Backyard Habitat

Spring migrants

by cathym on March 17, 2020

by Liz Magnanti

Male indigo bunting. Photo courtesy Flickr: Kelly Colgan Azar

Mornings are starting to fill with the sounds of spring, and birds are beginning to be our alarm clocks as we progress into longer and warmer days. Over the next month or two, upstate New York will become a hotbed of migrating birds. There are several things you can do in your yard to make it a haven for these migrants as they come into the area. Many are flying in from Central and South America, so they are on the lookout for food, water and shelter. 

Some of the first migrants that come back are the blackbirds. Red-winged Blackbirds and grackles arrive in large flocks. As they move in these flocks can be seen in trees where they will make screeching and rattling calls. They will come to bird feeders this time of year, hungry after their migration. Blackbirds will eat sunflower seed and most blends of seed. Grackles can become a nuisance in yards and feeders because they can be aggressive and ravenous. If you want to avoid having grackles at your feeders, switch your seed to safflower. Safflower is a seed that is about the same size as sunflower seed, but it is white in color and has a bitter taste. Blackbirds do not like the taste of it and they will avoid it. What is even better, is squirrels don’t like it either! If you want to keep blackbirds out of your suet, consider getting an “upside down” suet feeder. These suet feeders have a roof over the top of them, so birds have to hang upside down to get the food from the feeder. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees can all do this easily, but blackbirds cannot.

White-crowned and white-throated sparrows are the next to arrive. They can be found under your feeders hopping along the ground in search of a meal. They will eat sunflower seeds and millet. Sprinkling some millet or sunflower hearts on the ground can entice them to keep coming back. White-throated Sparrows get their name from the distinct white patch they have on their throats. White-crowned Sparrows are significantly bigger than most sparrows and have distinct white and black stripes on the top of their heads. 

As we get into May, even more birds will arrive to the area. Rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings are the next arrivals. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are in the same family as cardinals, so they tend to be found at the same type of feeder. Tray feeders or tube feeders with large perches and trays are ideal to attract them. The males are black and white with a bright red patch on their breast. The females are brown and striped, looking like a large sparrow with an oversized beak. Indigo buntings are more difficult to attract. They will eat sunflower hearts, millet, and nyjer seed. The male Indigo Bunting is bright blue from head to tail and quite striking. 

Shortly following the grosbeaks and buntings are the orioles and hummingbirds. There have been a lot of orioles in the area the past two years, and people have had great success at attracting them into yards. Hummingbirds, on the other hand, have been scarce over the past two years. Both of these birds will drink nectar. You can make your own nectar at home with white granulated sugar and water. The ratio is one part sugar to five parts water for oriole nectar and one part sugar to four parts water for hummingbird nectar. Boil the water and mix in the sugar. Let it cool and fill your feeder. Be sure to stay away from dyes and food coloring, as the birds do not need them in their diet and it is not known if the dyes may harm the birds. Orioles will also eat orange halves. Most oriole feeders have spikes on them for orange halves to be attached to. The favorite food of the oriole, though, is grape jelly! If you are only going to provide one type of food to the orioles, jelly is the way to go. Make sure it is free of artificial sweeteners and flavors. There is a special type of “birdberry” jelly that is made specifically for the orioles as well. Don’t be surprised if you have a catbird or mockingbird stop by for a taste. They have been known to visit grape jelly feeders sporadically. 

When selecting oriole and hummingbird feeders, look for styles that have bee and wasp guards on them. As the season goes on and bees and wasps become more prevalent, you will be glad that you did. You can also add an “ant moat” to your nectar and jelly feeders. These moats get filled with water and hang above the feeder. The ants cannot get past the water to crawl down to the nectar.

One of the best and easiest things you can do to attract a large diversity of birds to your yard is provide water! Not all birds will come to a house or feeder, but they all need water! Birdbaths, fountains, and backyard ponds are all fantastic for the birds. Moving water is the absolute best, as birds are attracted to the sight and sound of it. If you have a birdbath you can add a small fountain insert to it to bring in more birds. Different types of birds prefer different depths of water as well. If you have a deep birdbath you may only get robins, blue jays and mourning doves in it. The large birds like deep water. Small birds need shallow pools to bathe in. Provide a mix of both to get the most bird diversity. You may even be lucky enough to get a warbler bathing. 

Upstate New York is a great location for birding, especially in the spring. Our proximity to Lake Ontario makes us a great stopover site for birds before they go further north. Take advantage of it by spending more time in the yard and garden or join a local bird club on a nature hike. I know I will!

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford. 

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Winter birds

by cathym on November 1, 2019

by Liz Magnanti

Dark-eyed junco Photo courtesty Flickr: DaPugle

Every year, as the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, it amazes me how animals can survive the winters we have here. Although weather conditions are changing, the main elements needed for survival remain the same for all animals, including birds.

In the winter there are three major things birds need for survival: food, water, and shelter. Some birds, like chickadees, nuthatches, jays, and woodpeckers will cache food away throughout the year to survive the winter. Other birds, such as cardinals, doves, and finches, do not. All birds must rely on finding food in the winter to survive. Seeds, nuts, fruit, and dormant insects and larvae are major sources of food for birds in the winter. Although birds will visit feeders in the winter, the food they get from it is just a supplement of what they find naturally. Providing highfat foods like peanuts, suet, sunflower, and nyjer seed give birds the calories they need to stay plump and warm in the winter.

Finding water can be a challenge in the winter. It’s not uncommon to see birds drinking from melting icicles to get some water! Shallow bodies of water that birds can bathe in and drink from can be hard to find in the winter. Providing birds with a heated birdbath will give them that source of water all winter long. These sources of water are extremely important though, because birds will use them to clean their feathers. Clean feathers allow birds to trap air between their warm body and feathers, providing insulation. This is why you so often see fluffed up birds in the winter! They’re using their down coats to keep warm.

Birds find shelter in many places. Shrubs, trees, tree cavities, and man-made structures are all places birds will go to stay out of the elements. Roosting pockets are great for birds to take refuge in during harsh weather conditions. These woven pockets are not designed for nesting, but to provide birds with a place to stay out of the snow, rain, and wind. Roosting houses are even bigger and have perches inside of them for multiple birds to sit on while they take shelter. Multiple species will use roosting houses and pockets at the same time. If you keep your birdhouses out all year you may see birds flying in and out of them in the cold months. They provide a space for the bird to hunker down and rest. Don’t be surprised if you see something furry in your nest box! Mice, and if the box is big enough, squirrels will also use them to stay out of the elements. At night in the winter many birds undergo a process called “torpor.” Their body temperature drops, their metabolism slows down, and their physiological functions slow down. It is almost like a mini hibernation. Their body doesn’t use as many resources as they would normally need when they are in this state. This does make the animal very susceptible to predators however, so providing places for the birds to roost is important!

This time of year be on the lookout for new birds in your yard. Dark-eyed juncos are here only in the winter and early spring. They are dark gray with a white belly and pink beak. Look for them hopping on the ground under your birdfeeders. White-crowned and white-throated sparrows may also visit your yard this time of year. They both have white stripes on their heads but the white-throated sparrows also have a white patch on their throat. They are also most often seen on the ground foraging under feeders. Pine siskins and the occasional redpoll may come to your nyjer feeders. Pine siskins look similar in size to goldfinches, but they are very striped. Redpolls are small chickadee-sized birds that have a raspberry colored mark on the top of their heads. Some years there are huge influxes of these birds, other years they are scarce.

It is amazing how many birds you can get in your yard throughout the winter by providing them with their main staples for survival: food, water and shelter. There is nothing more beautiful than a tree full of cardinals on a snowy winter’s day. Entice them and our other hardy winter birds with some creature comforts and you will have beautiful birds all season!

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford.

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The Marvel of Migration

by cathym on October 15, 2019

by Liz Magnanti

The four major migration routes in North America. Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The days are getting shorter, the temperatures are getting cooler, and insect populations are becoming increasingly scarce. For many birds that means one thing—it’s migration time! More than half (about 350 of the 650+ species) of the birds in North America are migratory. Migration is defined as a large-scale movement of a population of animals. Birds migrate to their breeding grounds in the spring and summer from their non-breeding winter grounds, and vice versa. The main reasons birds migrate is to “breed and feed.” They will travel to locations that have a larger breeding and foraging area as compared to their overwintering sites. As the fall approaches many species of birds are getting ready to make their epic trip south.

Migration has evolved over millions of years. Scientists believe that as glaciers in North America retreated, birds moved further north where nesting sites and food were seasonally more prolific. With this expanded habitat they most likely had better breeding success Over time the offspring of these birds would have increased success with breeding and continue the migration process northward. 

There are different types of migration. Some birds don’t migrate at all. They are known as resident or non-migrating species. Many of the birds you see at your feeders in the winter are resident birds. Cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, and most woodpeckers fit into this category. Partial migrants are birds that migrate short distances, sometimes only spanning a state or two. Blue Jays, Red-tailed Hawks, Robins and Bluebirds are birds that make this kind of migration. The Blue Jays you have at your feeders in the spring are probably different from the individuals that will be there in the winter. As fall approaches, be on the lookout for flocks of blue jays and robins making their medium-distance migration. Irruptive migrators are birds that have unpredictable migration events that don’t always follow the rules. Their movement can be attributed to food shortages or food abundance in an area, or can be seemingly at random! Typically this type of migration is found in northern birds that will venture further south than normal. Great gray owls, snowy owls and redpolls are examples of irruptive migrators. And then there are the long-distance migrants. The long-distance migrants we are most familiar with are the neotropical migrants that will travel all the way to Central and South America to spend the winter. They stick to a schedule and will arrive to their breeding grounds north at the same time each year. Orioles, hummingbirds, grackles and warblers will make this type of migration. The tiny ruby-throated hummingbird will make the trek by flying completely over the Gulf of Mexico on a 25-hour nonstop flight!

In North America there are four major migration routes birds will take. These are the Pacific Flyway on the west coast, the Central Flyway in the Midwest, the Mississippi Flyway, and the Atlantic Flyway. Lake Erie and Lake Ontario are popular local stopover points for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. In the fall, look for waterfowl in bodies of water and along the lakeshore where birds fuel up on berries, seeds, and remaining insects. 

You may see more birds coming to your feeders this time of the year. Birds that are making a migration of any type will begin to fuel up for the journey. Don’t be surprised if you see more hummingbirds drinking nectar, and a large array of species visiting mealworm feeders. Species like grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and rose-breasted grosbeaks will eat a large amount of seeds to bulk up for the journey. Birds will typically increase feeding by 25 to 30 percent this time of year in a process called hyperphagia. 

No one is quite sure what ultimately prompts birds to leave their breeding range, but there are several factors that have been linked to the urge to migrate. The shortening of daylight, food availability, and changes in the weather cause a transformation in a bird’s endocrine system, which changes their hormones. Birds, even some kept as pets, will undergo a migratory restlessness in the spring and fall named zugunruhe, which makes them more active and less likely to sleep. Many birds, like ducks and birds of prey, will migrate during the day, while most songbirds migrate overnight. 

How birds find their way to their destination is still a mystery. Studies have found that some species of birds have a navigation system coded into their DNA so they can find their way even when blown off course by a storm or other natural disaster. Other studies show some species learn their migratory route from their parents, and once they have completed the route they can perform it with accuracy year after year. The whooping crane is an example of a bird that has this type of navigation system. Birds are also known to be sensitive to the earth’s magnetic poles, and may use them in some way to navigate. Visual cues are also important. Birds will use the stars and land formations as guides when they are migrating. 

All in all, the process of migration is an amazing feat. Although it’s sad to see that some of our favorite backyard birds have flown the coop for the winter, it’s impressive to know that we can rely on them to show up at almost the same exact time each spring!

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford.

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