backyard birds Vic MacBournie backyard birds Vic MacBournie

American Robins: How to attract them to our yards

The American robin has always been a mainstay in our backyard whether they are eating crabapples or enjoying themselves in the bird bath.

More of these spring harbingers are remaining all winter

Most of us remember the first sign of spring involved an orange breasted bird and a worm.

Once we saw our first Robin pulling a worm out of the grass it was officially spring. Today, many of those same orange breasted birds are sticking around all winter living off berries, bugs, larvae and anything else they can scrounge to get them through our winters.

Milder winters resulting from climate change are certainly playing a role in more American Robins remaining in their northerly limits, but the threat of sudden and prolonged periods of freezing temperatures combined with heavy snow fall can certainly put the birds in severe danger.

It’s another good reason to ensure we do our best to supplement our bird feeders with more natural food for the birds – berries, fruit and even meal worms – especially during the winter.

Be sure to check out my comprehensive post on the best plants to feed birds naturally and save money.

An American Robin sits atop a rustic bird house in spring.

Robins are regulars in our backyard

Throughout most of the winter, I watch a small flock of American Robins feeding off of our two crabapple trees in the back of the yard. I suspect it is an important food source for the resident Robins, when other food supplies in the area are scarce.

The American Robin is probably one of the most familiar birds in North America. In fact, it is actually the state bird of three northeastern states – Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin.

American Robins love their bird baths. Be sure to add a couple of large bird baths to keep the robins returning to your yard.

Where did the American Robin gets its name?

The American Robin got its name from European settlers who named it after the more diminutive and cheerful European Robin, which sports an equally impressive red breast and is often referred to as “Robin Redbreast.”

Although it is easy to see that the colouring of the two birds resulted in the identical names, the similarities more or less end there.

The American robin is actually a member of the thrush family and is much larger than its European namesake. Those who have studied the history, say that the two birds were given the same name as much for their character as their colourings. Both birds readily adapt to urban areas and are happy to live among humans, in fact, they eagerly stay close by to benefit from potential insects we sometimes stir up in the garden.

The water in this DIY bird bath is kept warm enough for the birds to use even in the coldest months of the year.

The water in this DIY bird bath is kept warm enough for the birds to use even in the coldest months of the year.

Whether you are in England digging a new garden bed or New York, chances are a robin is nearby watching your every move. And, don’t be surprised if they come right down to your feet to nab an unearthed worm or other insect.

It turns out the European settlers didn’t stop giving North American birds the Robin moniker after bestowing it upon the American Robin. Apparently, even our beloved bluebirds were tagged with the name robin. That’s understandable since the Eastern bluebird sports a lovely orange breast and reflects many of the traits of the European robin when it comes to size and characteristics.

But that didn’t end the Europeans obsession with naming our birds after their beloved robins. Towhees originally earned the name ground robin and Baltimore Orioles were called the Golden Robin.

This American Robin was attracted by the sound of water spilling from the solar-powered dripper.

This American Robin was attracted by the sound of water spilling from the solar-powered dripper.

Obviously all four sport red-orange breasts that undoubtedly played a role in being compared to the friendly European robin, a mainstay in any British garden.

In fact, the American robin in all but colouring, is more related and shares more things in common to the Eurasian blackbird. Other than its colouring –which is all black – the blackbird is also in the thrush family and sports similarly to the American robin, a yellow beak and white around its eye.

Early Americans also called the bird the wandering thrush, which seems a more accurate description.

Robins love a good bath

If there is one thing in our garden that the robins love most, it’s our many bird baths sprinkled about. if you are looking to attract Robins to your yard, a couple of good, solid, large bird baths are essential. You will be amply rewarded, if you can keep a good reliable source of water for them throughout the winter.

Be sure to check out my article on creating a DIY heated bird bath for the winter.

American Robin is actually a woodland bird

Although the birds are a common sight in residential yards and parks, this wasn’t always the case. American Robins are actually woodland or forest dwelling birds that have learned to adapt to the abundance of food – primarily worms in grass – in surburban landscapes.

Many of our American Robins end up returning to woodlands and more “wild” areas in the winter,where they can more easily find food – in an abundance of berries and other fruit as well as overwintering insects and larvae.

Creating a more natural yard, by planting plenty of native berries as well as leaving leaf litter for overwintering insects and larvae, will help to attract these wonderful birds throughout the winter.

Creating this natural food source in your woodland/wildlife garden will also go a long way to ensure the survival of the American Robin in your neighbourhood.

Robins love their bird baths. Be sure to ad a birdbath or small pond to attract these members of the Thrush family.

Robins love their bird baths. Be sure to ad a birdbath or small pond to attract these members of the Thrush family.

How do Robins survive winter?

During the winter, it is common to see the Robins travelling in large flocks where they work together to find natural food sources. Winter roosts can be huge with some estimates reaching more than two hundred thousand birds.

But, just because you see flocks of Robins in your area one year, does not mean they will necessarily return the following year.

Robins tend to be nomadic birds that don’t follow the typical north to south migration route. Individual Robins get around and may winter in completely different geographic areas from one winter to another. They have been known to travel long distances between states following the abundance of food in any given year.

Each spring, however, Robins return to their original nesting area and have even been known to use the previous year’s nest – with some modern improvements of course – if it proved successful the previous year.

A few facts about Robins

• In more northern regions of Ontario for example, Robins continue to be known as the harbingers of spring. They tend to show up around the end of March through early April as the warmer weather thaws the ground making worms and other insects more accessible.

• Worms only make up 15-20 per cent of the Robin’s summer diet. The rest is made up of other insects, fruits and berries.

•Robins tend to eat more earth worms in the early morning when they are more visible and closer to the surface, and turn to fruit later in the day.

• Robins belong to the Thrush family – family of birds known for their beautiful songs. Because Robins tend to hang out in neighbourhoods and around other human-dominated habitats, their spring songs are very familiar to most of us wheter we know it or not. Their rich, cheerful songs fill our neighbourhood each spring when they are particularly vocal announcing the arrival of spring and their readiness to mate and get on with building their families. Robins are known to sing their songs throughout the day and even will after sunset.

• Because Robins are comfortable in our gardens and around humans, it is not uncommon to have a pair nesting close to our homes and high-traffic areas such as on top of exterior lights, in hanging baskets on garden ornaments or just about anywhere the pair can find a good sturdy structure to build their nest. Last year, our neighbours had a pair nesting in a wreath near their front door, seemingly oblivious to all the comings and goings.

The birds’ ease around us often provides excellent opportunities to observe the family as they grow up in front of our eyes.

They can be the perfect opportunity for children to be exposed to the beauty of nature as they watch the parents on the nest, feeding the young and eventually watch as the fledglings leave the nest.

If you have children or grandchildren who express an interest in nature, be sure to check out my comprehensive post about why children need more nature in their lives.

Robins can nest up to three times in a breeding season, often using the same nest. However only about 40 per cent of the nests produce young and only about 25 per cent of those young Robins survive through fall to take on the winter. About half of the Robins that go into winter survive to mate the following spring.

Given those statistics, it’s not surprising that American Robins have an average lifespan of about 1.5 to two years, but they can live longer if given the right environment. For example, the longest lived American Robin recorded in the wild was almost 14 years old.

How to identify the American Robin

The American Robin is one of the easiest birds to identify with their rusty red belly against a greyish-black upper body, a bright yellow beak and white markings around their eyes.

These rather large birds measure around 25 centimeters long and weigh in at 77 grams, making them the largest thrush in North America.

The can be found right across North America from the farthest reaches of Alaska in the north, across to Canada’s Newfoundland and down south from Florida across to California.

Are American Robins threatened?

Robins face a hose of deadly foes around our residential gardens from the over use of insecticides especially on turf grass where they feed on worms and other insects, to the presence of unnatural predators such as cats, and collisions with windows.

Be sure to check out my two earlier posts on protecting birds from stray cats and how to protect birds from window strikes.

A more serious threat that has recently attacked American Robins is the mosquito-born virus West Nile that has killed a stunning number of both Robins and Blue Jays.

Be sure to check out this link for my comprehensive post on Blue Jays and West Nile.

Despite these challenges, the good news is that studies are showing that the American robin populations over the past 40 years have slowly increased. This increase is thought to be related to their ability to adapt their lifestyle to live comfortably in our suburban neighbourhoods.

The combination of a more readily accessible food source (worms), safe nesting places (unnatural as many of them are) and milder winters have no doubt combined to provide American robins with a fabourable environment despite the many threats they face in the suburban landscape.

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backyard birds Vic MacBournie backyard birds Vic MacBournie

Attract Juncos: Habitat might convince Snowbirds to stay all year

Dark-eyed Juncos are common visitors to our gardens, especially in winter when these sparrow-sized birds are scene looking for seed on the ground beneath our feeders.

You have to admire the Slate-coloured, Dark-Eyed Junco. While many of our backyard birds are flying south to the Southern United States, Mexico and Central America, these spunky little birds think -15C (5F) and three feet of snow is paradise.

Compared to their traditional breeding grounds in the deep Boreal forests of northern Canada where a high percentage of them spend their spring and summer breeding months, I guess the freezing temperatures and blizzards of Southern Ontario and north-eastern United States feel quite balmy to them.

These hardy, ground-feeding members of the sparrow family, with a slate-coloured top and white undersides, seem happy enough to scrounge on the ground under our bird feeders for scraps left behind by Cardinals, Blue Jays, Woodpeckers and a host of other more fussy birds that unwittingly share their discarded seed with the Juncos at our our feeders.

And if you provide the right habitat, including their favourite native plants, roosting locations, a fresh source of water and a good source of food, you may be able to convince these little guys to stick around your woodland year round.

How long do Juncos live

No one said their lives were easy, but they have been known to survive in these harsh conditions for up to 11 years of age. Experts predict a life span of between 3-11 years depending on climate conditions, predation and other factors.

Digital painting shows a male Slate-coloured, Dark-eyed Junco perched on a branch during a snowstorm.

How did Juncos get their name?

Their name is derived from the Latin word juncus which is Spanish for “rush.” The dark-eyed junco’s latin name (Junco hymelalis) actually means winter junco from the Latin work hyemalis which translates “of the winter.”

Juncos are ground feeders so leave your leaves

In the fall and especially the spring, you’ll most often see these ground-feeders rooting through the fallen leaves looking for insects to feed nestlings. Leaving your fallen leaves is critical for ground-feeding birds like Juncos. Here is an earlier article on why we should be leaving our leaves where they fall.

Actually these birds are quite widespread and are found throughout the north America from Alaska to Mexico, California to New York and from one end of Canada to the other. You can expect to find them in coniferous and mixed forests, but they are just as happy in scrub land along rural roadways and, of course, flitting about in the lower shrubbery of our woodland gardens.

They certainly are not flashy birds and often go unnoticed in the garden accept when they briefly flash their white outer tail feathers thought to confuse predators during an aerial attack.

How did Juncos earn the name: Snowbirds?

Juncos, are also lovingly known by many as snowbirds, since they seem to appear along with the first snowfall of the season. Apparently, even famed birder John James Audubon called them the snowbird.

I like to think that they earned their name before the term “snowbirds” was popularized by Canadian seniors heading south in winter. I think their colouring earned them the name “Snowbirds.” The Junco’s slate-coloured plummage on their backs (the males are darker than the females) and white undersides are often associated with the leaden stormy skies of winter above and fresh snow below. That’s a much nicer interpretation than a bunch of us old Canadians heading to Florida, considering few Juncos even make it that far during migration.

While these hardy little birds are more than willing to take on our frigid temperatures than most birds, not all dark-eyed Juncos arrive from the depths of the Canadian northern forests. In some areas they are year-round residents.

In fact, in our Southern Ontario woodland, Juncos are year-round visitors. Although some of them choose to stay year-round, there certainly is an influx in fall as winter approaches. They are also more noticeable as their activity picks up during or immediately after a snowstorm.

This little female Junco searches for seeds under native Northern Sea Oat grasses. These little birds will even spend the night tucked into the grasses to escape cold winds.

In the more northern areas of the U.S. in New England and Minnesota, for example, early migrants start arriving as early as August but the more northerly birds don’t start their overnight migrations until late October and November. By December the migration is completed but some birds who migrated into parts of Ontario and the northern states may move farther north in particularly bad winters.

At our hopper feeders and tray feeder, Juncos tend to go after the black-oil sunflower, that are easily cracked with their stout, light pink bills. If given the chance, though, they are not opposed to stealing suet from the larger woodpeckers and blue jays if the suet feeders are left unattended.

In our neck of the woods, the slate,dark-eyed Junco dominates, but you may not know that there are actually two species of Juncos in North America and seven sub-species. The two species are the Slate-coloured, dark-eyed that make up about 99 per cent of the birds in North America, with a small number of yellow-eyed Juncos taking up residence in South-East Arizona. the Oregon dark-eyed Junco is the other dominant sub-species found mostly in Western United States. It sports a dark hood, a brown back and rufous flanks. Others include the Pink-Sided Junco and the White-Winged dark eye junco.

Junco on a pine branch in mid summer. Although many migrate farther north for summer, a percentage of them stick around if they can find good habitat in our woodland gardens.

In our garden, the Juncos like to hang out in groups of anywhere from a few individuals to as many as 30. these groupings or small flocks feed over a territory of about 10 acres in the wild, a smaller area if food is abundant at backyard feeders.

This winter I have noticed that the Juncos are particularly attracted to our DIY heated bird bath. Without a doubt they are the most regular visitors to the bird bath – either coming down to get a drink of water or occasionally stopping by for a quick bath. My DIY heated bird bath was a simple and inexpensive project that has not only improved habitat for our local birds, but also helped to bring them in close to our home and provided me with opportunities to photograph the birds up close.

Every flock has a dominance hierachy with adult males at the top, followed by juvenile males, adult females followed by young females. Although this sounds potentially cruel, male juncos tend to stay in more northern areas to stay close to their traditional mating territories, while females migrate further south for better food sources. Females also don’t need to return to defend the breeding rounds until later in the spring so, can afford to migrate further south.

And, no need to feel sorry for the males having to tough out the colder temperatures. Juncos have their own way to deal with the cold by adding close to 30 per cent more feather weight to prepare for winter. These members of the sparrow family are between 5-6 inches and way in at about 1/2 an ounce to 1 ounce. They will also team up with flock mates in particularly harsh temperatures, seeking cover in thick evergreens, tucked into tall grasses or brush piles to get protection from the winds.

I often see them going into our cedar hedge throughout the day and into the evening. Lately, during a heavy cold spell and high snow cover, I’ve noticed them hanging out in our wood pile that has a nice layer of fall leaves providing a solid roof covering in some areas. During heavy snow, Juncos will often tuck into the small chambers formed inside tall ornamental grasses. Just another good reason to leave your ornamental grasses standing throughout the winter, waiting until later in the spring to cut them down.

Where do Juncos nest?

As spring rolls around, males begin attracting a mate with their calls – a musical trilling of between 7-23 notes that lasts a couple of seconds at a time and is repeated over and over for up to half an our, often from a high branch.

The pairs are monogomous for that breeding period, but females will pick a new mae each breeding season. The female chooses the nest site and constructs it over a period of three to seven days, before laying 3-6 eggs. In woodlands, nests are typically either on the ground or near the ground, on a rockface or possibly in cavities of an uprooted tree. In more urban areas, Juncos may choose to build their nest in hanging baskets, on light fixtures, in the eves of buildings or on window ledges.

Incubation takes about two weeks and both parents feed the babies for about 14 days in the nest and several weeks after they fledge. Male Juncos will aggressively defend the nest against marauding birds during this time. Their alarm call sounds more like a scene out of star wars, with a buzzy Que, que que que call. In flight, you might pick up a soft, buzzing trill.

Presently, it is believed that their are 200 million breeding birds with roughly 80 per cent breeding within the boreal forest. Although, like all songbirds, their numbers are in decline, they are not listed as a conservation concern.

Nevertheless, it is imperative that gardeners continue to restore the native habitat for Juncos and other native birds.

Although Juncos are primarily seed eaters, about 75 per cent of their diet consists of seed either wild or provided in our feeders, they will shift their diets primarily to insects (beetles, moths, caterpillars etc) during the breeding and nest-rearing periods.

If you are looking to plant native to provide them with a natural seed sources, consider Goldenrod, chickweed, sorrel and lambs quarter.

Looking to attract more backyard birds?

How to attract the Tufted Titmouse

How to attract Goldfinches and other cool facts

Three common woodpeckers and how to tell them apart

How to attract Nuthatches

Attracting colourful birds to your feeders

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birds, backyard birds, attracting birds Vic MacBournie birds, backyard birds, attracting birds Vic MacBournie

How do our bright yellow Goldfinches get their colour

The stunning colour changes of the American Goldfinch is unmatched by most backyard birds. These changes can be traced, in part, to its almost entirely vegetarian diet of seeds, most notably the seeds of thistle, sunflower and milkweed.

A digital watercolour image of an American Goldfinch sitting out a winter storm.

Bright yellow bird’s colour change and the common thistle

The story of the American Goldfinch’s bright yellow colour and why it changes from a drab greyish brown in winter to a stunning bright yellow in early spring really begins with, and is tied to, its diet of almost entirely seeds – primarily seeds from its favourite food, the thistle plant.

If you want these colourful “wild canaries” in your woodland garden, let the thistles grow in a corner of your yard or, if you want to watch these beautiful little finches attack your thistles, plant them near your favourite sitting area or a window. Be sure to include sunflowers and milkweed as well for some spectacular late summer entertainment.

What you will notice is that later in summer these thistles and other native plants will begin to flower and put out seed just in time for the Goldfinches to take advantage of this abundance of seed to feed their, most likely, one and only brood of nestlings.

Okay, so what does this have to do with the male Goldfinch taking on its bright yellow spring colour and the female’s subtle soft yellow coat?

It is thought that the timing of the moult and the transformation into its beautiful yellow plumage in spring is related, at least in part, to natural seed production. The Goldfinch’s late winter/spring moult is unusual because most birds can’t use up that much energy in spring when they are trying to raise their nestlings, but because Goldfinches depend almost entirely on the consumption of seed, they are able to nest later in the season following a spring moult.

American Goldfinches are unusual among goldfinches in moulting their body feathers twice a year, once in late winter and again in late summer. The late summer moult takes place after the nestlings are born and are more independent of their parents.

Of course, the male’s bright colour relates to the mating season, but unlike most birds that begin nesting in early spring timed in part to the explosion of insect and larvae life that feeds their nestlings, Goldfinches breed later and feed its nestlings almost entirely seeds.

Check this link for more on the American Goldfinch and attracting colourful birds to your yard

A female American Goldfinch waits for its turn at the Nyjer seed feeder during a winter storm.

An American Goldfinch quietly waiting for its turn at the Nyjer bird feeder during an early winter snowstorm that helps explain the bird’s still-vibrant plumage colours.

When do Goldfinches begin nest building?

Goldfinches don’t begin their mating ritual and nest building until later in the summer – June and July in the eastern part of their range and as early as May and June in their western ranges. By this later date, the transformation from drab, easily overlooked birds to the stunning yellow plumage of the males and more subtle yellow of the females is usually completed. In fact, by late April the moult is usually complete and the birds can begin building back any energy lost as a result of the moult.

The birds’ almost entire dependency on small seeds also mean they don’t need to rely on insects. This is particularly helpful during winter months when insects are in short supply and helps explain the fact that few of the birds migrate far distances if at all.

Moving water proves too much of an attraction for these male and female American Goldfinches. The male can be seen with its black cap waiting for its turn in the bird bath.

Cool facts about the Goldfinch

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in their informative website, provided some of the following facts:

  • Goldfinches incorporate the fibrous seeds of thistle and milkweed, which they also use to feed their young, into their nests.

  • Goldfinches begin moulting in September, and continue for six to eight weeks During this time they molt all of their feathers, ending up with a completely new set of drab-coloured feathers heading into winter.

  • In the spring, as new body feathers are grown, the males especially transform into bright yellow breeding plumage, but the wing and tail feathers remain from the previous fall.

  • American Goldfinches are among the strictest vegetarians in the bird world, only inadvertently swallowing an occasional insect.

  • American Goldfinch nestlings usually leave the nest two weeks after hatching but continue to be fed by the parents for a period of time.

  • Although American Goldfinches traditionally only have one brood, an experienced couple may have a second brood. In this case the female builds the new nest while the male continues to feed the first brood.

  • Brown-headed Cowbirds that lay eggs in an American Goldfinch nest can’t survive on the all-seed diet and perish quickly.

  • The oldest known American Goldfinch was 10 years 9 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during a banding operation in Maryland.

An American Goldfinch sits atop a seedhead in the woodland wildlife garden.

A Golfinch looks for seed in the Woodland Wildlife garden where it feeds almost entirely on the seed of native plants and trees.

Where do Goldfinches get this bright yellow colour

This cheerful bright yellow plumage of the male Goldfinch and to a lesser degree the females comes from carotenoids in the plants and plant seeds that they ingest.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology explains in their article on How Birds Make Colourful Feathers that: “Carotenoids are responsible for the bright yellows seen in goldfinches and Yellow Warblers as well as the brilliant orangish yellow of the male Blackburnian Warbler. Carotenoids can interact with melanins to produce colours like the olive-green of the female Scarlet Tanager.”

Some bird species, whose feathers remain the same colour year round, such as the Cardinal, Blue Jay or Chickadee, the annual moult serves to simply refresh their plumage. Others, like the Goldfinch, use the moult as an opportunity to change their colours from vibrant breeding ones to those that help to camouflage them from predators. The bright yellow plumage of the Goldfinch would do little to hide them in the stark winter landscape. For American goldfinch, that means going through a second moult in the spring, to regain their bright breeding colours.

What other natural seeds do Goldfinches eat?

Thistles are not the only seeds eaten by these small birds. Their strong beaks allow them to open an assortment of seeds including another one of their favourites – sunflower seeds. They also eat seeds from asters, wild grasses and several trees including alder, birch, western red cedar and elm.

Most of us are familiar with the popular (but expensive to purchase) Nyjer seed which is used almost exclusively in special feeders to attract these birds. Although most people think Nyjer seed is the seed of the thistle plant, it is actually the similarly small, thin, black seed from the African yellow daisy (Guizotia abyssinica). Though unrelated to the thistle plant, it is high in oil and a popular source of food for the Goldfinch.

What to do if Goldfinches are not eating your Nyjer seed

Nyjer seed should always be purchased from a reputable seller preferably one that has a high seed turnover because older seed quickly dries out and loses its nutritional benefits. If you notice that finches stop eating from your feeder despite the fact it is full of Nyjer seed you may have just recently put out for them, it is likely that the oil in the seed has dried out and it is no longer useful. At that point it is best to dispose of it and purchase new, fresh seed.

In addition, Nyjer seed is easily spoiled when it gets wet. Even condensation building up at the bottom of the tube feeder can cause the seed to go rancid. Replace and clean the feeders on a regular basis to keep the Goldfinches coming back regularly.

If American Goldfinches are coming regularly to your feeder, September and October is a good time to pay particular attention to them. It is at this time of year that they transition from their stunning golden colour to gray.

Once the transformation is complete the Goldfinches can still be identified by their wings which are mostly black with a thick, buffy bar and white edging during flight.

In conclusion

As Woodland Wildlife gardeners we are often told about the importance of using native plants in our gardens to not only help protect these often threatened species, but to provide birds, pollinators and other predators with a critical food source – either pollen and nectar or the protein provided by insects and caterpillars who live off of them.

The American Goldfinch provides the perfect example of how these native plants provide an important source of food in the form of seeds. In fact, the entire life cycle, mating, giving birth, even moulting is dependent in some way on the production of seeds from a specific group of plants and trees.

For the ill informed, these critical plants, namely thistle and milkweed, are not often desirable plants to have in our gardens and are shunned by many traditional “tidy up” gardeners.

Maybe these gardeners would prefer to pay for an endless supply of Nyjer seed to feed the few Goldfinches that are passing through rather than let the birds natural food source grow in a corner of their yard.

Never has it been more important to embrace native plants and because of the dwindling supply of natural seeds you may be doubly rewarded for your efforts to grow these critically important native plants.

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backyard birds, attracting birds Vic MacBournie backyard birds, attracting birds Vic MacBournie

Three common woodpeckers and how to tell them apart

Woodpeckers are common visitors to our feeders in winter and summer. telling them apart can be a problem considering they share some of the same characteristics – especially the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. The Red-Bellied Woodpecker can be confusing to some because it’s not easy to see the subtle red on its belly.

Downy, Hairy and Red-Bellied Woodpeckers: What they eat

Woodpeckers are probably the most common bird at our feeders most winter days.

Between the Downy, Hairy and Red-Bellied there always seems to be at least a couple working the seed cylinder that sits atop our feeder pole, or one of the many suet feeders that provide them with a high-fat source of food when the weather turns colder. It’s also common to see them flitting about searching out the Bark Butter and DIY feeders I leave on home-made snags that have been set up around the feeders. They will also readily take the black-oil sunflower seed in the feeders.

Although they are among the most frequent visitors to our feeders, their primary food source is without a doubt insects and larvae of all kinds. In fact, even in winter when insects are sparse, these woodpeckers keep busy using their long beaks to probe under or between bark in search of insects.

For more on feeding backyard birds check out these articles on The Tufted Titmouse, Seed cyclinders, Attracting Orioles, attracting Indigo Buntings.

Red-Bellied woodpecker feeding on seed at feeder showing its red hed and zebra-patterned back feathers.

The vibrant red head of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker complete with its zebra-like plummage across its back helps to give it a very distinguished look.

How woodpeckers catch insects

All woodpeckers share a number of special anatomical features that allow them to dig or violently carve holes in wood. Their chisel-shaped bills are constructed of strong bone overlaid with a hard covering that broadens toward the birds’ heads helping to spread the force of the birds’ heavy pecking. Woodpeckers even have a covering of feathers over their nostrils to help filter out wood splinters and dust that is generated during their aggressive pounding on trees.
Woodpeckers also boast long, barbed tongues that includes a sticky substance that enables them to search crevices and cracks for insects and larvae.

How to identify woodpeckers at the feeder

It’s easy to mistake one woodpecker from another considering all three are primarily black and white birds with similarly longish beaks. Their size and a few specific identification markings will help you identify these three birds at your feeder. Distinguishing between the Downy (actually the smallest woodpecker in North America) and the Hairy is difficult at times but with a little practise the differences become more obvious.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker working a log showing off ifs bright red head and just a hint of its red belly.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker with just a hint of the red belly showing here.

Identifying the Red-Bellied Woodpecker

It’s not too difficult to identify the Red-bellied Woodpecker from its Downy and Hairy counterparts, but don’t look for a bright red belly to easily identify this larger woodpecker.

These birds do sport a spot of red on their belly but the marking is so subtle that it is easily missed unless you have a clear view of the birds’ underside.

Probably the easiest way to identify the Red-Bellied Woodpecker is its sheer size, in comparison to many other woodpeckers. Look for a black and white clear zebra-like pattern that runs down their backs with the male displaying red on its forehead, crown, and nape while the female only has red on her nape with a grey forehead and crown.


Red-bellied vs Red Headed woodpecker

Although the Red-Bellied Woodpecker might be mistaken for the Hairy Woodpecker, at least when comparing the size of the birds, a better comparison is probably made with the more elusive Red-headed Woodpecker. Size wise they are similar, but unlike the Red-Bellied Woodpeckers’ zebra-like pattern on its back, the Red-Headed Woodpecker has a solid black back with large white wing patches (not unlike the larger Pileated Woodpecker). Of course, the entirely red heads of both male and female Red-Headed Woodpeckers are easy distinquishing marks compared to Red-bellied woodpeckers’ where the male sports a large partial red cap.

Downy Woodpecker on branch showing its zebra pattern back feathers and a hint of the black markings on its tail feathers.

A Downy Woodpecker identified by its smaller beak and the spotted outward tail feathers.

Comparing the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers

There is no doubt that in the world of woodpeckers, distinguishing between the Downy and Hairy woodpeckers is the most difficult. The two main differences between the two is size and their tail markings, with size being the easiest distinguishing factor of the two.

Both sport primarily black and white zebra-style feathers down their backs (not unlike the Red-bellied Woodpecker) with a white stripe down the back from the shoulders to their rump, white bellies and flanks, and black eye patches. So, at first glance, they look very much like the same birds.

Besides the size difference – the Downy is considerably smaller measuring in at about six inches compared to the much larger Robin-sized Hairy that stands about 50 per cent taller than the Downy – pay attention to the birds’ bills. The Downy’s bill is delicate and smaller – about a third the size of the Hairy’s much stronger, stout bill.

Hairy Woodpecker with bits of Bark Butter in its long solid beak.

The larger Hairy Woodpecker sporting a larger beak and clear white outward tail feathers.

Finally, if all the above fails to convince you of what you are seeing, the Downy woodpecker’s outer tail feathers are barred with black, while the Hairy sports all-white outer tail feathers.

Most important, is how to remember the names of the two similar looking Woodpeckers. I use a word association that has never failed me – The Downy is the Diminutive one. In other words, the Downy is always the smaller and more Delicate of the two woodpeckers.

Where do these woodpeckers live?

Downy Woodpecker looking for a snack among the lichen growing on the branch.

Downy woodpecker at home in wooded areas

The diminutive Downy Woodpecker Picoides pubescens lives year-round across much of North America and is considered the most common woodpecker in eastern North America where it can be found nesting in holes in trees.

It is at home in a variety of wooded areas, including northern mixed forests and in the deciduous forests to the south. It’s equally at home in smaller urban woodlots and parklands, in orchards and in backyards with appropriate tree cover.

In its westerly range, the birds can be found in alder and willows.

Hairy Woodpecker’s beak catches the light. Notice the feathers just in front of its eyes that help to filter wood splinters as well as wood dust from getting into the bird’s lungs.

The Hairy Woodpecker likes more mature forests

The larger Hairy Woodpeckers are more often found in more mature forests across North America. Although the Hairy and Downy woodpeckers share many of the same habitat, the Hairy woodpeckers need larger trees to live and successfully breed. It’s for this reasons that their numbers are thought to be declining in many areas where they are forced to compete with Starlings and House Sparrows.

Hairy woodpeckers will accept a wide variety of habitats from woodlands to river groves, they need large trees in deciduous, coniferous and mixed forest locations.

Although they can be found almost all over North America even up into Alaska and down through the southern states, some birds from the northern edge of their range may move well south in winter, while some who spend summers in the higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains will readily move to lower elevations.

The Red-Bellied woodpecker is expanding its range

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker is a positive story in a long list of negative ones when it comes to its numbers and habitat range. This large woodpecker, whose numbers are stable or even appear to be increasing slightly, has actually been extending its range to the north – possibly along with climate change.

Originally a bird that inhabited the southeastern parts of North America, this omnivorous woodpecker has adjusted to habitat requirements and now can be found in suburbs and urban parks as well as smaller woodlots and woodland gardens.

These cavity nesters make their homes in dead wood located usually less than 50 feet above ground. The male does most of the excavating for new tree cavities, but a nesting pair is not above using existing tree cavities whether they are natural or abandoned by other woodpeckers.

In conclusion

Identifying woodpeckers in your woodland garden can be daunting at first, but, eventually, you will begin to recognize their various characteristics including their often loud and rambunctious calls. They are quite friendly birds especially the Downy that will, with a little practise, readily eat out of your hand if tempted with high-quality black-oil sunflower seed.

Some homeowners may worry when they see a woodpecker banging away at one of their favourite backyard trees. I wouldn’t worry too much unless the woodpeckers are tearing apart the tree. But don’t blame them for the possible death of the tree. These important predators in our garden do much more good for our trees routing out problematic borers and other insects attacking the tree. If woodpeckers are tearing apart the tree, it’s likely because the tree is already fatally infested with borers.

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How to attract colourful backyard birds (Cardinals, Bluejays, Goldfinches)

Who needs to go to the tropics to see colourful birds when you have them right in your backyard – Cardinals, Bluejays and Goldfinches. This article explains how to attract three of our favourite colourful backyard birds, how to feed them and how to keep them coming back to your yard.

What they eat and how to attract them

Goldfinch getting a drink at the birdbath.

A Goldfinch stops by the birdbath to get a drink in the early evening.

When it comes to birds, everyone loves a little colour in their backyards. That’s why the Cardinal, Blue Jay and Goldfinch are among the most desirable birds in our woodland wildlife gardens.

The Cardinal, Blue Jay and Goldfinch are among the easiest, seed-eating backyard birds to attract to your feeders providing you are giving them their favourite foods. Add natural sources of food from berries to insects, nesting habitat, and, of course, a reliable water source and you will create plenty of colour in your backyard.

While I get great enjoyment from my bird feeding stations, providing natural food sources to our feathered friends is always the goal we should aspire to in our gardens. I have written a comprehensive post on feeding birds naturally. You can read about it here.

This image shows the subtle colour of a Goldfinch in winter during a snowstorm.

This image shows the subtle colour of a Goldfinch in winter during a snowstorm.

Of course these three stunners are not the only colourful birds we can attract to our backyards. My favourite colourful additions to the garden is the incredibly colourful Indigo bunting and the orange and black combination of the Baltimore Oriole. These two highly sought after and extremely colourful birds are more difficult to attract to your backyard feeders so I have tackled those in separate articles. (See my earlier stories on attracting Indigo Buntings and Orioles to your garden.)

To read my article on how the Goldfinch gets its stunning colour and how to attract them with native plants? Click here.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the Cardinal, Blue Jay and and Goldfinch: what they eat, where they nest and what little extras we can do to attract them to our backyards.

A male cardinal in a crabapple tree in spring.

A male cardinal in a crabapple tree in spring.

Cardinals: everyone’s favourite backyard bird

It’s hard not to fall in love with Cardinals. Their cheerful persistent songs, the male cardinal’s bright red coat of feathers standing out in the landscape, and the buff-coloured female just as beautiful in her muted colours especially after a fresh snowfall.

These are year-round birds in our area and a regular at the feeders spring, summer, winter and fall.

A sure way to keep them around is to always have a supply of black-oil sunflower seeds in the feeders.

I use a no-mess blend of cracked sunflower seed from Wild Birds Unlimited.

Cardinals’ powerful jaws, and curved beaks give them the ability to easily open larger, harder seeds with great ease. They will readily take to not only both types of sunflower seed, but peanut pieces and safflower.

Cardinals are actually one of the few birds who seem tho really enjoy safflower seed. In fact, I have a separate feeder filled with safflower aimed primarily at attracting cardinals.

Cardinals will readily eat from most feeders, but consider providing them with a large platform feeder as well.

Although most of us know the cardinal as a regular visitor to our backyard feeders, seeds are not their only source of food. Like most birds, Cardinals rely on a steady supply of caterpillars and insects in early spring and summer during the mating season and to raise their young.

Host plants for butterfly larvae – including milkweed, coneflowers, goldenrod, black-eyed Susan aster, and lupines – will encourage cardinals into your yard and provide them with sources of protein to raise their young.

Cardinals are also attracted to fruit bearing plants, especially red fruit-bearing plants. The male cardinal actually gets its bright red coat from the carotenoid pigments in the red fruit. Serviceberry is a cardinal magnet in our garden but so too are are the berries of sumac and dogwoods. The red berries of the native Flowering dogwoods are favourites but not the raspberry-type fruit of the Cornus Kousa which is actually eaten by few if any birds.

(If you are considering planting a Serviceberry, be sure to check out my earlier article on this native tree and shrub here.)

The breeding season for the Northern male Cardinal runs from as early as March through to September. The nest, which is often found in dense shrubbery or in branches of smaller trees anywhere from 1-15 feet off the ground, is made up of twigs, bark strips bits of roots and even paper. It is often lined with vines, grass and hair.

Because they are not cavity dwelling birds, they are not attracted to a bird house.

They do, however, enjoy using backyard bird baths. Look for one that is two- to three-inches deep.

A blue jay shows off its stunning colours.

A blue jay shows off its stunning colours.

How about those Blue jays?

These guys might be considered bullies at the bird feeder but their incredible colour is just too good for most of us not to attract them to our backyard feeders.

And there isn’t a nut they cannot crack.

Start with a good helping of shelled or unshelled peanuts in a platform feeder and you’ll likely get your share of Blue jays in short order.

Their long, strong black bills are built for cracking open the hardest of nuts. In the forest, it comes in handy making short order of even tough nuts like acorns.

At our feeders, peanuts, large striped sunflower seeds, black oil sunflower seeds and the condensed seed cylinders (wild Birds Unlimited) favoured by Blue Jays and woodpeckers are guaranteed to attract them to your feeders.

Blue Jays are also attracted to corn, grains and suet at our feeders.

If you are looking to feed them naturally, acorns (from the oak tree) are an excellent source of food. Beechnuts (from beech trees) are also among their favourites.

While they are most often seen at our feeders, insects are still an important part of their diets including grasshoppers and caterpillars. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that the stomach contents of Blue Jays studied over the course of a year showed that they contained about 22 per cent insects, with the remainder being acorns, nuts, fruits and grains.

We can’t overlook the fact that blue jays have been known to raid the nests of other birds and eat both the eggs and or the nestlings. If this is something that disturbs you, attracting Blue Jays may not be right for you.

Blue Jays nest from March through July in an open cup of twigs, grass, and sometimes mud, lined with rootlets. The nests are often in the crotch or thick outer branches of coniferous or deciduous trees. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that Blue Jays often set up their nest in all types of forests but most often near oak trees on forest edges. They are quick to nest in both urban and suburban areas where both Oak trees and bird feeders are often in abundance.

Be sure to provide them with a reliable water source as well. A large, deep bird bath (3 inches at its deepest) will be a good source for your local Blue Jays.

Goldfinches at the bird bath with a solar-powered DIY dripper.

Goldfinches at the bird bath with a solar-powered DIY dripper.

Goldfinches: Add a touch of tropical to your backyard

It’s not hard to think of the Goldfinch when Harry Belafonte sings about the Yellow Bird up high in banana tree.

One look at the male or female American Goldfinches in their finest colours is a reminder of how beautiful our local backyard birds are throughout most of the United States and Canada. No need to travel to tropical regions to see colourful birds and hear their lovely song.

More and more of our American Goldfinches remain here year round helped along by numerous bird feeders and seeds from our flower beds and roadside weeds.

These primarily seed-eating birds are drawn to Niger seeds at our feeders. Be sure to provide the small, black seeds in special feeders designed to allow access to the tiny beaks of the finches. Also available are finch socks filled with Niger that are easily hung from trees or a hook at the feeders.

In nature, Goldfinches eat mostly seeds, especially those in the daisy family. Although they do eat some small insects in summer as well as spring buds, bark from twigs, and maple sap, they always come back to seeds.

It’s not uncommon to see them foraging along fence lines in weedy areas gathering the seeds of thistle, grasses and the seeds from elm, birch and alder trees. Consider leaving an area in your garden to grow wild if you want to add a natural feeding source for Goldfinches as well as other birds that depend on these areas as a food and nesting area.

Audubon reports that Goldfinches are late season nesters, timing their nestlings just as daisy-like flowers begin producing seeds.

Nesting occurs mostly during late summer between July and August in deciduous shrubs or trees usually less than 30 feet above the ground. The nest is a compact cup of plant fibres, spiderwebs and plant down.

Goldfinches will readily come to bird baths. Consider a small, shallow one (depth 1-2 inches) for these diminutive colourful birds.

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backyard birds, bird feeders Vic MacBournie backyard birds, bird feeders Vic MacBournie

Bark butter and DIY bird feeders

The combination of a DIY feeder and WBU’s Bark Butter is an irresistible draw for more than 150 species of birds. If attracting woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees along with warblers sounds good, check out this simple and easy to make feeder and food combination.

Natural feeder is irresistible to 152 species of birds

Combining Bark Butter with a DIY bird feeder has become my favourite combination for attracting woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees to my wildlife, woodland garden.

It has also quickly become my favourite feeder combo to photograph birds in a natural setting.

So if you are like me and love either photographing backyard birds, or simply watching woodpeckers, nuthatches and other suet-loving garden visitors as they peck away gathering food for the winter, then you will love the simplicity of creating this DIY branch feeder. The feeders are so easy to make and appreciated by out feathered friends that I’ve already made two and plan on making many more in the near future.

But before digging in on how to make the DIY feeder let’s talk a little about Wild Birds Unlimited Bark Butter.

There are other spreadable-suet products available that might suit your needs. I just can’t speak to them. I do plan to order some of these products from Amazon and will report back.

A woodpecker removes a piece of Bark Butter from the DIY branch feeder.

A woodpecker removes a piece of Bark Butter from the DIY branch feeder.

What’s Bark Butter?

Bark Butter is a spreadable suet-peanut butter and corn blend that can be easily spread on a rough surface like tree bark or stuffed into holes or small crevices that are easily accessible to many birds. It is especially accessible to those birds with long beaks that can reach into cracks and areas where squirrels may have difficulty reaching. It is sold, in many different forms, through Wild Birds Unlimited stores and on line throughout Canada and the United States. The formula for Jim’s Birdacious Bark Butter is said to be created by Jim Carpenter, founder of Wild Birds Unlimited. It is advertised as a food source that attracts a greater variety of birds than any other food source including regular suet.

This Flicker is working one of the many Bark Butter pockets in the DIY branch feeder.

This Flicker is working one of the many Bark Butter pockets in the DIY branch feeder.

I can’t verify the claims that it attracts more than 152 species of birds, but I can verify that this stuff is a joy to use. Its peanut butter base makes handling it enjoyable. In fact, I mostly just scoop it out of its plastic container using my hands and stuff it into the holes I’ve drilled into the DIY feeder tree branch. Any access bark butter that gets on my hand is simply rubbed into the crevices of the branch’s bark.

Getting back to those 152 different species that Bark Butter is said to attract. I have no doubts that the claims are true that Bark Butter attracts everything from woodpeckers like Flickers, Downies, Hairy and red-breasted woodpeckers, to Brown Creepers, Chickadees, Jays and even warblers. As many know, attracting warblers to our gardens is not always easy. Anything that brings warblers into the yard is a good thing and, since Warblers are big insect eaters, the bark bits with insects would be a good choice to attract them.

Bark Butter is not inexpensive so care should be taken to use it wisely and do everything possible to keep squirrels and other mammals from feasting on it.

Although it is recommended to be spread on tree bark, if squirrels discover it before the birds, there’s a good chance they’ll devour most of it before the birds get to it.

The DIY feeder helps solve this problem. Because it can be hung from a feeding station complete with squirrel baffles and placed is an area of your garden that makes access difficult for raccoons, squirrels and other garden critters, it’s easy to maximize the benefits of the butter.

As an experiment, I have created two of these feeders. One is hanging off the feeding station and therefore protected from squirrels. The other feeder is part of a large tree branch that has been dug into the ground and allows easy access to red and grey squirrels among other backyard wildlife critters who discover it.

A Nuthatch feasts on Bark Butter at the lichen-covered DIY branch feeder.

A Nuthatch feasts on Bark Butter at the lichen-covered DIY branch feeder.

As a result of the experiment, I can attest to squirrels’ love of Bark Butter and the importance of making access difficult for them. Once loaded up, the Bark Butter feeder on the feeding station remains available to the birds for several days, while the branch feeder is more or less devoured in a day or two. I suppose using the hot pepper mix is appropriate in this circumstance to keep squirrels away, but after my fair share of hot wings, I’m not a fan of teaching the squirrels a hard-earned lesson.

In the end, I like both feeders. If saving money is important to you, however, it’s probably wise to make it difficult for squirrels to get access to your DIY feeders.

The bark butter is available in plastic tubs in both regular and a hot pepper blend that helps detract squirrels from feasting on the rather expensive feed. It’s also available in a Bugs and Bits blend, which incorporates small pellets of bark butter together with insect parts including meal worms. The same pellet-shaped Bark Butter Bits are available without the insects and with hot pepper. There is also Bark Butter quickbites and a large no-melt suet cyclinder. Both are available in regular and hot pepper.

Be aware that some Wild Birds Unlimited locations choose not to sell the hot pepper Bark Butter.

For more on Building your Garden on a Budget go here.

While I get great enjoyment from my bird feeding stations, providing natural food sources to our feathered friends is always the goal we should aspire to in our gardens. I have written a comprehensive post on feeding birds naturally. You can read about it here.

Simple, easy-to-create DIY feeders

There are many different ways to use Bark Butter. One of the simplest ways is to gather pine cones from the garden and smother them with the bark butter. These can be hung from tree branches throughout the garden especially during or just before a snowfall.

But my favourite method is to use a one- or two-foot branch cut from or left over from a tree pruning, either from your own tree or a neighbours’. My feeders are a little thicker than a man’s wrist, but larger, heavier branches can be used for larger woodpeckers like the Pileated woodpecker.

These feeders are so simple to make that the process is almost not worth describing. But here is a simple description of the process.

• Drill a hole through the branch maybe an inch or two down from an end to insert string or preferably wire, which will be used to hang the feeder.

• Then, using a larger drill bit, start drilling several pockets or holes in the branch at regular intervals.

• If there is a side branch, leave some of it to act as a small perch for the birds. Then drill a hole above the perch to act as a convenient location for birds to get easy access to the Bark Butter.

• I use a combination of drilled pockets that go half way into the branch, full holes drilled right through the branch to provide birds with different length beaks access to the butter.

• Once the wire is attached and the Bark Butter applied, you can hang the feeder. Leave room around the feeder to give visitors access from all sides.

• Refilling the tree branch with suet is just a matter of taking a clump of the Bark Butter and stuffing it into the holes. I do it with my hands but you could use an old spoon. Wild Birds Unlimited says to use a fork for the final application because the rungs leave a criss-cross pattern in the butter that birds can easily pick off and eat.

woodpeckr up close.jpg

Create a free-standing feeder for all garden visitors

• Our other Bark Butter feeder is nothing but a larger 8- to 9-foot branch partially buried into the ground a couple of feet.

• Once stabilized in the ground, drill several holes and pockets in the branch at various heights to provide birds with several feeding areas up and down the branch.

• Smaller holes can be drilled into the branch to insert perches for birds or long screws to hang smaller feeders from. This is an ideal spot to add Bark Butter-infused pine cones.

• I like to fill this bird feeder an hour or two before going out to photograph the birds to give me another potential photo location.

Branch feeders are ideal photographic stages

This larger branch has become a favourite location for birds and squirrels who enjoy taking up a position on top to scan the garden. It has only been up for about eight months and I’m sill waiting for a large hawk or owl to discover it and use it as a hunting perch.

But I’m confident that time will come and I hope to be there in my Tragopan V6 photo blind ready to capture the image.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the large variety of backyard birds providing me with endless photographic opportunities on my two natural feeders.

The lure of the DIY branch feeder and Bark Butter is irresistible to so many birds. This makes it ideal for photographers to capture natural images (much like the ones featured in this article) of the many varieties that visit. The DIY feeder combined with a photographic blind like the Tragopan V6 one-person blind, makes it easy to get up close to some of your favourite species. The feeders and the blind are also portable enough to move them around the garden to obtain the background of your choosing.

If photographing birds is one of your primary goals behind creating the branch feeders, be careful to drill your holes strategically to hide as many as possible from the camera lens. By keeping the suet pockets on one side and shooting from an angle that keeps the suet more or less hidden, the resulting photos can look very natural.

I like to look for branches from older trees that already have lichen and moss growing on them. A chainsaw makes creating several lengths of feeders easy and quick work.

Gardening on a budget links

DIY moss garden

Proven Winners Idea Book

Ten money-saving tips for the weekend gardener

Window boxes on a budget

DIY Bark Butter feeder for Woodpeckers

DIY reflection pond for photography

Click & Grow is ideal for Native Plants from seed

Nature’s DIY garden art

DIY solar drip for bird bath

Remove your turf and save money

DIY succulent planter

Hiring students to get your garden in shape

This page contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through one of them, I will receive a commission (at no additional cost to you) I try to only endorse products I have either used, have complete confidence in, or have experience with the manufacturer. Thank you for your support.

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backyard birds Vic MacBournie backyard birds Vic MacBournie

How to attract nuthatches to your woodland garden

How can you not love our Nuthatches? Spunky, busy little blue-grey bundles of energy that, for most of the year, can’t stop talking. And how can you ignore their acrobatic routines while they make their way up and down tree trunks and branches looking for insects?

How did nuthatches get their name

Who doesn’t love a nuthatch?

These perky little birds – as cute as a chickadee and at least as busy – have developed a real fan-club following from bird lovers. Whether it’s the white-breasted (Sitta carolinensis), or the red-breasted (Sitta canadensis) these lovable little birds characterized by large heads, short tails and strong bills have become welcome visitors to our backyard landscapes and bird feeders in parts of Canada and the United States through to Mexico.

Their constant flitting from bird feeder to the nearest tree in our woodland gardens has earned them more than a growing fan base, it’s also a big part of how they earned their unusual names.

While Nuthatches are racing to and fro, they are actually taking seeds and “nuts” from the feeder and stuffing them into any crevice they can find in tree bark. Later, they return to hack away (or “hatch”) at the seeds with their small, pointy bills. And thus, their common name was born – by combining one of their favourite foods the “nut,” with their method or retrieving it “hatching.”

And so, we have the Nuthatch.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch in Pine tree.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch in Pine tree.

Friendly enough to eat out of your hand

Maybe these little birds with their blue-grey back and white undersides have gained a following because, after a little practise, they are one of the birds that will readily eat out of your hand. Maybe it’s just because they always seem so darn busy – like a wind-up toy that never unwinds.

It does not take long to realize that Nuthatches have a wide assortment of whistles, trills and calls in their repertoires. Their breeding songs are simple and often identical to their contact calls. Cornell School of Ornithology has excellent recordings of the red-breasted Nuthatch various sounds. You can listen to them here.

Red-breasted nuthatch in winter storm.

Red-breasted nuthatch in winter storm.

How to attract Nuthatches to your feeders

They are certainly one of the busiest birds at our feeders. Maybe because they really can’t decide what they should snack on next. They are not particularly picky, readily feasting on sunflower seeds, nuts, meal worms, as well as high-calorie suet or peanut butter.

I have also found that they are big fans of Wild Birds Unlimited’s, Bark Butter. Not surprising, since Bark Butter attracts 152 different bird species. It’s expensive stuff, but if used sparingly, it is a great addition to your bird feeding area. I use it to fill holes that I drilled into a branch hung from the feeders. This way I can keep the squirrels from getting to it before the birds devour it.

But back to Nuthatches.

White-breasted Nuthatch photographed from Tragopan blind in our woodland garden.

White-breasted Nuthatch photographed from Tragopan blind in our woodland garden.

It would not be hard to think, considering their activity at our bird feeders, that Nuthatches were primarily seed eaters. In fact, they are primarily insectivorous eating copious amounts of insects providing a natural control where insect infestations and caterpillar outbreaks occur.

When they are not “hatching nuts” these small passerine birds forage for insects hidden under bark by climbing along tree trunks and branches often upside-down. Their acrobatics are even more pronounced as they forage headfirst down a tree looking for dinner.

Planting natural sources of seeds, such as sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, coreopsis and other seed producers as well as Oaks, Beech and Hickory trees will not only provide them with nuts but also insects and caterpillars who live on the trees and nesting sites.

While I get great enjoyment from my bird feeding stations, providing natural food sources to our feathered friends is always the goal we should aspire to in our gardens. I have written a comprehensive post on feeding birds naturally. You can read about it here.

Evergreens, including pines and cedars are favourites of nuthatches both for their seeds and ready supply of protein-rich insects and caterpillars.

Ten cool facts about Nuthatches

1) Nuthatches are known to be one of the noisiest birds in the spring, but grow pretty much silent when breeding.

2) There are 24 different species of nuthatches in the world.

3) Most nuthatches are highly sedentary, seldom moving far from where they were originally hatched.

4) They have been called mud dabbler and mud stopper because of their habit of putting mud around the entrance hole to its nest.

5 Studies have shown that large gardens with oak trees provide the best habitat for nuthatches. This is not surprising considering the importance of the oak tree to hundreds of insects, caterpillars and pupae – the prime food source of Nuthatches.

6) Thanks to the growing use of bird feeders, Nuthatches have been able to expand their habitat.

7) Nuthatch pairs are strongly territorial partially because they have stored so much food throughout their territory.

8) The Nuthatch is able to move both up and down a tree looking for bugs or seeds.

9) Although dimunitive in size, these birds can be bold and aggressive at the bird feeder if larger birds try to intimidate them.

10) Their numbers fluctuate widely anually depending on the severity of winter and the availability of seed.

Where Nuthatches live

These cavity-nesting birds are happy to move into former woodpecker holes. It’s always a good idea to leave older trees and snags to give birds natural places to nest, but Nuthatches will also use bird houses if necessary.


“Some birds are not meant to be caged, that's all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go….

-Stephen King

The nuthatch in winter storm.

Most of the species are non-migratory and live year-round in their habitat although some red-breasted nuthatches living farther north will migrate to warmer regions during the winter.

Did you know

Did you know that the Nuthatch rarely sleeps in the same cavity two nights in a row? And that when it leaves its secret resting place in the morning that it carries away its droppings in its beak? It may be done for the sake of cleanliness, but the main reason is to remove andy sign of the bird’s presence, so a predator cannot tell that this is one of the nuthatch’s secret roosting spots.

Nuthatches far and wide

Although we are familiar with the North American white- and red-breasted nuthatches that live basically from southern Canada into Mexico, there are many others spread out around the world including the Corsican and Chinese nuthatches, which are related to the red-breasted nuthatch, but have separate breeding ranges. They are similar in habitat preference, appearance and song.

In addition, the Eurasian, chestnut-vented, Kashmir and chestnut -bellied nuthatches form another superspecies and replace each other geographically across Asia.

In fact, there are close to 30 different Nuthatches spread out around the world.

Nuthatches are, for the most part, small compact birds with short legs, compressed wings and square 12-feathered tails. They can vary in size from the large giant nuthatch and 195 mm or 7.7 inches to the tiny brown-headed nuthatch and pygmy nuthatch that both come in at 100 mm or 3.9 inches in length and a mere 10 grams or 0.35 oz.

If you love backyard birds, don’t forget to sign up for my free backyard bird newsletter. You can sign up by going to the bottom of the home page and use the form. The second newsletter will be coming out in early December. Thanks

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backyard birds Vic MacBournie backyard birds Vic MacBournie

Tips for using water to attract birds and other wildlife

Bringing water into the garden provides so much enjoyment not just for gardeners, but for the birds, mammals and reptiles that depend on it for their survival. It does not have to be a large complicated pond. Here are a host of alternatives to garden ponds that are easy, inexpensive and rewarding.

Provide a reliable source of water in your wildlife garden

There are few things you could do for birds and other wildlife more important than having a reliable source of fresh, clean water in your woodland garden.

Birds require water not only for drinking but maintaining the oil in their feathers to help them fly, provide a form of waterproofing and to keep them warm in winter.

Our backyard birds do not have sweat glands, so they need less water than mammals. But, most of the birds that visit our woodland gardens still need to drink at least twice a day to replace water lost through respiration and in their droppings.

Although backyard birds have developed brilliant ways of getting water on their own, they still appreciate our efforts at providing water for them in our backyard landscapes.

We’ve seen them wading in to the shallow edges of ponds and streams for a quick drink, but have you ever watched them in the morning take water droplets that formed on leaves overnight? That’s great fun. I once watched a bird drink from one of my large hosta leaves that had gathered a large amount of water overnight.

How birds drink from our bird baths

Most birds will drink at your bird baths by dipping their bill in water and putting their head back to swallow it.

Swallows, swifts and other aerial species will actually drink on the fly by dipping their bills into the water and scooping up water in its beak.

Unlike seed-eaters, insectivorous birds get most of their water needs in the food they eat. Seed eaters, the most common birds in our gardens, have very dry diets and therefore will rely on our sources of water considerably more.

Blue Jays love their bird baths. Here is one of our resident blue jays diving in for a good soaking.

Blue Jays love their bird baths. Here is one of our resident blue jays diving in for a good soaking.

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
— Emily Dickinson

Although a pond with a waterfalls is the best choice to attract birds, not everyone has the room for a large pond, or the time to properly care for it.

So, what are the alternatives? It’s not uncommon to see birds flocking to natural water sources like puddles after a rain. In some areas without a reliable source of water, such puddles can be vital to their existence. Plus, like our kids, it’s fun to splash around in a puddle after a rain.

But we don’t want to force them to rely on rain puddles for their daily bath. In the garden there are many alternatives that are simple yet effective in bringing birds into your yard.

For more suggestions and some of my favourite garden things, be sure to check out my Favourite Things post.

My Evergreen

One of the benefits of providing a reliable water source is that it will not only help attract birds to visit your yard and possibly set up a nest there, it will attract birds that might not normally not come to your woodland garden. Many of the most desirable birds are not attracted to your seed-based feeders because they eat mostly insects. Even heavy seed-eating birds will often switch to primarily insects during the spring when they are raising their young.

Warblers and blue birds, for example, are a good example of insect-eating birds that you may not see often in your woodland garden. Although the insects provide them with water in their digestive systems, they will be attracted to water for the important task of bathing. Fresh water is vital to attract all birds including warblers and bluebirds to your garden.

Water is especially important in winter. Bathing can mean the difference between life and death for many birds during the winter months. When the birds preen their feathers they are actually carefully rearranging them and spreading oil from the preen gland. This keeps the birds waterproofed and traps an insulting layer of air underneath the feathers to help keep them warm.

If the water in your garden moves, either through a drip system, a sprinkler or a bubbling rock, more birds will be attracted to your water sources.

A simple birdbath is a perfect place to start.

Birdbaths are an important addition to any garden that welcomes birds. They can be as simple as an overturned garbage lid, or elegant enough to serve double duty as a piece of garden art. A simple rock with a natural pool is ideal for the woodland g…

Birdbaths are an important addition to any garden that welcomes birds. They can be as simple as an overturned garbage lid, or elegant enough to serve double duty as a piece of garden art. A simple rock with a natural pool is ideal for the woodland garden.

Birdbaths are an easy yet simple solution to provide water in our woodland gardens

Watching the birds visiting the birdbath will bring hours of enjoyment to the backyard experience. Establish it close to where you regularly sit and the birds will eventually feel comfortable enough to take a drink or have a bath near enough for your enjoyment. A shaded spot in the garden preferable under a mid-storey tree with low hanging branches will help keep the water cooler and fresher for birds, and give them a place to land before going to the birdbath.

It’s also a good idea to have another bird bath in a more secluded area for more shy birds not yet comfortable enough with your presence to come in close. If you have a large tree near where you sit, consider a hanging birdbath.

I have found that adding a drip system (amazon link) to an existing birdbath, or one of the many new solar fountains also available at Amazon, you’ll find the birds will get the most enjoyment and use out of the bird bath.

Although a drip system is an excellent way to attract birds, I decided to turn a dripper into a recycling solar fountain that proved even more effective. You can read about the DIY conversion in this post on my website.

During winter months, I have found that adding a heater to the birdbath makes a huge difference. In fact, I have a separate post here where I built a small heated bird bath that doubles as an outdoor photographic studio. As we have talked about earlier, the attraction of a reliable water source in the winter, is critical to attracting all the neighbourhood birds. Remember to locate the birdbath close to an electrical outlet so that you can keep the heater plugged in at all times. Most do not use much electricity at all, turning off and on when necessary and only heating the water enough to keep it from freezing.

On-ground water sources are vital for birds and wildlife

Another extremely important decision for the birds, mammals and reptiles in your garden is to add on-ground water sources. These water sources could be as simple as a sunken old Tupperware container or plastic garbage can lid, or as involved as a small in-ground vinyl pond. Be sure to provide a way for birds and small mammals to escape the water should they fall in.

A young Baltimore Oriole takes a bath in one of our on-ground water sources.

A young Baltimore Oriole takes a bath in one of our on-ground water sources.

The importance of on-ground water sources was made clear to me one afternoon when a mother Baltimore oriole brought her entire family to one of our on-ground water sources. One of the young orioles is pictured here bathing in one of our moose’s ears. (Each ear acts as a small water pond) All of the young orioles took turns having a bath while mom stood by on the watch for possible dangers.

A recent addition to the garden are a grouping of three large water bowls. I originally bought them more for aesthetics (think Japanese water bowls) but I am amazed how many animals and birds are using them. They are much deeper than a traditional bird bath but I have put a couple of rocks in them to allow critters easy escape if they fall in.

When I put in the waterbowls in, I had no idea that they would become a “bird bath” for a large Goshawk that decided this spring that the bowls were a perfect size birdbath for this large bird of prey. I’m hoping he is a regular to the backyard. We’ve seen him on the hunt several times now.

On another day, a fox came by to drink from the large water bowl. I have seen the fox there regularly so I suspect it was using the water bowls on a daily basis. You can go here for a separate blog post about the fox and the waterbowls. I have also included a picture of the fox at the water bowls.

The bird baths are really just the first steps to providing a source of water in your garden.

In our garden, we have added two more water sources that have provided endless enjoyment without the hassle of a full backyard pond.

Patio container provides water source and place for new plants

One of my favourite water sources is our patio water container that not only provides a source of water but, more importantly, allows me to enjoy a few water plants, including a water lily and miniature bull rush that I would not be able to grow without this water source. It is a simple concrete container with an inexpensive solar pump I purchased several years ago that provides me with constantly moving water most days. The moving water is enjoyable to listen to, enticing for birds and helps to keep the mosquitoes at bay. The bull rushes and watr lily leaves attract dragon flies and other more unusual insects which in turn become food for the birds.

These large water bowls were originally going to be used primarily for aesthetics until a large Goshawk decided they were perfect as an oversized raptor birdbath. Before long, our neighbourhood fox was using them as well. There is a link above for a…

These large water bowls were originally going to be used primarily for aesthetics until a large Goshawk decided they were perfect as an oversized raptor birdbath. Before long, our neighbourhood fox was using them as well. There is a link above for a separate post on the fox and the water bowls.

All the water and plants are removed in the fall. Some of the plants I have managed to winter over in the shed, others are purchased in the spring. Because the patio water container is small, I need only a few plants each year to create a beautiful miniature water-garden container. There are no fish in the container but the water stays perfectly clear. It is important to have enough plants to cover the surface of the water to shade it enough to eliminate the growth of algae. The choice of plants here is endless, so if you are looking to experiment with some new plants, I would definitely recommend a water container garden.

A few water hyacinths and small water lily is usually all it takes for mine to stay clear and fresh all summer. I have some miniature rushes and a little duck weed in this year’s container. Be sure to provide access for any small critter that might fall into the water.

The Patio water container is too deep for birds to safely bathe in, but some birds do go on the plants and get drinks from there.

Birds, squirrels and humans love a bubbling rock

Our final water source in the yard is a small bubbling rock that once again is run off a solar fountain. It’s a larger solar fountain (amazon link) that includes a battery to allows me to run the bubbling rock during the evening if I need to. I would love a much larger bubbling rock but this one gets the job done and was primarily a do-it-yourself project. It’s main purpose is to use the moving water to attract birds and other wildlife to the garden. It sits in the middle of our birch glen (three clump birch trees that form a lovely canopy that helps keep the water and the container in shade for most of the day.)

Installing a large bubbling rock can be an expensive proposition involving heavy-duty industrial equipment best done by a landscaping company, but it is certainly a great investment and one to give serious consideration if you want to attract birds and drown out neighbourhood noise while not having the responsibility of maintaining an open pond.

The water reservoir is sunk into the ground and covered, so it stays cool even on the hottest days.

My bubbling rocks acts a little like a head water for a dry river bed. It works similarly to a disappearing waterfalls (see below) in that it creates moving water and the impression of a stream and pond without the all the hassle.

Although I have seen birds, chipmunks and squirrels drink from the bubbling rock, they much prefer to drink from two small pools at the foot of the bubbling rock where the water spills into the reservoir.

I have seen a large toad hanging out in those same pools beneath the bubbling rock. So it’s maybe more popular than I imagine.

Disappearing waterfalls creates the perfect environment for birds

Along the same line as the bubbling rock, is a disappearing waterfalls. (Amazon Link) Some people call it a pondless stream. These can be brilliant, providing both the sound and enjoyment of moving water, without the worry that comes with having to deal with a pond. The water cascades over a waterfalls or a small group of waterfalls into an underground reservoir that is hidden by rocks and then recycled back to the top.

These are especially useful if you have a sloped property and can make the waterfalls look natural.

In my opinion, having the waterfalls rise out of a flat piece of property just doesn’t work as well as having a natural slope where the waterfalls looks like it has always been there. This is the reason I chose to go with a bubbling rock rather than the waterfalls. The bubbling rock gives the impression of a spring rising out of the ground.

I do, however, have the perfect place at the back of the property where there is a three- or four-foot hill that would be ideal for a disappearing waterfall.

The waterfalls offer nooks and crannies for different-sized birds to find their favourite spots to bathe or get a drink. The noise of the waterfalls attracts the birds and the moving water helps to keep the water oxygenated and fresh. It also helps to keep mosquitoes at bay while attracting a large number of birds and other woodland creatures.

It’s not hard to see how important water is to creating a successful plan to bring in as many varieties of birds into your yard as possible. Our woodland garden has benefitted from multiple sources of water to attract everything from raptors to humming birds. Ensuring a reliable, fresh water source throughout the seasons, but especially in the cold of winter and extreme heat of the summer, is probably the most important addition to your garden.

You can invest in beautiful, elegant bird baths or simply use an old container that holds water. Unlike a bird feeder that requires you to purchase food regularly to keep the birds invested in your property, bird baths require only a regular cleaning and a bit of water.

Certainly, one of the cheapest forms of entertainment and satisfaction is watching a family of birds enjoying your labour of love.

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backyard birds Vic MacBournie backyard birds Vic MacBournie

Attracting Blue Jays to the garden (after West Nile)

They’re boisterous, bullies that add a hit of colour to our backyards. Blue Jays are one of the most beloved birds in our gardens, but it was not long ago when they were threatened by a deadly virus that wiped out hundreds of thousands of birds.

Blue Jays rebound after severe hit from West Nile

They’re loud, arrogant, boisterous bullies, and every bird lover is happy that they’re back.

Like some family members, they arrive, make a lot of noise, steal all your food, hang out for longer than you want them sometimes and then leave without as much as a thank you.

But the Blue Jays, and I’m not talking about my favourite Canadian baseball team, have returned to our backyards after a couple of lean years caused by a multitude of deaths resulting from West Nile disease that hit Blue Jays hard.

And nothing could make me happier.

If you are looking to attract Blue Jays to your yard, take a minute to check out my post on my two favourite Blue Jay feeders.

Back when West Nile emerged in the late 1990s into the 2000s, dead crows and blue jays provided early warning of the outbreak. In the year 2007, research by the journal Nature warned that populations of seven species of birds, including robins, blue jays and crows showed “dramatic decline” across the continent since West Nile emerged in the U.S. in 1999. The research compared 26 years of bird breeding surveys to arrive at the results. The report stated that the disease, primarily an avian virus spread by mosquito bites, killed hundreds of thousands of crows and jays.

The virus targeted seven species – American crow, blue jay, tufted titmouse, American robin, house wren, chickadee and Eastern bluebird. Only the blue jay and house wren were able to bounce back in 2005.

Six Blue Jays raid the bird feeder especially the seed cylinder which is, without a doubt, their favourite. For more on the seed cylinder, see an earlier blog post on my 5 best bird buys.

Six Blue Jays raid the bird feeder especially the seed cylinder which is, without a doubt, their favourite. For more on the seed cylinder, see an earlier blog post on my 5 best bird buys.

Earlier this summer I had nine – count’em nine – blue jays on my birdfeeder at once. A few more in the trees scattered throughout our woodland and another making itself at home in one of the birdbaths.

Then they spotted an owl way up in a tree and all hell broke loose for about five minutes until the owl flew off into some denser foliage.

One thing I can honestly say is that there is never a dull moment with these guys around.

And people love to see their colourful plumage in their backyards. These intelligent and adaptable birds that grow to about a foot long will feed on pretty much anything in our backyard landscapes, but are certainly very happy helping themselves at our bird feeders.

Blue jays have full repertoire of calls and sounds

These guys are not limited to their ear piercing raucous calls of jay, Jay, jay. Their repertoire includes a variety of musical sounds and they can apparently do a remarkably realistic imitation of the scream of a Red-shouldered Hawk.

Often times I hear odd sounds and expect to see a rare bird emerge from the tree, only to find that the unusual sounds are from a blue jay. They can certainly communicate in a number of voices.

Blue Jays are among our more colourful and boisterous backyard birds.

Blue Jays are among our more colourful and boisterous backyard birds.

What Blue Jays eat

The birds are omnivorous, with vegetables, fruits and berries making up more than 70 per cent of their diet, including beechnuts, acorns, seeds, grain and, of course, a variety of berries and small fruits like service berries and dogwood berries.

They can be seen foraging in trees and shrubs as well as on the ground. Their large, strong beaks allow them to pound open hard nuts and seeds like acorns, which they harvest and store in holes in the ground for later use.

Needless to say they help plant many an oak tree in our forests and our own backyard landscapes.

Being opportunists, as summer progresses, they also like to feast on caterpillars, beetles and grasshoppers, but they’ll also eat snails, spiders other birds’ eggs, small rodents like mice, frogs, baby birds and carrion.

Just a reminder that using native plants and trees in our backyard landscape designs, including oak, dogwood, serviceberries and chokecherries are always a good idea.

Info graphic on best foods for blue jays

Where Blue Jays nest

Both Blue Jay parents take part in feeding the nestlings who spend about 17-21 days in the nest before going out on their own. Blue Jay eggs, between 3-7, are greenish or buff, sometimes pale blue, spotted with hints of brown and gray. Incubation is about 16-18 days.

Look for nests anywhere from about eight feet to as high as 50 feet above the ground, made up of twigs, grass, weeds, bark strips and moss. They can be quite messy often lined with rootlets combined with paper, old rags, string and other debris found in urban areas.

Their range is large, stretching north well into eastern Canada and as far west as Alberta and down south to Florida. Although they are common at our bird feeders year round, many do migrate during the day further south.

They are in the same family as Crows and Magpies and are found throughout eastern oak and pine forests where they breed in deciduous or mixed woods and is often quite common in heavily wooded suburbs or parks.

Climate change is increasing the blue Jays’ range farther north in Canada, but, at the same time, spring heat waves are diminishing their range slightly because of the heat threatening young nestlings in hotter parts of both the U.S. and Canada.

• This page contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through one of them, I will receive a commission (at no additional cost to you) I try to only endorse products I have either used, have complete confidence in, or have experience with the manufacturer. Thank you for your support.

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backyard birds Vic MacBournie backyard birds Vic MacBournie

Attract birds all winter with DIY heated birdbath

Providing a reliable winter water source for backyard birds begins with an electric water heater. But it does not have to end there. Check out the DIY outdoor photo studio and reflection pond that birds are flocking to as winter approaches.

Build a heated birdbath and photo studio for the birds

Winter is a great time to focus on attracting birds to your backyard.

The cold temperatures, often freezing overnight, make it difficult for our backyard birds – especially when it comes to obtaining water. Even those of us who are vigilant about keeping our feeders full, too often underestimate the importance of a reliable water source.

We are lucky enough to live near a small, fast-flowing stream that provides emergency water sources to all our neighbourhood birds. However, I like to make their lives a little easier by ensuring a reliable water source in the garden. Not only does it make their lives a little easier, it attracts a wide variety of birds including many that may not regularly visit the feeders.

For my other posts on bird baths, check out adding water to your garden and a DIY solar drip conversion.

Why water is critical for birds especially in winter

Water is critical to birds in the heat of the summer and even more important in the winter when traditional water sources are frozen over, including ponds and puddles. Bathing is an important part of a bird’s feather maintenance. Wetting the feathers in a bird bath helps to loosen dirt and makes feathers easier to preen. When preening, birds carefully rearrange the feathers and spread oil from the preen gland so they remain waterproof and trap an insulating layer of air underneath to keep them warm. That’s vital in a Southern Ontario winter where temperatures and wind chills can reach a bone chilling -30 C. and beyond and stay that way for days.

A cardinal stops for a drink among the stones in the heated bird bath and outdoor photo studio refection pond.

A cardinal stops for a drink among the stones in the heated bird bath and outdoor photo studio refection pond.

Birds lack sweat glands, so they traditionally need less water than mammals. They do, however, lose water both through respiration and in their droppings. Many insectivorous birds get most of their water from their food, but seed-eating birds have a dry diet and they need to drink several times a day.

The appeal of a reliable water source may even be a stronger draw to birds than a well-stocked feeder, especially if there is no other reliable water source in the area.

Attract birds to your heated bird bath

The heated bird bath ready for winter.

The heated bird bath ready for winter.

If you set up your heated bird bath in a separate area to where you normally have your bird bath, or your heated bird bath is entirely new to your garden, don’t be surprised if it takes a while for the birds to discover and be comfortable using it.

To encourage birds to use your heated birdbath be sure to set it up, like any bird bath, in a safe area of the garden. Cover for your birds in case of attack is just as important in winter as it is in the summer.

Include perches above the bird bath to allow the birds to come down and check out the bird bath from a short distance. Include stones or landing spots inside the bird bath where smaller birds can either drink from or wade into the water slowly.

Finally, place a feeder nearby to attract birds and make them feel safe in the area. The combination of food and a reliable water source in winter will certainly encourage them to use the heated bird bath.

Build your own photo studio for the birds

With this in mind, I set about creating both a reliable water source and a backyard photo studio and reflection pond. In fact, I’m in the process of building two: one large reflecting pool and a smaller heated pool that will be the main source of water in the yard when the temperatures turn to freezing.

Let’s first deal with the smaller one. The larger reflection pond will be discussed in a later post.

Our DIY project started with a round, medium-size black plastic basin that I picked up from a local nursery for just over $10.00. It’s a couple inches deep, so it’s perfect for small- and medium-sized birds to use safely. Larger birds, like jays and robins, will not hesitate to create havoc in the bath as they splash about, but we’re all good with their daily antics.

This bird bath is quickly becoming the gathering place for our backyard birds.

It sits on a concrete bench just outside our family room French door where I can easily monitor the water levels. At the same time, it’s close enough that I can use it to capture photographs of our feathered friends enjoying a bath. And, I can do it from the warmth of our family room.

Cute little Carolina Wren taking advantage of the heated bird bath to get water during winter.

Cute little Carolina Wren taking advantage of the heated bird bath to get water during winter.

An electric heater from Wild Birds Unlimited was carefully placed in the bird bath and hidden with a thick layer of pea gravel and a few larger river rocks to give the birds a landing spot. A birch branch across the back will help to stabilize the bird bath in case a large bird or animal decides to use it as their personal bath tub. It also creates a lovely background for the birds using the feeder. A few other branches help to hide the edge of the plastic tray, give it a little more stability and add to its natural appearance.

The heater, buried in pea gravel, will keep the bird bath ice-free in the coldest temperatures but remain hidden under the gravel. I’m expecting the heated pea gravel to also play a role in helping to keep the water ice-free, but adding a pitcher of hot water on particularly cold mornings will keep the water open. The pea gravel also provides birds with a gradual slope into the water much like a sandy beach. This allows birds of all sizes to enter the water to a comfortable depth, and put them in a position that creates good photographic opportunities.

Although the goal was to create a reflection pond that doubles as a heated bird bath, the round plastic dish comes up a bit short to capture perfect reflections of the birds on a regular basis. It will work nicely for a small bird on the pea gravel, but the reflection will likely fall just short for a larger bird like a blue jay or cardinal. I can certainly live with that, since the real reflection pond will be in another part of the garden.

More on that later. Stay tuned for an historical hack that will form the basis of the larger reflection pond. You won’t want to miss that.

This page contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through one of them, I will receive a commission (at no additional cost to you) I try to only endorse products I have either used, have complete confidence in, or have experience with the manufacturer. Thank you for your support.

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backyard birds Vic MacBournie backyard birds Vic MacBournie

DIY: A solar drip for the birds

Converting a rarely used bird bath dripper into a solar powered fountain that is used daily, is a simple, DIY project that will please both the birds and the birdwatchers.

Turn a bird bath dripper into a solar-powered fountain birds will love

Birds love moving water and a drip, drop is about as good as it gets for them.

So, when I saw a nice copper bird bath dripper on Kijiji this spring, I jumped on it. The dripper was very high quality and I couldn’t pass it up. A copper drip tube attached to a lovely piece of slate with brass hose fittings.

It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Fast forward to this fall. Back on Kijiji looking for a cheap plastic bird bath to use this winter with an electric heater to provide water for our winged visitors throughout the freezing Southern Ontario winter, and … there it was. A magnificent copper bird bath for a very reasonable price. I remember saying to my wife that “someone in Toronto was going to get a great deal on a used copper bird bath.”

The converted dripper that operates as a solar-powered recirculating pump is certainly a treat for the Goldfinches in the garden.

The converted dripper that operates as a solar-powered recirculating pump is certainly a treat for the Goldfinches in the garden.

The cheap plastic bird bath turned out to be an expensive copper one but I couldn’t be happier. The next morning I was on my way to Toronto (about a one-hour drive) to pick up the birdbath. To help justifiy the two-hour return trip, I combined it with a grocery delivery to my daughter who, it turned out, lived just 10 minutes from my prized bird bath.

Keeping an eye open for bird baths, bird houses and bird feeders on your favourite on-line used marketplace sites like Kijiji or Craigslist is a good way to get started with backyard birding or just to upgrade or add to your baths, houses and feeders.

Besides scoring the copper bird bath, I decided to do a slight hack on my already converted dripper to use it with the new bird bath.

For more suggestions and some of my favourite garden things, be sure to check out my Favourite Things post.

Although birds love drippers, the units need to be hooked up to a hose that needs to be left on while the amount of water is controlled to the point where just a drip at a time falls into the birdbath. Eventually, though, if left on and unattended, the bird bath overfills and drips over the edge potentially flooding an area.

My Evergreen

I tried to make it work. I really did. Set up a nice deep bird bath that actually had a small leak. So it could handle the constant dripping without really overflowing. Trying to get the right flow was a pain and remembering to turn it off added to my frustration.

If only I could convert it to a recirculating dripper or even use it like a fountain.

Once I got the idea, it didn’t take long to convert the dripper to a solar powered unit. It’s no longer a “dripper” but that doesn’t matter because it is recirculating the water in the birdbath rather than adding to it.

The original dripper unit came with a very long, thin rubber hose that connected to the hose faucet. By cutting that into a short (maybe 6-inch) hose and connecting that to the pump’s outlet via one of the alternative fountain heads provided by the solar pump, the unit works even better than expected.

A robin takes a drink from the bird bath with the solar-powered fountain.

A robin takes a drink from the bird bath with the solar-powered fountain.

When the sun was out, it provided birds with a gentle flow of water recirculated from the bath itself.

This approach worked well but a small problem emerged. Trying to keep water levels high enough so that the small solar pump stayed below water became a daily concern.

The combination of birds using the bird bath, evaporation and some splashing caused by the fountain, created a daily water loss that meant constant monitoring of water levels. Everyday the water had to be topped up for fear of the bird bath running too low on water and potentially ruining the pump.

So, a small change to the original dripper conversion should work well with the new bird bath and its new location. By hiding a large bucket of water near the copper bird bath and sinking the solar pump to the bottom of the bucket, there is no fear of running the pump dry. On sunny days the bird bath will likely overflow a little but it’s placed in an area that does not get a full day of sun and will benefit from access water. A little overflow on sunny days will help to keep the water fresh and the bird bath full. In addition, I can’t help but think that it might be the perfect place to grow a thick carpet of moss around the birdbath where the access water will fall.

We set up the new bird bath and dripper/fountain right outside our family room French door to give us a window into the woodland and our keep an eye on the action at the bird bath. I’ll report back on how it’s working and how much the birds are loving it. It’s always a good idea to place feeders and bird baths so that you can watch them from inside your home. Read my blog on “A window into your woodland,” here.

I want to put a real plug in for these small, inexpensive solar-powered recirculating water pumps. This will be the third solar pump I’m using in the garden and I expect to put an order in for another one. There are so many uses for these small pumps. They come with a number of different fountain heads from a single stream of water to a gentle multi-stream fountain that would be perfect for hummingbirds who like to play in gentle streaming fountains.

A quick look on YouTube under “small solar fountain” turns up numerous DIY projects.

Definitely worth trying out.

For more on Building your Garden on a Budget, check out my earlier in-depth article here.

Goldfinch on dripper.jpg

Gardening on a budget links

DIY moss garden

Proven Winners Idea Book

Ten money-saving tips for the weekend gardener

Window boxes on a budget

DIY Bark Butter feeder for Woodpeckers

DIY reflection pond for photography

Click & Grow is ideal for Native Plants from seed

Nature’s DIY garden art

Remove your turf and save money

DIY succulent planter

Hiring students to get your garden in shape

If you are interested in backyard birds, please consider signing up for my backyard birds newsletter. The sign-up page is at the bottom of my homepage. Not only will the newsletter provide in-depth articles on attracting, feeding and photographing backyard birds, I am also working with local artisans to provide discounts on incredible bird-related feeders, houses and other goodies backyard birders will love. In addition there will be regular giveaways , including gardening books and birding items.

This page contains affiliate links. If you purchase a product through one of them, I will receive a commission (at no additional cost to you) I try to only endorse products I have either used, have complete confidence in, or have experience with the manufacturer. Thank you for your support. This blog would not be possible without your continued support.

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backyard birds, wildlife Vic MacBournie backyard birds, wildlife Vic MacBournie

Building a brush pile for your Woodland garden

A brush pile provides habitat for a multitude of mammals, insects and reptiles. But the real bonus of a backyard brush pile is that it may just lure in new birds that don’t normally visit your Woodland garden.

Wood piles provide perfect hunting grounds for insect-eating birds

There are days we look out from our patio and lose count of the chipmunks. At one point eight under the bird feeder was our record.

That’s been shattered a few times since then. Add to that a handful of spunky red squirrels and a couple of black and grey ones, and it doesn’t take much to see that our four-legged friends have found a home here.

In our yard, rabbits and groundhogs are always around and then there is our neighbourhood fox on patrol morning and evening. Deer make themselves at home during different times of the year, as do the skunks and possums.

So why would I build a woodpile in the backyard?

A woodpile is a valuable safe spot for so many of your backyard critters providing many of them with a safe place to live and others with food sources in the form of insects, amphibians and small mammals. Woodpiles developed over time become a go-to place for insect-eating birds to look for food sources. As they begin to break down over time, they become a home for fungi, reptiles and amphibians.

Not a day goes by when these critters don’t provide us with hours of entertainment chasing one another about the yard, running through the understory on some highway of branches known only to them, and sending out warnings of pending danger when the fox or hawk shows up looking for a quick meal.

Just recently I set up a trail camera pointed at the brush pile and in one night I was able to see two skunks, a racoon and a possum at our wood pile. That shows just how busy the pile is in the evening and throughout the night. A trail camera can be an excellent way to find out what animals are visiting a particular area of your garden.

Our woodpile is a very popular spot for both the chipmunks and red squirrels. I can’t imagine how many sunflowers are tucked away in the crevices of the branches. A generous addition of leaves creates a more comfortable spot for garden critters as f…

Our woodpile is a very popular spot for both the chipmunks and red squirrels. I can’t imagine how many sunflowers are tucked away in the crevices of the branches. A generous addition of leaves creates a more comfortable spot for garden critters as fall and winter approaches.

I’ll never forget the day a neighbourhood cat caught one of our chippers in the backyard. I ran out to scare the cat, who dropped the chipmunk as I approached at a dead run. The cat had no intention of leaving the chipmunk, but I scared it enough for the cat to drop the little guy at my feet. Before I knew it, the little chipmunk scampered up my pant leg, up my back and perched itself on my pretty much bald head. Sitting there was as far away from the cat that it could possibly get. The cat missed the great escape and was looking through the grass for little chipper who, by then, had settled onto the top of my head like he was king of the world.

I wasn’t looking forward to the cat noticing the little guy on my head and clawing its way up my leg and onto my unprotected skull, so I just turned around and walked away with chipper’s little claws clinging to my scalp. We left the bewildered cat frantically searching for the little guy in the tall grass. I simply reached up, grabbed the little guy and set him free in another corner of the garden.

The backyard wood pile is being covered in leaves moved from the front of our home. The leaves provide a blanket over the woodpile and provide an even better habitat for insects, small mammals and reptiles that call it home.

The backyard wood pile is being covered in leaves moved from the front of our home. The leaves provide a blanket over the woodpile and provide an even better habitat for insects, small mammals and reptiles that call it home.

Two lessons learned here: First, keep your cats in the house where they can’t kill every wild neighbourhood creature trying to live their lives; and two; provide the little creatures areas where they can feel relatively safe.

And, a wood pile or brush pile is one of those safe places.

They form micro-habitats where mammals, birds, reptiles and insects come together.

They can be as simple as a variety of branches piled into a corner of the yard and added to regularly, or as complex as a highly planned structure of carefully placed branches rising out of the depths of the soil with specially formed pockets for amphibians, integrated bird houses and vines interwoven through the branches.

The branches can be placed horizontally or dug into the ground to rise up vertically. Either way, it should not take long before your woodland friends will check out the woodpile.

Wood piles provide a natural habitat for so many of our Woodland friends.

Wood piles provide a natural habitat for so many of our Woodland friends.

Consider building your woodpile in an area of the garden where it gets dappled sun, providing a habitat that is neither too hot in the summer months, nor too cold for hibernation through the winter.

Depending where you are and the fauna already living in the yard, you can expect small mammals from chipmunks to rabbits and groundhogs. Don’t be surprised if you attract a skunk or mice, which is a good reason to build your pile in a corner of the yard away from the home or a well-used patio.

Yellow warblers are an insect-eating bird that might become a regular visitor to your brush pile.

Yellow warblers are an insect-eating bird that might become a regular visitor to your brush pile.

Snakes, toads, salamanders and a host of insects will likely find the woodpile hard to resist, especially as the branches begin to decompose and return to the earth.

This fall, the woodpile has become the dumping ground for bags of leaves from the front of the home. (Click for my Blog post on why you should leave your leaves) The leaves will act like a blanket protecting the insects, reptiles and small mammals that have taken up residence in the woodpile. As the leaves decompose, the leaf mold will encourage more microbial life and help the branches break down even further. The leaves will also give birds a place to scratch around this winter looking for hidden insects and pupae.

Birds that might not normally visit your Woodland will find the woodpile provides a smorgasbord of insects. Bluebirds, woodpeckers, orioles, robins and warblers to name just a few insect-eating birds, that might become regular visitors to your woodland.

You can encourage them to discover the woodpile with a little help from some dried meal worms sprinkled about and maybe pushed into some natural cavities in the tree stumps. Meal worms are available at most good bird stores. UK readers can check out Gardenbird for a complete supply of food and birding accessories.

Encourage some berry producing vines to weave their way through the branches and you are inviting even a greater variety of birds to your yard.

While I get great enjoyment from my bird feeding stations, providing natural food sources to our feathered friends is always the goal we should aspire to in our gardens. I have written a comprehensive post on feeding birds naturally. You can read about it here.

An added bonus is that brush piles are excellent places to set up a photographic blind to capture your woodland friends in their natural habitat.

In addition, if it is safe to do so, leave dead trees, tree stumps and branches rather than having them removed by tree services. Dead trees are vital for many birds who depend on them to create nesting cavities. Woodpeckers and bluebirds are just two that come to mind.

Just recently, I heard a tapping in the back corner of the garden and went over to investigate. Upon inspection, I could still hear it but could not locate the source of the tapping. Then, a large Pileated woodpecker appeared not more than 10 feet away from where I was standing, from the back side of a dead tree. Tapping away oblivious to me standing there in amazement. It was working what was left of an old dead tree that so many homeowners would have long removed at a high cost to both them and the wildlife that depend on it.

My suggestion, just leave it. If the snag does not pose a danger, leave it for the birds. Maybe let a vine like virginia creeper grow up it and provide the birds with an ideal habitat where it can find places to live and sources of food.

If you are interested in backyard birds, please consider signing up for my backyard newsletter. The sign-up page is at the bottom of my homepage. Not only will the newsletter provide in-depth articles on attracting, feeding and photographing backyard birds, I am also working with local artisans to provide discounts on incredible bird-related feeders, houses and other goodies backyard birders will love. In addition there will be regular giveaways , including gardening books and birding items.

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