Liz Magnanti

Hawks overhead

by cathym on March 16, 2021

by Liz Magnanti

Over the past year, the hobby of backyard bird feeding has really taken flight. With so many people now working from home, many have started the hobby as an enjoyable background to their workday. There is nothing more delightful than setting up your new feeder, filling it with seed, and seeing a bright red cardinal fly in for a snack! You may have found that, along with the beautiful songbirds, there are other, larger predatory species that have shown up.

Seeds, peanuts, and suet are all popular sources of food for songbirds. In turn, songbirds are sources of food for other animals. Hawks can be a common occurrence in backyards, especially in the winter months. The three hawks you are most likely to see hanging out in the backyard are the Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk. 

The Cooper’s Hawk is the bird most notorious for picking off songbirds at feeders. This medium-sized hawk can look different if it’s a juvenile or adult. The adult plumage of the Cooper’s Hawk is blue-gray on the head and back with a reddish horizontal barring on the chest. Juveniles have a brown head and back with brown vertical streaks on their breast. They have a long, banded tail with a rounded edge to it. The diet of the Cooper’s Hawk, to the dismay of many backyard birdwatchers, includes small birds. They will also eat small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. In the winter, reptiles and amphibians are hibernating (their hibernation process is known as brumation) and small mammals can be tough to find tunneling under the snow. A feeder attracting small birds is an open invitation for this stealthy hunter. 

Sharp-shinned hawk; photo by Alan Schmierer

The Sharp-shinned Hawk looks like the little brother of the Cooper’s Hawk. The adult and juvenile plumage is almost identical. The Sharp-shinned Hawk is small, about the size of a Blue Jay, sometimes slightly larger. They have a small, rounded head, which makes their eyes look especially large. They are quick and agile, and though their diet is varied it consists mostly of other birds. 

Red-tailed Hawks are common year-round residents. They are large hawks that can often be seen perched on telephone poles or light poles along the highway. They are brown in color with a white “V” on their back and a brown band on their belly. Their most distinctive feature is their reddish tail, which can usually be seen when they are perched or flying. Red-tailed hawks can feed on larger prey and will eat small-to-medium mammals, fish, snakes, large birds and even carrion. While you probably won’t see a red-tailed hawk going after the birds at your feeders, you may see one go after something larger like a squirrel or rabbit. 

Although it can be upsetting to see a bird of prey (also known as a raptor) capture another bird at your feeders, they play an important role in the ecosystem. They take out the sick and the weak birds that are struggling to survive, making the remaining songbird population stronger. All birds, except nonnatives like European Starlings, House Sparrows, and Rock Doves; certain shore birds; and game birds like pheasants and ducks; are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This act makes it illegal to harm, harass, capture, or possess any part of a bird of prey … even its feathers. 

If you think you are seeing more birds of prey now than you had in the past, it is very possible. The use of DDT (a synthetic insecticide) caused eggshell thinning and it hit raptor populations hard. The thin eggs of these birds were easily cracked by the parents themselves and caused populations to tumble. Since the ban of DDT in 1972, many raptor populations have improved. The Bald Eagle is a fantastic example of this. Bald Eagle populations are very strong in upstate New York, and it’s not uncommon to see one soaring overhead nearby any large body of water.  

As you spend time outdoors in the winter, don’t be surprised if you come across a bird of prey on your walk or in your backyard. They are opportunistic predators that may just take advantage of hunting in your neighborhood. As the temperatures warm up you may not see them as often because other sources of food will become more readily available. If you don’t want to attract birds of prey to your yard, the best thing you can do is take your feeders down for a few days. They will go elsewhere, at least for a while. Otherwise, enjoy the sight of these magnificent hunters while you have the up-close view!

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


Fall and winter bird feeding

by cathym on November 3, 2020

by Liz Magnanti

As the temperatures get cooler and the days grow shorter, birds are adjusting their behaviors to adapt to the conditions, which means an increased need for shelter, food, and a reliable source of water. While these needs can be hard for wildlife to come by, you can offer them easily in your yard to make it a haven for birds all winter long.

Shelter for birds can be given in the form of bird houses or roosting boxes. Bird houses can be left out in the yard all winter, just make sure they have been cleaned out! The difference between bird houses and roosting boxes are that roosting boxes have perches inside of them for many birds to land on. Bird houses do not have this feature. Multiple species will go inside roosting boxes at a time, even birds that don’t usually nest in houses. You can also get roosting pockets, small woven huts that birds will go into to stay out of the wind, snow and cold. As temperatures dip below freezing, water can be hard for birds and other wildlife to find, especially the small pools of water birds rely on for bathing and drinking. Birdbath heaters, or birdbaths with internal heaters, offer birds an unfrozen body of water. Most heated birdbaths operate on a thermostat, so they do not run constantly. The heating element will kick on when temperatures drop and will heat the water just enough so it doesn’t ice over. While most robins and bluebirds will migrate a little further south for the winter, those that stay are attracted to the source of water that a birdbath provides. 

When it comes to attracting birds with food, the type of food makes a huge difference. First, make sure the feeder you have is clean, and the seed you are using is fresh. These are two of the most common reasons people stop seeing birds at their feeders. If you are going to feed birds, having a sunflower or mixed seed feeder is a must. Out of any one type of seed, black oil sunflower will attract birds the best. You can entice them more with a sunflower seed mix containing extras like peanuts, safflower, and shelled sunflower. Mixes containing a lot of cracked corn or milo tend to go to waste as the birds will throw those grains on the ground in order to get to the seeds with more fat and protein like the sunflower. Sunflower seeds will attract cardinals, blue jays, finches, chickadees, mourning doves, woodpeckers and more. In the winter months be on the lookout for purple finches; they are more common in the winter than they are in the spring. The males look like a male house finch but dipped in a raspberry juice. If you want the birds but not the mess from the sunflower seed shells, try sunflower hearts. You can get the same variety, but don’t have to worry about the husks from the seeds. Hopper feeders, which look like birdhouses with Plexiglas sides, are wonderful because they hold a lot and usually have a lot of perching room for small birds like chickadees and finches, but also larger birds like cardinals and blue jays. A tube feeder can also be good for sunflower seed, especially if it has large perches or a tray attached to the bottom. Larger birds need more room to perch so keep that in mind as you select your feeder. 

Nyjer, or thistle (actually “nyjer” is the trade name for Guizotia abyssinica, only distantly related to our common thistle), is a must-have seed for the cooler months. Goldfinches, which are in the area all year, love nyjer seeds. Goldfinches molt their feathers as the weather cools and swap their bright yellow plumage for a dull olive color. In the winter we tend to have more birds coming to nyjer feeders because some northern seed-eating species fly south to our area to stay for the winter. Pine siskins and juncos are examples of species you may find at your nyjer feeder in the cooler months that you wouldn’t normally see in the spring and summer. Some years are “irruption years,” where we experience a larger than normal influx of a species. Redpolls are an example of this. They are small, chickadee-sized birds with a raspberry patch on the top of their heads. When they have an irruption year you can find large flocks of them coming to nyjer feeders. Nyjer is a seed that has a short shelf life, only two to three months, so make sure you buy it in small quantities at a time so it doesn’t go bad before the birds can eat it.

Common Redpoll. Photo courtesty Flickr: seabamirum

Suet is another cool-weather food staple and birds absolutely love eating from these blocks of fat! [See our craft project in this issue—Ed.] Anything with peanuts mixed in it is ideal and will give you the best diversity of birds. Nuthatches, and especially woodpeckers, love suet! Birds need to eat more fat in the winter to maintain their body temperature and suet is a perfect, low cost way to help them do just that. When picking out a suet feeder, try to get one that has a “tail prop” on it. Woodpeckers use their tail like a third leg of a tripod for stability when perching and landing. Large woodpeckers, like the 16-inch-long pileated woodpecker, will appreciate a larger feeder. All winter long you can expect to see a nice diversity of woodpeckers. Downy, hairy, red-bellied, and pileated woodpeckers are common feeder birds you can attract all season long.

Peanuts are a food addition I always recommend. They are a huge crowd pleaser in the backyard! Peanuts in the shell will bring in blue jays consistently. Their squawking will also remind you any time you let the peanut feeder go empty! Peanut “pickouts” are the insides of the peanut and can be added to a seed mix or put in their own feeder and are a favorite of nuthatches, chickadees and titmice. Peanuts have a lot of fat and protein in them and birds will readily eat them all winter. 

When feeding birds a common complaint is the number of squirrels! And although they need to eat too, it can be frustrating to have your feeders emptied by a furred, not feathered creature. Squirrel proofing is possible, but it can take some maneuvering. Put baffles on poles to keep squirrels from climbing up them, just make sure they are four to five feet high, otherwise they can jump right over them. Ready-made squirrel-proof feeders are also available, and some are real winners. Anything with a lifetime guarantee will usually work well for keeping squirrels out. The company will stand by the product and for good reason.

This winter as we hibernate in our homes, nature can provide just as much entertainment as the TV. Adding some wildlife-friendly features to the yard can go a long way, especially in the cooler weather. You may be surprised by how adding a few amenities can make your yard a sanctuary, and as they say, if you build it, they will come!

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

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Miracle monarchs

by cathym on September 14, 2020

by Liz Magnanti

September is a key time to see one the most interesting animals in our region—the monarch butterfly. The monarch makes an amazing migration down to Mexico every year—a journey that can be more than 3,000 miles! The best thing is, the monarch is relatively easy to attract to your yard.

Monarch Butterfly on New England Aster. Photo courtesy Flickr: Greg Thompson, US Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Monarch butterflies are in the insect order Lepidoptera—an order that consists of butterflies and moths. Lepidoptera literally translates to “scale wing,” and for good reason: These creatures’ wings are covered in tiny scales, which give them their beautiful colors. All butterflies and moths go through a complete metamorphosis throughout their life cycle. This means that each stage of their life is physically very different from the last. They begin their life as an egg, the egg hatches, and out comes the caterpillar. The caterpillar has chewing mouthparts that allow it to spend its life eating, and then it pupates, forming a chrysalis (or cocoon for moths.) The butterfly will hatch out of the chrysalis and readily visit gardens to drink nectar with a straw-like proboscis and start the egg laying process all over again. 

Most butterflies need a specific “host plant” on which to lay their eggs and have their hatchling caterpillars eat. Once they are adult butterflies they will feed from completely different plants. The monarch butterfly, however, could live its life exclusively on milkweed plants. The female monarch will soar over fields and gardens on the hunt for milkweed. When she lands on a likely candidate, she can “taste” that she is on the right plant with specialized chemoreceptors on her legs and abdomen. In her lifetime, a female monarch will lay about 500 eggs, but only about one in twenty of these will make it to adulthood. The egg is laid on the underside of the milkweed leaf and will hatch after three to four days. The whole lifecycle is temperature dependent, with warmer temperatures speeding up the process. After hatching, the caterpillar will eat milkweed leaves religiously for another ten to fourteen days. Once nice and plump, the caterpillar morphs into a light green chrysalis where it will stay for another ten to fourteen days. The chrysalis will begin to turn dark, and the pattern of the black and orange monarch wing will show through it once the butterfly is about to emerge. When it emerges, its wings are wet and crumpled. The monarch will pump its wings and blood from its abdomen will fill the veins in its expanding wings. 

Monarch butterflies and caterpillars are toxic to most predators. They acquire their protective toxin from the milkweed plant, which has a milky sap containing cardenolides that are poisonous to most vertebrates.  The bright orange coloration of the monarch is its way of telling possible predators that it is not a good meal. This type of warning coloration is known as aposematic coloration. 

Arguably the most impressive feature of monarchs is the ability to migrate long distances. In the fall monarchs begin their migration southward to Mexico. This journey can take months and thousands of miles. While most monarchs only live for two to five weeks, the migratory population will live for eight or nine months. Once in Mexico, the monarchs will congregate to oyamel fir tree forests in high, mountainous elevations. They will spend the winter in these forests until March, when they begin the journey back north. These monarchs will mate and lay eggs along their journey and ultimately die off. Those eggs will continue their whole life cycle and turn into adult monarchs, called the first generation, and will continue the journey north, laying eggs all the while. This process continues for four generations. The monarchs that first make their way up to New York tend to be the third generation. It is the fourth generation that migrates back down to Mexico, meaning that those monarchs that migrate are the great-great grandchildren of the monarchs who migrated south the year before. It is a true spectacle of nature!

Monarch butterflies are relatively easy to attract to your garden. Planting nectar-producing plants like blazing star (liatris), Joe Pye weed, purple coneflower, New York ironweed, aster, and butterfly bush will attract adult monarchs. The one plant you definitely need to plant, of course, is milkweed. 

In Upstate New York there are three milkweed species you are likely to find: common milkweed, swamp milkweed and butterfly weed. The common milkweed is very often found in fields, along roadsides, and parks. It has large leaves that are great for monarch caterpillars but can spread and get a bit unruly in the garden. Swamp milkweed can often be found in garden centers, especially if they have native plant sections. Its leaves are smaller and thinner but will still provide monarch caterpillars with the nutrition they need. The same goes for butterfly weed, which can also often be found in garden centers. Its bright orange, nectar producing flowers are a great treat for butterflies and it looks beautiful in the landscape. 

The peak dates to see monarchs in our area are in early to mid-September. Monarchs travelling south from Canada are passing through here on their migration southward. Fields of asters and goldenrod are a great place to look. Planting for monarchs can be very rewarding, especially when you get your first visit of the season floating into the garden. These long-distance migrants are not only beautiful, but like many other pollinators, are facing population declines. So consider making your yard more monarch friendly! 

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