar feeders.

We often encounter a customer that reports a Baltimore at their seed feeder which would be extremely unusual, but not impossible. After a few questions and shared pictures it is usually determined to be a male Eastern Towhee. There are similarities but when seen side by side very distinct differences.

The Baltimore is the more familiar of the two and is known for its bold orange and black plumage. Females are olive to brown above and burnt orange-yellow below. White wing bars are very noticeable. Baltimore’s are about 8” in length, long tailed, and have sharply pointed beaks.

The Orchard Oriole is slightly smaller. The male is a rich chestnut color on its underparts and black above. Females are an olive-green above and yellowish below, much like female Tanagers, but have distinguishable white wing bars.

Over the course of 25 years I have tried various proven methods of attracting Orioles to my yard with little success. Available information about Orioles suggests orange halves and jelly are the two most common food choices to grab an Orioles attention. None of my attempts with these offerings ever produced results.

The years I did attract them I did nothing specific to make it happen. A few times I had multiple male Orioles visiting hummingbird feeders, and other years it has been the moving water source (fountain) that is very popular with all birds. The times they decided to come to hummingbird feeders were likely a result of a lack of natural food sources they would normally be drawn to during their spring travel. Over the course of the few days Orioles were visiting my hummingbird feeders I also presented orange halves in plain view, because that’s what you always see pictures of them feeding on, but they showed no interest and seemed to be content with the sugar water nectar.

Happy Easter Everyone!

It’s one of the most rewarding times of the year for bird feeding enthusiasts. You may have noticed a bit of a slowdown at your feeders recently but keep in mind that birds on the nest tend to gravitate to insects for a while to feed young.  I have seen about a 50% slowdown in the last few weeks, but that’s about to change.  Recent sightings of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings at feeder’s means feeder activity will again pick-up with their arrival.

We tried to pull together an informative blog for this week but just ran out of time.  So we’ve compiled a few minutes of spring bird feeding video for you to enjoy.  Just yesterday morning I saw at my feeders the first male Rose-breasted Grosbeak of the season.  Hopefully all of you have your feeders full and ready because they are pouring into this area now and will continue for the next three to four weeks. 

In the video you will see multiple Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, male and female, at a platform feeder full of sunflower, and a lone Indigo Bunting that seems unconcerned about being totally surrounded.  You will also see a Pine warbler that has been coming to my feeder filled with our Woodland Blend.  It has visited suet feeders as well.  It may look a little like a Goldfinch at first glance but at the end of the clip you will hear its distinct Pine warbler call. 

Bluebirds love mealworms and the one in the video can’t seem to get enough in his beak.  Most Bluebirds are likely involved in their first nesting by now but if you want to attract them there is still time.  Bluebirds may nest up to three times per season.  Always start with a nest-box first.  After they discover the nest-box you may want to consider feeding them, although it’s not necessary for success.

And check out the mass of Goldfinches on the long tube feeder.  Goldfinches are in full breeding plumage now and really light up the backyard.  Note the differences in male and female coloring.  During spring migration Goldfinch numbers at your feeders can literally change on a daily basis.  Be patient and check the quality of seed in your finch feeders regularly.  Wet weather can really have a negative effect.  And finally there’s a little video of a Carolina wren feeding babies at a nest-box on my back porch.  

We at The Wood Thrush Shop want to wish you all a happy spring and Easter.  Have a great weekend and enjoy the wonderful backyard birding of spring in middle TN!

Basics of monitoring Bluebird and other birds nest boxes

Female & male bluebird building nest.

Female & male bluebird building nest.

Female Eastern Bluebird.

The Wood Thrush Shop encourages people to be a little more involved during the period of time a bluebird, chickadee, or some other native bird, is raising their young in a provided nest box. Certainly, these birds are capable of doing all the important work themselves, but by monitoring you will be treated to a very interesting and amazing process. You may even be able to help them should a problem arise, like an ant infestation.
What is monitoring? Monitoring a nest box may include regular observation from nearby, and periodically opening the box, just enough to take a peek to see what phase of the process the nesting birds are in. Monitoring for me means doing a little of both.

Early Monitoring

· Look for signs of interest from birds. Regular daily appearances? Are they bringing nest material to the box, going in, or just perching on it for periods of time?
· Do you see competition for the nest box among different birds? You may see some territorial bouts, or some courtship behavior.
· Just observe a little each day.

Let’s jump ahead and say a pair of bluebirds has indeed chosen your nest box. Congratulations! Now how do you monitor?

· You’ve seen considerable activity by a pair of bluebirds at the nest box. When the Bluebirds are not present open the box and take a good look. What kind of nest material is being used? Bluebirds will most often use pine straw or fine dry grass. A nest may take hours or longer than a week to complete.
· Now you will be looking for that first egg. Bluebirds will typically lay between 3-6 eggs. When the nest appears to be complete it is recommended you begin looking in the nest box in the afternoons or evenings. Why? Because Bluebirds and other songbirds tend to lay eggs during early morning hours. You wouldn’t want to disrupt egg laying. Not that a bluebird would abandon the nest site because of one disruption but repeatedly could be cause. They will lay one egg per day until complete.
· Only after the female has laid the last egg will she begin incubating. Let’s say on the 4th day of monitoring the box you see a fourth egg. I would recommend you do not look on the 5th day in case 4 is where she stopped and is already incubating. Now is the time that I usually refrain from looking in the box unless I have witnessed her leaving the box temporarily to get some food and to stretch. Take note of how many eggs there are and their color. Bluebirds usually lay blue eggs, but sometimes they are white. I continue to observe from a distance, or a walk by close enough to be able to see something that might be of concern.

Bluebirds usually lay four to six eggs. They can range anywhere from off white to light blue to this bright turquoise.

Bluebird nests mainly consist of dried grasses. Dried pine needles are seen often too.

When you are certain the last egg was laid on a particular day, or the next, mark on your calendar, or smart phone, “14 days until hatching”. The female will incubate between 12 and 14 days at which point the babies will begin to hatch. Again, afternoons will be a better time to open the box to monitor. With cool nights and mornings the female will still be sitting with the chicks keeping them warm.
The Fledgling Period
For the next 15 to 18 days the baby bluebirds will be going through tremendous change. Again mark on your calendar the approximate day they will fledge from the box. Just 15-18 days after hatching! Daily brief looks in the box is fine. You may choose to look every two or three days.

Just hatched Bluebirds.

Starting to grow feathers. 5-7 days in.

Starting to grow feathers. 5-7 days in.

Almost ready to fledge. 14-16 days in.

Almost ready to fledge. 14-16 days in.

· You will see naked baby birds with eyes close during the first days. Near the end of the first week they will increase in size and begin developing their first feathers.
· By the 9th or tenth day they will be feathered but the feathers continue developing. By this time the babies will have more than three quarters of their final body weight. You may be able to determine the sex of the babies based on color of wing feathers. Those of the male will be bright blue, while females a pale gray-blue.
· At around the 12th or 13th day the babies are quite active in the nest and you may see signs of heads poking out of the entrance hole getting a look at the world. It is at this time we recommend not opening the box to look at them.They may be developed enough to leave the box if frightened.
· Keep observing from nearby and look for increased visits from the adults feeding young.
· In another couple of days babies will be ready to leave the box. Usually it takes a couple of hours for all the babies to finally leave where they will remain in a loose group, staying hidden in trees while the adults continue to tend to their feeding needs.

Congratulations, you have successfully monitored your Bluebird box. Now pull out the used nest material and be prepared for the next pair of birds to come along to begin nesting.

Spring Migration

Spring Migration is in full swing which means there will be a lot of interesting birds to see if you spend a little time looking around your yard, or at any of our wonderful parks and greenways. If you are going out for your morning, or afternoon walk don’t forget your binoculars because the neo-tropical migrants are passing through, or arriving in middle Tennessee every day on the way to their summer breeding areas. Warblers, Vireos, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Tanagers, Swallows, Hummingbirds, and many other species are there for the viewing if you try. Early in the morning, between 6 am and 10 am are best to see some of these birds because many of them migrate at night then settle down in the mornings to feed and rest.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Male Indigo Bunting

Male Indigo Bunting

The first Ruby-throated hummingbirds to arrive or pass through TN have already been sighted. Usually one, maybe two hummingbird feeders at this time of year is enough. Don’t bother filling your feeder to full capacity at this time as the feeders are of little interest to them this early.

In the coming weeks at your feeders expect to see the always popular Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings. Of course American Goldfinches are here in abundance year round but are now putting on their bright yellow spring plumage.

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeak

RB Grosbeak males are quite handsome with their black and white plumage and v-shaped splash of red on the chest, while females are brown and white with heavy streaking. Both have the distinguishable heavy beak. These birds may be seen in good numbers at your feeders. In years past I’ve seen as many as a dozen at a time, or some years just a few. They are fond of several types of seeds and feeders. Sunflower and Safflower are the more preferred seeds, while platform, hopper, and tube type feeders all work well. Let us know when you see one.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Interestingly there are still good numbers of our winter visitors like Purple finch, Pine Siskin, and even Red-breasted Nuthatches in the area.

Reports of Bluebirds with completed nests and with eggs are sprinkling in. It’s still relatively early and plenty of time to attract Bluebirds to a nest box. In years past I would not see a first Bluebird nest until late April.

For daily bird sightings reports of migrating birds you may want to subscribe to TN bird e-mail list, or visit Tennessee Birding on Facebook.

Spring birding class

There is still time to register for Richard Connors bird identification class at Radnor Lake this spring. The 5-week class runs Tuesday mornings from April 9th to May 7th, and includes classroom sessions and morning bird walks. Radnor is a premier location for spring migrants and those migrants are often heard more easily than seen, so this spring class will emphasize "birding by ear". We will work on bird identification by sound as well as by sight. The class is open to beginners, but some prior knowledge of our local birds will be helpful. There is a fee for the 5 week class with part of the proceeds going to Friends of Radnor Lake.

For more information see this web page:


To register for the class contact Richard at rconnorsphoto@aol.com or 615 832-0521.