Liz Magnanti

Attracting birds 101

by cathym on July 4, 2020

by Liz Magnanti

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on people across the globe and locally. People are spending more time at home, and in turn, have developed new home- and yard-based hobbies. This year more than ever, people are working in their gardens and starting backyard birding. The birding trend has really taken off, and in turn, there are a lot of beginners out there! This is the perfect time to review the different things you can do in your yard to attract more birds. Birds, like most other animals, have basic needs to survive and thrive: a source of water, food, shelter, and a place to raise young. By providing a mix of these you’ll be quite surprised at the diversity of birds you are able to attract!

Bath time. Photo courtesy Flickr: Judith Klein

Water is one of the simplest things you can put out to attract more birds. This can be in the form of a birdbath, pond, or moving water feature. Moving water brings in more birds than standing water. They are attracted to the sound and movement it causes. It also helps keep mosquitoes out! If you have a birdbath, I highly suggest adding a solar fountain to it. When the sun hits the solar panel, the water begins spraying upwards, creating a small fountain. Birds will drink from water features and hummingbirds may even fly through the mist that the moving water creates. Birds need water to drink from as well as to clean their feathers. Not all birds will come to a bird feeder or birdhouse, but they all need a source of water. Robins, for example, do not nest in a house and typically do not come to feeders, but they will spend the better part of a day enjoying a dip in a birdbath. Water is also a great way to attract migrating birds like warblers and scarlet tanagers. 

Food is another common way to bring more birds into your yard. Birdfeeders and native berry-producing shrubs are a great way to do just that. If you are adding a birdfeeder to your yard make sure you have at least one that provides black oil sunflower or a black oil sunflower mix. Black oil seed will get you the most diversity of any one type of seed, and the more diversity of foods you add the better. Cardinals, chickadees, finches, grosbeaks, and nuthatches are just some of the birds that will eat sunflower seed. Nyjer, or thistle seed, is great for the bright yellow goldfinches. Adding peanuts to the mix will help to attract blue jays, nuthatches and titmice. Suet cakes are blocks of fat that go in a square cage feeder. Suet will attract woodpeckers like the downy, hairy, red-bellied, and, if you’re lucky a pileated! Oranges and grape jelly are favorites that will attract orioles in the spring, and homemade nectar will bring in hummingbirds. If you are feeling adventurous, mealworms can attract bluebirds and other songbirds, especially once their young have hatched. There are many different species of birds that feeders will bring to the yard!

Birdhouses are a source of shelter and a place to raise young. They come in all shapes and sizes.  The size of the bird house and especially its hole will dictate what kind of birds can use it. The smaller the size of the opening, the more it limits what birds can fit inside. Not all birds will nest in houses, but many do. Bluebirds, nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, wrens, swallows, and even screech owls will nest in houses. Other common backyard birds like cardinals, goldfinches, blue jays, mourning doves, and robins will not nest in houses. Offering nesting material like natural cotton, pet fur, and sewing scraps can sometimes entice them to nest in yards. Stay away from dryer lint, however, as the dust and perfumes may be harmful to birds.  As winter approaches you can put up habitats called roosting boxes and roosting pouches to give birds a place to stay out the snow, wind and cold. 

The more you learn about backyard birding the more you realize how much more there is to learn! There are many tips and tricks you will pick up along the way. The different species of birds coming in and out of backyards varies with the season, which is another exciting part of backyard birding. It is a fun and rewarding hobby to participate in all year long. 

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


by Liz Magnanti

Cloudless Sulphur Butterfly Moth on purple coneflower. Photo courtesy Flickr: C Watts

The past couple of months have been a stressful new challenge for all of us. Navigating the new social norms while keeping ourselves and others safe has been at the forefront of most of our lives. While we all navigate through the new normalcy of life, spring is sneaking up on us! Even though life as we knew it for most of us is on pause, nature is showing us that life goes on! Plants are springing up, birds are singing, insects are beginning to fly. One thing is for sure. Spring is here and thriving! 

I think it’s fair to say that this year is unlike any we have ever experienced. We are facing sobering news stories, job losses, working from home, separation from our friends and family, and so much more. At the same time, we are seeing some beautiful acts of kindness that people are showing one another. This new lifestyle has created a different type of busy, but at the same time has slowed life down. I, personally, have found I have more time to take walks in my neighborhood, and enjoy my little patch of land. Each day, I’ve been able to see the little changes that are happening as spring descends. With that has come a renewed appreciation for the diversity of wildlife that I’ve been able to attract to my yard. Making your yard wildlife-friendly doesn’t have to take a lot of effort. With all of us spending more time in our personal patches of nature, now is a great time to take an overall look at the different types of wildlife that can be attracted, and how to do so.

Let’s start with pollinating and beneficial insects. Butterflies, bees, ladybugs, lacewings … there are so many! To attract butterflies, nothing beats planting a butterfly garden. Keep in mind butterflies require nectar-producing plants for their adult stage, but they also need plants for their caterpillar stage to eat and grow. Blooming flowers like beebalm, joe pye weed, phlox, and goldenrod are great for adult, flying, butterflies. Planting a diversity of plants that bloom early spring through late fall are key. Caterpillar plants are a crucial and often overlooked way to attract butterflies. These are the plants that adult butterflies will lay their eggs on. The eggs hatch, and the caterpillars will eat them in order to grow and reach their adult stage. Each butterfly species has different requirements, but a great start is planting milkweed for monarchs, dill and parsley for black swallowtails, and keeping things like nettle and plantain in the garden; those are larval plants for Angle Wing and Sulphur butterflies. Butterfly feeders provide nectar and rotting fruit that can help attract more of them as well. Butterfly puddlers are the best addition besides plants that you can add to your landscape to attract butterflies. These are reservoirs that provide a place to add some mud, sand, pebbles and water. Butterflies will siphon off the water that contains minerals from these elements. Mason bee houses are a super easy way to attract non-stinging, native pollinators to your garden. They are simple houses constructed of small bamboo, wood or paper tunnels. Female bees will lay their eggs inside these tunnels, fill them with nectar and pollen, and then cap them off. The eggs inside will hatch, the larvae will eat the nectar and pollen packets, and then pupate. The pupa stay in the house all winter and then hatch out in early spring to pollinate your garden. Many mason bee habitats are included in “beneficial insect houses” which also contain pinecones for lacewings to lay their eggs and hollowed out holes for ladybugs to hibernate in.

A variety of birds are easy to attract to your yard. They need the same things every other animal needs to thrive, food, water, shelter and a space to raise their young. Birds are probably the most diverse form of life you can attract to your yard, especially during spring migration. Food can be provided with berry- and seed-producing plants or bird feeders. Putting out a bird feeder that holds sunflower seed, or a mix containing sunflower seed, will give you the best diversity of birds per any seed type. If you expand your food offerings to seed blends that provide peanuts, safflower, or shelled sunflower, you will get even more diversity. Nyjer feeders will attract birds like goldfinches and suet feeders will attract woodpeckers. Birds like orioles eat jelly and hummingbirds drink nectar. Water in the form of a birdbath or moving water feature is key. The sight and sound of moving water brings in more birds. If you have a birdbath, consider adding a solar fountain insert. The birds will love it! Bird houses, shrubs, and trees provide a place for shelter and a space they can raise their young. When selecting a bird house, keep in mind most birds like a house that is secure and doesn’t move around. Attaching a bird house to a pole is your best bet to get birds to inhabit a house. 

Bats, despite their recent bad press, are animals that are not only beneficial but also struggling and should be considered when making you yard wildlife friendly. Bats are a great way to safely control insects, especially mosquitoes, without using pesticides. One bat alone can eat 200 insects every hour! When putting up a bat house make sure that they are mounted high, 10 or 15 feet up, and without any obstructions underneath. In our climate its best to paint the bat house black. That will absorb heat, which the bats prefer in a roosting site. Once occupied, the bat house will be a place for bats to spend the spring and summer and will provide entertainment at dusk when they begin to chatter and leave the house to hunt insects. Bats do not carry rabies any more than other wildlife, and they do not get caught up in people’s hair. Those are two misconceptions that often make people wary about encouraging them to a yard, so fear not!

Throughout the next few weeks, or possibly even months, I’m taking it upon myself to take a step back and enjoy the things I sometimes take for granted or don’t always have the time to appreciate. The lovely songs and sights of spring are rolling in fast and furious. I’ll be looking around my yard and considering how I can make it more wildlife-friendly. Not only will the wildlife appreciate it, but it comes with a sense of joy and entertainment that can’t be taught or bought. Wildlife, as well as the rest of us, will prevail. Instead of thinking of the things or opportunities I have lost during this time, I’ve decided to keep track of all the experiences in which I’ve grown and gained. This is an opportunity to get out, enjoy spring, nature and my garden. It’s chicken soup for the soul.

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


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.